Asia Europe Meetings meetings have so far focused on traditional threats to global and regional security, including the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programes, the Arab-Israel conflict and the situation in Afghanistan.
But while world peace is still threatened by inter-state wars and military conflicts, competition for access to food and energy resources, water disputes, health pandemics and terrorism are emerging as equally potent threats to global security.
They are also becoming increasingly central to the evolving international security agenda.
“Non-traditional” security challenges are not new. In a rapidly globalizing and interdependent world, however, their impact can be felt not only within countries but also on a regional and international level.
They spread fast – and if left to fester, can cause enormous societal havoc and regional and global tensions.
ASEM foreign ministers’ discussions in Budapest on June 6-7, on “non-traditional” security issuesare therefore a good step forward in fostering stronger Asia-Europe engagement on tackling key 21stCentury challenges.
Hungary, the current presidency of the 27-nation European Union and host of the ASEM meeting, has said foreign ministers will look at questions like energy security, food security, water security and supply, climate change, terrorism as well as disaster preparedness and management.
In an increasingly interconnected world, made smaller through increased trade and improved technology, unilateral action cannot effectively deal with these new challenges. Multilateral responses, including within the ASEM framework, are therefore important.
As a platform for informal exchange and discussion, ASEM is ideally suited to explore the nature, scope and fall-out of the new security challenges. ASEM also allowsthe sharing of experiences and expertise on possible solutions and coping mechanisms.
The new, non-military security threats share some common features: they are transnational (that is neither purely domestic nor purely inter-state), emerge quickly and spread rapidly – within countries and on the regional and global levels.
In addition to their impact on people, they can also have a far-reaching economic impact – on individual countries and on the global stage.
The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in 2002, the “Avian flu” in 2007 as well as HIV/AIDS are examples of how quickly diseases can spread in an era of rapid inter-continental travel, prompting not only human tragedy but also devastating countries’ health sectors and economies.
Asian countries are aware that the region’s recurring problem of haze caused by environmental pollution and forest fires can exact a very high price in terms of human security as well as cause damage to health systems and the economy.
Today, rising food prices are increasing inflationary pressures in many parts of the world while also stirring social unrest and impacting on progress made so far in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Asian and European countries have some experience in joint action to tackle food security, disaster response, piracy at sea and terrorism.
Rising food prices were discussed at an ASEM meeting held in Hanoi last month.
At the ASEM 8 summit last year, leaders agreed to an increased sharing of intelligence to track down and stop the funding of piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and stressed the need to prosecute suspected pirates.
They also asked countries to criminalize piracy and armed robbery at sea in national legislations.
The EUNAVFOR Atalanta mission, launched in December 2008 and counting up to 12 ships and patrol aircraft supplied by Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece, as well as non-EU member Norway, patrols the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin waters in conjunction with other anti-piracy missions operated by NATO and several Asian countries.
ASEM experts on counter-terrorism and disaster-management meet regularly.
However, more work is needed to identify and prioritise the new dangers, select institutions for responding to the expanding security agenda and work out linkages between traditional and non-traditional threats.
Addressing human security issues will require that solutions are people-based, multilateral, and involve government, business and civil society.
By providing an example of such multilateral cooperation, ASEM can help craft a new 21st Century global security agenda.