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Asia-Pacific – Fulcrum of the International System

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  • July 14, 2016

    The Asia-Pacific has emerged as the principal engine of the international economy. It contains three of the world’s largest economies in terms of Gross Domestic Product – America, China and Japan. And it is home to eight of the top 20 economies of the world, to include, India, Russia, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia. The region accounts for 40 per cent of global imports and exports, and for two-thirds of global economic growth. This state of affairs, of the Asia-Pacific being the primary locus of the international economy, is projected to persist in the short and long terms as well despite the current slowdown in growth. At the same time, economic interdependence among the countries of the Asia-Pacific has also steadily intensified. Six of India’s top 10 trading partners in 2014-15 were from this region. Similarly, four of America’s, six of China’s, seven of Japan’s, and eight of ASEAN’s top 10 trading partners in 2014 were from the Asia-Pacific.

    According to one strain of the liberal theory of international relations, economic interdependence ameliorates conflict and fosters cooperation. Given the growing economic interdependence in the Asia-Pacific, liberal institutionalists such as Richard Rosecrance argue that peace and cooperation are likely to prevail over conflict and competition. Operating on this premise, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has over the years established several multilateral groupings designed to bind and commit its major Asia-Pacific partners to the habits of cooperation and consensus ingrained in the ASEAN Way.

    But developments in the political and security spheres are tending to push the Asia-Pacific in the opposite direction, leading to predictions that the region is at the cusp of emerging as the primary cockpit of international politics. The most important factor in this regard has been China’s rise: its spectacular economic growth, growing military capabilities, and quest for recognition as a great power equal to America as well as the dominant power in Asia. The security concerns that many Asia-Pacific countries began to entertain at the onset of China’s rise have begun to intensify in recent years because of its confident, even assertive, conduct. According to Orville Schell, China has stopped emphasising upon its peaceful rise during the last two years. Instead, Chinese leaders believe that their country’s time has come, that they no longer need to heed Deng Xiaoping’s advice about hiding capabilities and biding time, and that, if China cannot get what it wants peacefully, it is now powerful enough to get it through other, meaning coercive and military, means.

    Security concerns about China are not being driven only by its rise to great power status and assertive behaviour. They are underpinned by two other aspects: 1) China being a party to several regional territorial disputes and power political competitions; and 2) China being an important factor in some conflicts among other countries of the region.

    With respect to the first of these aspects, China’s commitment to the absorption of Taiwan, peacefully if possible but through war if necessary, is a case in point. Further, it is a party to maritime territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries in the South China Sea, where it has upped the ante in recent years by laying claim to nearly 90 per cent of these international waters and marking its physical and military presence there. China is also a party to a maritime territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu. More importantly, there is a strong element of power political rivalry between the two countries, with Japan concerned about becoming vulnerable to China’s growing strength and eventually attaining hegemony in the region. Similarly, the India-China relationship is also marked by the intractable border dispute, China’s expansive claims to Indian territory in recent years, and a power political competition in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region engendered by the growing Chinese economic and military presence and influence in these regions.

    Finally, China and America appear to be getting enmeshed in what Professor Graham Allison has referred to as the Thucydides Trap, a phenomenon that involves inevitable competition and even conflict between a “rising power” and a “ruling power” because of “the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.” This is evident from the fact that China is seeking to exclude America from Asia both by calling for Asians to manage their own affairs and by proposing the One Belt One Road initiative to economically tie Eurasia together, while America is intent on preserving the dominant position it has enjoyed in the region since the end of the Second World War through its pivot and rebalancing policy which has both economic and military components.

    In addition, China is an important factor in both the inter-Korean and India-Pakistan conflicts. Notwithstanding some non-official Chinese characterisations of North Korea in recent years as a “difficult ally” and even an “embarrassment”, China, in the words of Ted Dalen Carpenter, continues to view that country as “an important buffer state between the Chinese homeland and the rest of Northeast Asia that is dominated by the United States and its allies.” Consequently, it is likely to play an important role in any conflict that may break out involving North Korea as well as in the future disposition of the Korean peninsula.

    Similarly, China views Pakistan as an ally that is both able and willing to serve as a counterweight to India and thus constrain India from attaining a dominant position in the subcontinent. In this regard, John Garver cites one Chinese analyst as bluntly stating that an improvement in the adversarial relations between India and Pakistan “would be a precondition for India adopting more aggressive policies toward China.” Accordingly, China has endeavoured to strengthen Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities as an integral part of their all-weather friendship. And in various joint statements issued with Pakistan, China has repeatedly affirmed its “full support” for Pakistan’s efforts “to uphold its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

    This list of disputes and rivalries to which China is a party or in which it is an important factor does not obviously mean that there are no other inter-state conflicts and rivalries in the Asia-Pacific. India-Pakistan relations continue to lurch from one crisis to another. The maritime dispute in the South China Sea also involves rival claims among Southeast Asian countries themselves, which, during the 1990s, had resulted in military incidents between Vietnam and Taiwan and Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan and South Korea are parties to a dispute over the Takeshima or Dokdo islets. Further, their relationship also remains hostage to the issue of Japan’s militaristic conduct in the first half of the 20th century. Finally, Japan is also a party to a maritime territorial dispute with Russia over the Kurile Islands. Russia is determined to maintain control over these islands, as evident from both its July 2013 conduct of a large naval exercise, which, according to reports, simulated “a response to a hypothetical attack by Japanese and US forces”, and its announcement of a naval build-up in the region.

    In response to this evolving state of affairs in the Asia-Pacific, each of the major actors in the region has begun to initiate policy measures designed to promote its security and interests. Thus, Japan has reaffirmed its alliance with America, declared its intent to respond jointly with America to future regional crises and conflicts, amended its constitution to assume greater and wider military responsibilities, and diplomatically reached out to India to form a countervailing partnership vis-à-vis China. America has declared a pivot or rebalancing of economic, foreign policy and military priorities towards the Asia-Pacific. Integral elements of this strategy include: positioning a greater proportion of military assets in the region, strengthening and modernising traditional security alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines, forging new diplomatic understandings with Vietnam, Indonesia and India, empowering regional institutions, seeking a new equilibrium in relations with China, and establishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership which pointedly excludes China but also aspires to establish a region-wide free trade area.

    Russia too has declared a pivot to the Asia-Pacific with the aims of boosting economic growth in its far-eastern territories through closer association with the dynamic economies of the region, enhancing its military presence so as to acquire a role in the security affairs of the region, and positioning itself as an intermediate power between the US-led West and China-led East. At the same time, it is also forging an entente with China and is keen to integrate its Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) project with China’s One Belt One Road initiative.

    For its part, China has put forward the One Belt One Road initiative, which, if successful, would transform Eurasia through massive infrastructure development, integrate the economies of this vast region with the Chinese economy, and contribute to China’s emergence as an alternate economic and political model. At the same time, China has also issued the call of “Asia for Asians”, which envisions the people of Asia running their own affairs, solving their own problems and upholding Asian security themselves without the involvement and interference of non-Asian actors (read America). In effect, the Chinese objectives are to economically tie Eurasia together, with China serving as the core, and considerably reduce America’s role and influence in Asian affairs. The practical consequence of China achieving these two related objectives would be to make it the regional hegemon on the Asian continent.

    In sum, the unfolding policy initiatives of these four major countries indicate that the Asia-Pacific is poised at the cusp of a new power rivalry between China and possibly Russia on one side and the United States and its allies, especially Japan, on the other.

    India is an integral part of this process of the Asia-Pacific’s transition into the fulcrum of the international system because of the size, vitality and interdependence of its economy, its growing political and security interests in the region, and its defence capabilities. Until now, the principal endeavour of India’s foreign policy has been to leverage the conditions of economic interdependence and general tranquillity in the Asia-Pacific for fostering closer economic, political and security relationships with all the major players in the region. By doing so, India has been seeking to accelerate domestic economic growth, establish bilateral relations on a sound footing, and structure a stable regional security order. Such an omnibus approach of developing closer relationships with all the major actors of the Asia-Pacific may, however, neither suffice nor be practicable in the unfolding circumstances of the region’s emerging economic and security rivalries. “We must now choose”, declared former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon in a recent public lecture. That choice will, however, be inevitably dictated not by the highly preferable objective of domestic economic transformation but by the overriding objective of safeguarding territorial integrity and national security from the policies and actions of rivals and adversaries. Attaining that overriding objective necessarily involves the adoption of a foreign policy framework based on balance of power, or more accurately, balance of threat, considerations to construct an equilibrated and multi-polar Asian order.

    The article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Defence and Security Alert.