Changing power dynamics in Asia

Asia After Obama

Brahma Chellaney

Project Syndicate  2010-11-19

US President Barack Obama’s 10-day Asian tour and the consecutive summit meetings of the East Asian Summit (EAS), the G-20, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) have helped shine a spotlight on Asia’s challenges at a time when tensions between an increasingly ambitious China and its neighbors permeate the region’s geopolitical landscape.

Significantly, Obama restricted his tour to Asia’s leading democracies – India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea – which surround China and are central to managing its rise. Yet he spent all of last year assiduously courting the government in Beijing in the hope that he could make China a global partner on issues ranging from climate change to trade and financial regulation. The catchphrase coined by US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in relation to China, “strategic reassurance,” actually signaled America’s intent to be more accommodating toward China’s ambitions.

Now, with his China strategy falling apart, Obama is seeking to do exactly what his predecessor attempted – to line up partners as an insurance policy in case China’s rising power slides into arrogance. Other players on the grand chessboard of Asian geopolitics also are seeking to formulate new equations, as they concurrently pursue strategies of hedging, balancing, and bandwagoning.

A fast-rising Asia has, moreover, become the fulcrum of global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now help shape the international economy and security environment.

But major power shifts within Asia are challenging the continent’s own peace and stability. With the specter of strategic disequilibrium looming large in Asia, investments to help build geopolitical stability have become imperative.

China’s lengthening shadow has prompted a number of Asian countries to start building security cooperation on a bilateral basis, thereby laying the groundwork for a potential web of interlocking strategic partnerships. Such cooperation reflects a quiet desire to influence China’s behavior positively, so that it does not cross well-defined red lines or go against the self-touted gospel of its “peaceful rise.”

But building genuine partnerships is a slow process, because it demands major accommodation and adjustment on both sides. The US, for example, has worked hard in recent years to co-opt India in a “soft alliance” shorn of treaty obligations. Yet, despite a rapidly warming bilateral rapport and Obama’s recent statement calling India the “cornerstone of America’s engagement in Asia,” conflicting expectations and interests often surface.

The US is now courting Vietnam as well, and the two countries are even negotiating a civilian nuclear deal. The Cold War legacy, however, continues to weigh down thinking in Hanoi and Washington to some extent.

Within Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, there are deep divisions over the country’s relations with the US. Even as Vietnam moves closer to the US as a hedge against China’s muscular strategy, some Vietnamese leaders fear that the Americans remain committed to regime change.

After all, despite Burma’s strategic importance vis-à-vis China and Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house detention, the US continues to enforce stringent sanctions against that country, with the aim of toppling its government. In the process, Burma has become more dependent than ever on China.

The US-China relationship itself is likely to remain uneasy, but overt competition or confrontation suits neither side. For the US, China’s rising power actually helps validate American forward military deployments in the Asian theater. The China factor also helps the US to retain existing allies and attract new ones, thereby enlarging its strategic footprint in Asia.

While the US is thus likely to remain a key factor in influencing Asia’s strategic landscape, the role of the major Asian powers will be no less important. If China, India, and Japan constitute a scalene strategic triangle in Asia, with China representing the longest side, side A, the sum of side B (India) and side C (Japan) will always be greater than A. Not surprisingly, the fastest-growing relationship in Asia today is probably between Japan and India.

If this triangle turned into a quadrangle with the addition of Russia, China would be boxed in from virtually all sides. Japan plus Russia plus India, with the US lending a helpful hand, would not only extinguish any prospect of a Sino-centric Asia, but would create the ultimate strategic nightmare for China. As recent developments show, however, a Russian-Japanese rapprochement remains far off.

Against this geopolitical background, Asia’s power dynamics are likely to remain fluid, with new or shifting alliances and strengthened military capabilities continuing to challenge the prevailing order.

That befits the year of the tiger in Chinese astrology – a year in which China roared by ratcheting up tensions with neighbors from Japan to India by escalating territorial feuds. In fact, 2010 will be remembered as the year that Chinese leaders undercut their country’s own interests by kindling fears of an expansionist China, thereby facilitating America’s return to center stage in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi,  is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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