A little over a year and a half ago, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Asian Studies. The latter half of that combination most likely wouldn’t be all that apparent, if you were to only read this blog. Going through my last few months of posts, and particularly looking at my handy word cloud of tags at the bottom of the page, I realized the other night that despite my major, I rarely find myself writing on issues dealing with the Asian continent. Not counting Southeast Asia, i.e. Pakistan, and matters in Western Asia/the Middle East, that is.
This is concerning to me for several reasons; I decided to major in Asian studies at MSU because I knew that’s where the future of International Relations would be grounded. With this in mind, I decided a few nights ago to undertake a “self-pivot” and started loading up on books and Twitter streams dealing with Asia, and China in specific. But that doesn’t really explain the why of my lack of writing about Asian affairs. After pondering a little further, it hit me. My overarching theme in writing has dealt with issues that have been highlighted on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The Security Council, it turns out, doesn’t interact strongly with Asia, instead focusing the majority of its attention on the Middle East and Africa.
In the last year, the Security Council, excepting myriad resolutions on Afghanistan, passed but two resolutions focused on situations in Asia. The first was a further continuation of the sanctions regime on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and an extension of the mandate of the Panel of Experts appointed to oversee their implementation. The sole other was an extension of the mandate of one of only three missions currently authorized in Asia, which oversees the stability of East Timor. This was reflected in the Presidential Statements put forward by the Council as well; it seems nothing happening near the Pacific warranted comment by the members of the Council.
Even the simmering tensions between Thailand and Cambodia managed to remain off the radar of the Security Council. Skirmishes between the two over an area of disputed territory containing an ancient temple left 18 dead in April. A judgment by the International Court of Justice in July demanded that both sides withdraw their troops from the disputed area, a demand that was promptly ignored. This alone could, and should, have placed this topic on the Council’s docket. Instead, the two countries were thankfully able to avoid the shooting war that was very much in the realm of possibility, bilaterally agreeing to withdraw their troops in December.
Taking proactive steps in the case of Thailand-Cambodia could have been a boost to the credibility of the Security Council, returning it to its early roots of playing direct mediator in arising conflicts globally. Situations with less clear-cut implications for international peace and security have brought to bear the will of the UNSC, so why not this one? Why, despite the broad mandate of the Security Council under Chapter VI of the Charter, are so few topics involving Asiatic countries placed on the agenda of the Council?
The answer lies in the geopolitics that permeate every instance of conflict that takes place in that corner of the world. As of now, there is no true hegemonic power on the Asian continent, despite fears that China wants to claim the title for itself. Several ascendant powers in the region are constantly jockeying for position over the smaller states in the region. China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, all want to control their own destinies in the coming decades, and each has reasons to keep matters of their security in their own home court. Any member state has the ability to bring matters they feel affect international peace and security before the Council; many Asian states choose not to, preferring regional organizations such as ASEAN to bring their grievances before multilateral judgment.
China’s position on the Security Council doesn’t help matters. Matters that are brought before the Council that aren’t to its liking quickly receive the veto that China so rarely issues. As an example, the situation in Myanmar managed to make its way onto the SC’s agenda in 2007, a resolution was drafted by the West, and found itself quickly toppled by China and Russia. The one area where China begrudgingly allows the UN Security Council to intervene is in the matter of North Korea, but even there the People’s Republic prefers to take matters through the informal Six-Party Talks mechanism.
The same “backyard principle” can be seen in the lack of Latin American issues that make their way to the Security Council. As an example, Mexico, where drug violence has claimed nearly as many deaths as the uprising in Syria, though criminal in nature rather than state-based, has practically zero chance of making the Council’s agenda. The United States’ domination of hemispheric matters makes it so that issues south of its border will never make their way to the Security Council unless in times of absolute necessity. Excessive meddling from other states as during the Cuban Missile Crisis may prompt this sort of push, and even then only to attempt to rally the international community’s sympathy or push the US’ own narrative.
Further, the balance of the Permanent Members of the Council in terms of taking proactive steps is inherently skewed away from strong action in Asia. The more liberal of the P-5, the United States, France, and United Kingdom, draft and present the majority of resolutions that involve strong action on the part of the international community, including actions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter. Russia and China, for their part, are much more interested in the status quo, preferring to invoke issues of sovereignty in the face of demands for action by the other permanent members. This pattern, as I looked at in one of my first posts, is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.
The Middle East and Africa as it stands are the home of the vast majority of conflicts that the Council deems appropriate to deliberate upon. In these states, there is either a unified will to act or a complete lack of interest to block such action. In the former, the resources invested in the regional and its geostrategic importance to all five permanent members, have earned it a place on the agenda in perpetuity. In the latter, there is no real power base, no states who have enough heft to push back on international action within the region, leaving its crises free to be placed before the UNSC.
The problems of Asia are not likely to stay confined to Asia in the coming future. The potential for conflict in the South China Sea remains high and joins any number of looming flashpoints in the region. As the United States seeks to balance China’s rise by strengthening its ties with the other rising powers, however, the likelihood of China allowing those very conflicts to come before the Council will dwindle. The halcyon days of the early nineties, where issues bombarded the Council constantly with resolutions passing by the dozen on issues around the world with China known primarily for its abstention may well be finally past. While I highly doubt we will return to a Cold War-level of stagnation on the Council, I am beginning to worry that we will see a return to the era when only matters not directly within the sphere of influence of either of the new superpowers will be able to reach the ears of the Security Council.