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East Asia needs more spaces for dialogue: OSCE chief

Lamberto Zannier calls for institutional dialogue to resolve conflicts in region

East Asia needs more institutional framework to explore ways to address historical and territorial disputes and resurgent nationalism, said the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

During a recent interview, OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier stressed that Europe had developed diverse mechanisms that have helped contain conflict and introduce future-oriented perspectives to the once war-ravaged region.

“We have NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe and other organizations. Certainly, (what) we have learned in Europe is that bilateral relations are not enough, especially as we are moving towards a definition of security (that is) increasingly globalized,” he said.

“It is easier to have long-term agenda in a multilateral context than in bilateral relations often driven by short-term considerations. ... You should improve the institutional setup in this part of the world in terms of multilateral endeavors.”

OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier speaks in an interview in Seoul on Tuesday.
OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier speaks in an interview in Seoul on Tuesday.
Zannier, who has led the organization since July 2011, was in Seoul to attend the Seoul Defense Dialogue 2013, an annual security forum hosted by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

The establishment of a collective security mechanism in East Asia has long been an elusive dream with long-simmering historical and territorial rows dampening the prospect of multilateral defense cooperation.

Skeptics have long argued that the continuing U.S.-led “hub-and-spokes” alliances and intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry make forging a joint security framework in the region a challenge.

But the OSCE chief said mutual distrust and conflicts in the region called for an institutional dialogue process. He underscored that dialogue was “fundamental” for the resolution of any regional issues, saying that establishing a new mechanism required patience and perseverance.

“The OSCE was exactly established to deal with conflicts ― the Cold War, division of Germany, etc. Establishing the process should not be seen as having a precondition to the solution of conflicts,” he said.

“If you look at the OSCE, there is no common political vision or agenda. But there is a common effort to work on the differences, try to bridge them and find a way forward toward the resolution of the differences.”

To forge a comprehensive dialogue process, Zannier said that countries needed to create the incentives for their participation rather than creating preconditions that could serve as obstacles to the initiation of the process.

“You can bring the horse to the water, but you can’t force the horse to drink. So you have to create the conditions and the right incentives to try to make the horse drink in a way. That is the most difficult part of it,” he said.

“What is also important is to come up with an open agenda and verify that everybody is willing to put their own issues on the agenda to discuss them in good faith, and then you will see how far you can go.”

Speaking of the deadlocked relations between the two Koreas, Zannier floated the idea of having a neutral nation in the process of inter-Korean reconciliation.

“In the OSCE, we also experimented (with) something else which was interesting. That was the role of a third country perceived as being neutral by both sides ― Finland for instance,” he said.

“It was not by accident that the final act of the OSCE was done in Helsinki.”

Commenting on deteriorating relations between Seoul and Tokyo due to historical and territorial spats, Zannier said it was always important to try to avoid looking back and instead look forward based on shared needs. He added that even in the well-developed dialogue process in Europe, issues of reconciliation are tough.

“There are countries in the OSCE that argue that it is too early for reconciliation and we still need to address other issues before starting talking about reconciliation,” he said.

“So, we also have resistance to reconciliation, but at least we have a debate about that and (are) trying to understand why and what are the issues.”

Launched in 1995 as a permanent tool for confidence building, human rights protection, and other security purposes, the OSCE has its roots in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ― a peace initiative, dubbed the “Helsinki process,” that forged the momentum to entrench peace in a divided Europe during the Cold War.

It is a comprehensive institution that has 57 members in Europe, Central Asia and North America. It also has cooperative ties with other regional players such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, Israel and Jordan.

Taking lessons from Europe’s efforts for peace, Seoul is pushing the “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation” initiative to address what it calls the “Asia paradox,” which refers to the region’s deepening economic interdependence in contrast to escalating territorial rows and historical animosities.

By Song Sang-ho (