SINGAPORE — Ever since Asian policymakers and analysts began thinking about their part of the world as a collective of nations — as a “region” — they have made one thing clear: Asia is a unique place and Europe’s experience on this matter just does not apply. That thinking has dominated discussions about security and visitors who use European institutions — the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or even the European Union — as examples have been informed that they are not relevant in Asia.

Six months ago, I suggested at a conference in Singapore that Asians might want to study and learn from European mistakes, but even that mild proposal managed to offend some participants. But resistance is softening. Europe is no longer off limits — and Asia is likely to benefit from this new frame of mind.

Resistance to European analogies has been grounded in history, culture and geopolitics. Asian decision-makers argue that Asian nations are too young — many were born after World War II — and their institutions too fragile to focus on the region. For these governments, the first priority has to be nation-building. And as relatively young nations, they are just beginning to enjoy the fruits of sovereignty; it’s too early to give it up.

Second, they argue that the region is too diverse for a single institutional architecture to be effective. Asia is the home to nearly half the world’s population, with huge continental powers and tiny island nations, market democracies and military dictatorships, some of the world’s richest nations and many of the poorest. No institution could accommodate all those differences.

Third, they claim that Asian culture prevents the creation of an institutional structure like that in European organizations. Some call it “Asian values,” others prefer “the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) way.” Proponents of this logic assert that European thinking is too legalistic and formal for use in Asia. Asians prefer “loose institutions,” consensus-building and informal discussions to ensure that no party loses “face.”

Finally, they see two vastly different strategic environments. European nations faced foreign threats, namely the Soviet bloc. For Asian governments, the chief dangers are internal: economic development and the instability it breeds. Europeans worried about superpower conflict; Asian governments have more complex problems, and had to focus on insurgencies, neighbors and distant powers.

If that hasn’t deflected the argument, Asian policymakers point to the wealth of institutions in Europe that could be adapted to different purposes and problems. Asia, they say, have no such structures. There is too much work to be done before Asia will have even a framework to hang “grand” regional designs upon.

Of course, pride is also a factor. It is hard to take lessons from Europeans when the colonial experience is still a raw wound. And some argue that the path to regional identity is not uniform. In addition to their considerably longer history as states, Europeans have generations of war behind them. Asia has not had that history of conflict and therefore does not need to follow the European route.

But resistance is weakening. Recently, security specialists were assessing confidence-building measures used by regional institutions, and the European experience was brought up and even commended. Sure, there was the ritual nod to the old arguments, but they were highlighted as obstacles and challenges, not distinctions that rendered them irrelevant.

In particular, the OSCE is thought to have lessons for Asia and its leading security structure, the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF. At first glance, that seems odd. The OSCE was born in 1975, and was designed for a bipolar Cold War world. While it is true the organization started out as a conference, it only became institutionalized in 1995, just after ARF was founded. The OSCE has 35 members, ARF 23. And the OSCE has focused on bridging gaps between the Western Europeans and the former Soviet bloc states, a gulf sometimes as wide as that which exists in Asia.

The OSCE is designed to build trust and confidence among governments that saw each other as enemies for nearly half a century. That experience could be valuable for the ARF; fortunately, there is a growing recognition of the need for greater contacts between the two organizations. To some extent, that process is already under way. The ARF is an OSCE Partner for Cooperation; there have been several meetings between Asian and European analysts on ARF-OSCE interaction. The meeting held in Singapore six months ago endorsed more institutionalized cooperation, especially at the tops of the groups. In addition, there could be value in comparing security outlooks, background briefings, and workshops for practictioners.

Why the change of heart? One reason is growing comfort in Asia about thinking regionally. Governments understand that regionalism is important, and that it need not necessarily detract from the primary task of solidifying state identity. The ASEAN plus Three process, which brings Japan, China and South Korea to the table with ASEAN members, is the prime example of the new outlook.

ASEAN plus Three is also driven by Asia’s need to become more unified, a process spurred by intensifying regionalism elsewhere in the world. The EU continues its expansion and the United States wants to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas that runs from pole to pole. Governments have also recognized, especially in the face of globalization and the aftermath of 9/11, that some problems have to be tackled regionally. A single nation cannot deal with these forces alone.

Finally, there is the fear that Asia’s failure to coalesce could marginalize the region. In particular there are worries that ARF’s inability to move toward more concrete forms of security cooperation will make that organization irrelevant. Humanitarian crises in the region have sparked international intervention, as happened in East Timor. In these situations, strict adherence to a doctrine of noninterference in the domestic affairs of states could end up threatening another sovereign state. Asian nations are recognizing that the OSCE’s experience in this arena could be genuinely useful.

If Asian nations truly wanted to show how “unique” they are, they would take whatever lessons history has to offer, no matter what the source. Knowing the difference between genuine national interest and mere pride and hubris — and acting on it — would truly distinguish Asian governments from those in the West.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.