Power shifts in the Asia-Pacific examined at security summit

2019 Postgraduate Research Grant recipient Vanessa Bramwell talks about attending the QS Summit on Politics and International Studies at Victoria University in Wellington this month. The summit looked at how small states can maintain their influence and autonomy during a period of shifting power balances.

Vanessa Bramwell: "We can no longer afford to relegate human security issues to the bottom of multilateral agreements, the back of security textbooks, and a plethora of ineffectual ‘commitments’ and checklists."

Pandemics. Extreme weather events. The swelling flow of migration. It wasn’t long ago when these topics were considered to be outside the realm of security theory and practise. Though we have grown accustomed to seeing images of these things in news media – as well as social media – we haven’t been accustomed to hearing them discussed with the same gravity as traditional security threats. However, all of these topics are beginning to be understood as worthy of attention in the traditional security sphere.

I recently attended the QS Summit on Politics and International Studies at Victoria University in Wellington, with thanks to the Asia New Zealand Foundation. The theme of the conference was “Power shifts in the Asia-Pacific: Large and small state perspectives”.

The theme alone is modern and encouraging for a discipline that traditionally focuses more on large states’ perspectives. The panel topics included climate change and migration, and the novel coronavirus outbreak was discussed in several different contexts as an emerging security threat. As a younger scholar (who tends towards a critical, feminist perspective), this was very heartening.

I found it a unique experience to sit in a lecture theatre with highly renowned security experts, discussing both human and state security with equal fervour.

Another attendee told me that this type of change has been slower in the ‘Global North’; large conferences in the UK or USA still focus much on the more traditional issues in state security, and do not tend to include small states’ perspectives.

A key reflection I took away from the Summit, then, was my luck in being positioned in New Zealand, where my interest in non-traditional Asia-Pacific security concerns seems to enjoy greater academic priority.

People wearing face masks in a busy train stattion

COVID - 19 (novel coronavirus) has added another level of concern to security threats in the Asia-Pacific region

As I prepare to undertake my field work in Asia in July, I keep an eye on the novel coronavirus situation. Being adaptable is often a requirement in research, so I am designing contingency plans in case I cannot get on the ground. Something reassuring, though, is that I have just come from a Summit at which it was clear that novel coronavirus is very much on the security radar for New Zealand and the region as a whole.

Not only the health dimension, but also the complex economic and political dimensions of this virus are being considered carefully across the Asia-Pacific. In a highly populated, highly mobile world, it is encouraging that the academic community within security studies is addressing this topic with the same gravity any traditional conflict would be met with.

In the Asia-Pacific region, we can’t be complacent about these threats. We can no longer afford to relegate human security issues to the bottom of multilateral agreements, the back of security textbooks, and a plethora of ineffectual ‘commitments’ and checklists.

There are 3.5 million refugees and 1.9 million internally displaced persons in the Asia-Pacific region. Regardless of how important that fact is at a purely human level, it can no longer be denied that this is an outright threat to state and regional security.

As well as concerns about transnational crime and local conflict in unstable migration zones, there is now a pandemic in the mix, which is beginning to cause severe diplomatic strain.

Changing weather patterns may exacerbate refugee problems as people are forced from their traditional homelands

All of this sounds rather severe on the face of it. But what has thoroughly reassured me, as a young Kiwi researcher, is the current academic focus on these issues in New Zealand. We can be proud of our progressive and cutting-edge scholarship in this area, and we can have faith that solutions are being debated by strong minds, both of residents here and invited experts.

As I continue my research career, I hope to see more progressive discussions like the recent QS Summit hosted in our forward-thinking country.

About the author

Vanessa is a doctoral candidate at Massey University, where she is researching child protection in armed conflict.

In 2019 Vanessa received a Foundation Postgraduate Research Grant, which she will use this year to examine how United Nations policy settings get implemented at a national and regional level across Asia, and what effect this process has on the creation of new domestic policy and operational norms.