Future Asia

Forestalling Strategic Conflict in Asia

Forestalling Strategic Conflict in Asia
(c) Far Eastern Economic Review November 2006

By Brahma Chellaney

A fundamental and qualitative reordering of power in Asia is already challenging strategic stability and affecting equations between the continent’s major powers. As they maneuver for strategic advantage, China, India and Japan are transforming relations between and among themselves in a way that portends closer strategic engagement between New Delhi and Tokyo, and sharper competition between China on one side, and Japan and India on the other.

Yet, given the fact that India and China point across the mighty Himalayas in very different geopolitical directions and that Japan and China are separated by sea, they need not pose a threat to each other. The interests of the three powers are becoming intertwined to the extent that the pursuit of unilateral solutions by any one of them will disturb the peaceful diplomatic environment on which their continued economic growth and security depend.

Ensuring that Japan-China and China-India competition does not slide into strategic conflict will nonetheless remain a key challenge in Asia. Never before in history have all three of these powers been strong at the same time.

The emergence of China as a global player is transforming the geopolitical landscape like no other development. Not since Japan rose to world-power status during the reign of the Meiji Emperor has another non-Western power emerged with such potential to alter the global order as China today. However, as history testifies, the rise of a new world power usually creates volatility in the international system, especially when the concerned power is not a democracy. Such has been the transformation of China that, while preserving communist rule and Confucian culture, it has gone in one generation from all ideology and token materialism, to all materialism and token ideology. China’s ascent, however, is dividing Asia, not bringing Asian states closer.

Economic powerhouse Japan is determined to shore up its security and, despite its concerns over the fraying ties with Beijing, wishes to ensure that China does not call the shots in East Asia. After its World War II ignominy, Japan turned a necessity into a virtue by defining an antiwar identity anchored in its U.S.-imposed constitution and a strategy emphasizing economic modernization and global peace. Now, it is starting to shed decades of pacifism and reassert itself in world affairs. India’s continued economic rise, coupled with its political realism and growing self-confidence, has made it a key factor in Asian geopolitics. It will be unwilling to cede its leadership role in southern Asia.

In the emerging Asia, the two major non-Western democracies, India and Japan, look like natural allies as China drives them closer together. An India-Japan strategic partnership, involving naval cooperation to protect vital sea lanes of communication, could help adjust balance-of-power equations in Asia and build long-term stability and equilibrium.

The deepening mistrust and nationalistic chauvinism in Asia could create conditions that seriously harm the interests of all the major players. Take the divisive issue of history. The emphasis on past grievances only engenders nationalistic hostility and, as seen from the trends in China, South Korea and Japan, creates congenial conditions for the virus of xenophobia to spread in such homogenized societies. In order not to jeopardize stability and peace across Asia, sustained efforts need to be made to overcome the harmful historical legacies and the negative stereotyping of a rival state. China’s communist leaders will have to refrain from using the history card against Japan, just as Japanese right-wing politicians, intent on reviving a spirit of militarism, need to stop peddling myths about the benevolence of Japan’s imperial past.

The international community cannot be a silent spectator to the motivated resurrection of unpleasant history today. Such revivalistic actions may be designed to bolster political legitimacy at home and whip up nationalism, but they harm regional growth and stability and challenge international norms on good-neighborly conduct. A sustained Asian renaissance demands a more hospitable political atmosphere to help Asia sharpen its competitive edge and innovative skills through greater intra-Asian cooperation and larger investments in the sciences. The setting aside of historical issues and inculcation of positive political values in education are essential to the building of genuine, enduring interstate partnerships in Asia.

Priority should also be given to a resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in Asia. The China-India-Japan strategic triangle cannot become stable without progress on that front. A first step to a settlement of any dispute is clarity on a line of control or appreciation of the “no go” areas in order to eschew provocative or unfriendly actions. China’s gunboat diplomacy in September 2005 across the median line in the East China Sea, for instance, only aided the reelection campaign of Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi. In his five years in office, Mr. Koizumi not only built popular support for revision of the pacifist Japanese Constitution but also laid the foundation for the emergence of a more muscular Japan.

The best way for China and Japan to explore for hydrocarbons in the East China Sea is through the joint development of fields there, given the intricate, difficult-to-resolve claims and legal ambiguities. Emulating the example of bilateral cooperative agreements set by disputants in the North Sea, Japan and China could jointly develop hydrocarbon deposits around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which have become symbols of potent nationalism. As a first step, Beijing and Tokyo need to reach agreement not to change the status quo. Joint development of fields where the Sino-Japanese maritime-boundary claims overlap can help bridge the dispute between the two countries.

Through a joint-development agreement under which they agree to share costs and benefits, China and Japan can positively transform the security environment in East Asia and help establish regional cooperation and multilateral security mechanisms. With the East China Sea potentially holding up to 100 billion barrels of oil, Japan and China have a strong incentive to reach a compromise.

The two most populous nations on earth, China and India, have been scowling at each other across a 4,057-kilometer disputed frontier for more than half a century. Since 1981, India has been negotiating with China to settle the Indo-Tibetan frontier. These border talks are the longest between any two nations in modern world history. Yet, not only have the negotiations yielded no concrete progress on a settlement, but they also have failed so far to remove even the ambiguities plaguing the long line of control. Beijing has been so loath to clearly define the frontline that it suspended the exchange of maps with India several years ago. Consequently, India and China remain the only countries in the world not separated by a mutually defined frontline.

China’s reluctance to fully define its long frontier with India may be linked to its strategy to keep its neighbor under pressure by pinning down a large number of Indian troops along the inhospitable slopes and valleys of the Himalayas. But through such reluctance China only advertises itself as a problem state for India. It has, for example, accepted the colonial-era McMahon Line with Burma but not with India. It has also not defined its 470-kilometer frontier with Bhutan, with crossborder Chinese incursions occurring periodically.

The China-India frontline, without prejudice to rival territorial claims, can be clarified through a mutual exchange of maps showing each other’s military positions. A Chinese disinclination to trade such maps translates into a greater aversion to clinch an overall border settlement. Rather than present itself as a practitioner of classical balance-of-power politics, China can profit more by fostering genuine political cooperation with New Delhi so that India is not driven into the U.S. strategic camp.

A genuine China-India rapprochement fundamentally demands a resolution of the Tibet issue through a process of reconciliation and healing initiated by Beijing with its Tibetan minority. Such a process will aid China’s own internal security. Despite decades of ruthless repression, China has failed to win over the Tibetan people, whose struggle for self-rule remains a model movement. Such is the suppression in Tibet that even having a photograph of the Dalai Lama constitutes a criminal offence. Yet the Tibetans have not lost their sense of mission or the will to regain their rights.

It is an illusion that China and India can build enduring peace and cooperation without Beijing reaching out to Tibetans and solving the problem of Tibet. A problem that defines the origins of the China-India divide will stay at the center of that troubled relationship even if it were set aside indefinitely. China’s own journey towards great-power status would be aided if it helped preserve Tibet’s unique culture and religion, involved Tibetans in the development of their land, and reached a deal to bring the Dalai Lama back from his exile in Dharamsala, India. A placated Tibet could help bridge the China-India chasm.

Taiwan is another Asian dispute that is far larger than the size of that island’s population and area. Sitting astride vital sea lanes, Taiwan truly holds the key to whether China emerges as a stabilizing force or an arrogant power seeking unchallenged ascendancy in Asia. By staking its claim to a role in the security of Taiwan, Japan is signaling that it will not allow China to change East Asia’s strategic balance in Beijing’s favor. This signaling was best symbolized by the February 2005 U.S.-Japan security declaration that identified the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue as a shared strategic objective. Japan’s interest to play a role in Taiwan’s future is reflected in the growing view among Japanese politicians that Tokyo must come to the island’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion. A takeover of Taiwan will not only allow China to absorb the island’s technology, weaponry and large foreign-exchange reserves, but it will also arm Beijing with the power to control shipping lanes to Japan and position missiles just 100 kilometers from the nearest Japanese territory.

Taiwan may be far from Indian shores but its political future also matters to India. In strategic terms, Taiwan can be to India what Pakistan is to China. Translated into policy that could entail close strategic collaboration between India and Taiwan, with the goal to aid each other’s security through shared objectives and means, and help build equilibrium in Asia. Economically, the new Taiwan-India Cooperation Council symbolizes the island’s effort to reduce its economic dependence on mainland China, which accounted for some 70% of Taiwan’s accumulated offshore investment and 38% of its total exports in 2005.

A new Indian strategic thrust towards Taiwan, however, may have to await a generational political change in India. In the near to medium term, strategic cooperation between Japan and Taiwan appears more conceivable, despite occasionally insensitive Japanese rhetoric, such as Foreign Minister Taro Aso’s reported remark in February 2006 that Taiwan owes its high educational standards to enlightened Japanese policies during the island’s 50-year occupation. Japan and India cannot be oblivious to the prospect that a Beijing-obedient Taiwan may presage movement towards a Beijing-oriented Asia.

Time clearly is on Taiwan’s side. For more than a century, Taiwan has been outside the control of mainland China. A continuation of the status quo for another quarter-century will only bolster Taiwan’s de facto independence, making it more difficult for Beijing to undo that.

Energy is another critical area where strategic friction can be forestalled through shared Asian interests to safeguard energy supplies and maximize resource conservation and efficiency in order to underpin economic growth and commercial competitiveness. Such common interests can be the basis of a cooperative approach in Asia that emphasizes the development of secure new energy assets and the adoption of energy-saving technologies and methods. Japan, a leader in energy efficiency, can offer valuable assistance to the rapidly growing Asian economies. According to Japan’s Natural Resources and Energy Agency, the Japanese industry’s energy use is so efficient that it uses one-ninth the amount of oil that China does to generate the same profit.

A cooperative energy approach, of course, cannot be built without taming the two main Asian monsters—resurgent nationalism and the recrudescence of fiery historical grievances. Such an approach also will not be possible if any power seeks to control an ever-larger percentage of the world’s energy resources. The present zero-sum game on energy impedes the development of new oil and gas fields in a high-potential resource area—the East China Sea. Furthermore, it obstructs cooperation on bringing Russian oil and gas to consumers in Northeast Asia in a major way so that the region’s reliance on the volatile Persian Gulf region could be reduced.

Interstate cooperation on energy can help stem escalating tensions in Asia while allowing the harvesting of new resources to aid prosperity. But energy cooperation cannot be institutionalized or sustained on a long-term basis without expanded political and security cooperation as well as increased transparency on military expenditures. The unremitting pace of China’s ambitious military modernization even as its diplomacy becomes increasingly sophisticated indicates its intent to follow Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” With opacity in planning and continuous, double-digit spending increases since before 1990, China’s military buildup has advanced well beyond what most analysts envisaged just a decade ago. Beijing’s barely disguised ambition is to establish a blue-water navy ostensibly to secure its energy-supply lines. In that light, building interstate transparency on defense-spending levels in Asia has become necessary to help set up multilateral maritime-security and energy-cooperation arrangements.

The rise of strategic rivalries in Asia is also worrying because of the continent’s conflicting political and strategic cultures and weak regional institutions. China, India and Japan, in fact, epitomize three distinct strategic cultures. The evolving equations between and among them confirm that globalization, far from sweeping away national identities, is helping to reinforce them. As a consequence, replicating European-style integration in Asia appears more problematic than ever.

Yet there is a greater need in Asia for political pragmatism and judicious diplomacy to ensure that China, India and Japan emerge as positive forces in international politics. If these powers and the other Asian states eschew nationalism-mongering and develop long-term cooperation, Asia will truly prosper and become stronger as the global pivot.

The central challenge now is not so much to create an Asian Union as to find ways to stabilize major-power relationships in Asia and promote cooperative approaches that can tackle security, energy, territorial, environmental, developmental and history issues. Rather than become the scene of a new cold war, Asia can chart a more stable future for itself through shared security and prosperity among its states. An inability to resolve all the disputes and problems should not hold up cooperation on issues that can be addressed. Nor should competition discourage collaboration.

Mr. Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. This passage is excerpted from his book, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan, published by HarperCollins in October 2006.

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