The Munich Security Conference (MSC) is the world’s largest independent forum on international security policy. Since it began in 1963, it has become the leading place for the discussion of current and future security challenges: Heads of state, along with national security policy decision-makers and analysts from around the world attend.
As would be expected at a European event, events in Asia have been marginal to the main conversations. That oversight prompted the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) to launch the Shangri-La Dialogue, which convenes each spring in Singapore.
Asian participation at the MSC remains limited; this year just a handful of Asian officials attended — Foreign Minister Taro Kono among them — but the issues that the group takes up are of rising significance to Asia. And Asian issues are of growing importance to Europe. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted in remarks at the opening session of the meeting, “All allies are within range of North Korean missiles. Pyongyang is closer to Munich than it is to Washington DC” — and he could have added closer to London, Paris, Berlin and almost every other European capital.
Nuclear issues were an important part of the MSC discussions. While there was unanimity among participants on the need for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, that was not the only nuclear-related topic and there was considerably less agreement when those other issues were raised. The new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, with its emphasis on great power competition and the need to strengthen deterrence, has reminded the world of the continued, if not growing, salience of nuclear weapons for defense planning and the potential for catastrophe if deterrence fails.
Fu Ying, the former Chinese diplomat who serves as chair of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, warned of the dangers of nuclear modernization and competition. While reconfirming China’s commitment to its policy of minimum deterrence and no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, she inveighed against other countries that threaten global peace and stability. Fu, like her colleagues in Beijing, refuses to acknowledge how her country’s policies contribute to insecurity. That blind spot must be remedied.
Fu was part of a chorus that questioned the credibility and capacity of the existing global order. Their pessimism was evident in the title of the panel on which Foreign Minister Kono spoke: “Present at the Destruction? The Liberal International Order under Threat.” To their credit, the conference organizers framed the outcome as uncertain — note the question mark — rather than a given.
Kono focused on the North Korean challenge, but he also called out other countries that are prepared to change the status quo by force. The seeming inability of the world to stop such unilateral actions has sown doubt in international law and institutions, and is contributing to the renewed emphasis on competition, deterrence and military capabilities.
That is not the only such challenge, however. MSC organizers were right to focus on emerging cracks in the global economy, in particular the growing popularity of protectionism. Terrorism remains a source of danger, but more attention is being devoted to threats created by the insinuation of technology into the fabric of modern society. Not only are there dangers that result from increasing connectivity and the chaos that could follow from disruption of infrastructure, but policymakers are focusing on efforts to meddle in democracy and manipulate the democratic process. Eric Schmidt, the former head of the internet behemoth Google, acknowledged that “The trust that has been built up in democracy is much easier to destroy than rebuild.”
All these problems demand the attention of Asia security policy planners, too. The world is shrinking in size and regional problems now ripple quickly around the globe. A new awareness of the diminishing significance of distance has prompted Japan to reach out and find common cause with European partners like the United Kingdom and France. A critical partner in this effort is NATO. Japan and NATO signed a joint political declaration in April 2013, and agreed on an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program in May 2014. Bilateral consultations are a vital part of this process and they have assumed new vibrancy in recent years.
NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg noted less than a year ago in a speech in Tokyo that “the geography of danger has shifted.” Those changes are accelerating and the Japanese government, like its counterparts elsewhere, must do more to stay on top of them. Active engagement with Europe is a start. Europe must reach out as well.