Asia’s Power Balance

A U.S.-India-Japan cooperation bloc can ensure stability in Asia, especially vis-à-vis a rigid China

Brahma ChellaneyThe Economic Times, November 21, 2012

The ascendancy of a new dynasty of “princelings” in China, the political uncertainty in Japan and India, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia underscore the challenge of building Asian power equilibrium at a time of resurgent border disputes and growing nationalism. Obama, by undertaking an Asian tour shortly after his re-election, has signalled that Asia will move up in importance in his second-term agenda.

Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar will aid India’s “Look East” policy because it formally ends a 24-year U.S. policy of punitively isolating a country that is the Indian gateway to continental Southeast Asia. The U.S. shift on Myanmar is as much about seizing trade and investment opportunities as it is about the geopolitical objective of weaning that strategically located country away from Chinese influence. Paradoxically, it was the U.S. sanctions policy that penalized Myanmar but condoned China for crushing pro-democracy protests in 1988 and 1989, respectively, that helped push the former into the latter’s strategic lap.

Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia actually chimes with India’s “Look East” policy, which has graduated to an “Act East” policy, with the original economic logic of “Look East” giving way to a geopolitical logic. The thrust of the new “Act East” policy — unveiled with U.S.’s blessings — is to contribute to building a stable balance of power in Asia by reestablishing India’s historically close ties with countries to its east.

India, in fact, has little choice but to look east because when it looks west, it sees only trouble. The entire belt to India’s west from Pakistan to Syria is a contiguous arc of instability, volatility and extremism. An eastern orientation in its policy can allow India to join the economic dynamism that characterizes Southeast and East Asia. It is in the east again that Indian and U.S. interests now converge significantly, in contrast to their bilateral dissonance on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

India’s new strategic ties with countries as varied as Japan, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam are important moves on the grand Asian chessboard to increase its geopolitical leeway. The U.S., for its part, has strengthened and expanded its security arrangements in Asia in recent years by making the most of the growing regional concerns over China’s increasingly muscular approach on territorial and maritime disputes.

Both the U.S. and India have deepened their strategic ties with Japan, which has Asia’s largest naval fleet and a $5.5 trillion economy. The first serious Indo-Japanese naval exercise, involving a search-and-rescue operation, was held off the Japanese coast just five months ago. India and Japan, despite their messy domestic politics and endemic scandals, actually boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today.

The stage has been set for building closer Indo-Japanese security cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region. At a time when India is reflecting on the lessons of its rout by the invading Chinese forces 50 years ago — the only foreign war Communist China has won — Japan has been concerned by a new war of attrition China has launched by sending patrol ships daily to the waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku island group. This physical assertiveness, which coincidentally began around the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Chinese military attack on India, followed often violent anti-Japanese protests in China in September and a continuing informal boycott of Japanese goods that has led to a sharp fall in Japan’s exports, raising the risk of renewed Japanese recession.

With Asia troubled by growing security challenges, trilateral U.S.-India-Japan security cooperation is also beginning to take shape. These three democratic powers recently held their third round of security consultations in New Delhi, underlining their shift from emphasizing shared values to seeking to jointly protect shared interests. Their trilateral cooperation could lead to trilateral coordination, with a potentially positive impact on Asian security and stability.

The nascent trilateral security cooperation may signal moves to form an entente among the three leading democracies of the Asia-Pacific, along the lines of the pre-World War I Franco-British-Russian “Triple Entente,” which was designed to meet the challenge posed by the rapid rise of Germany. The present steps, however, are still tentative. Such an entente’s geopolitical utility, however, is likely to transcend its military value. A geopolitical entente, for example, can help strengthen maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region — the world’s leading trade and energy seaway — and contribute to building a stable Asian power equilibrium.

A fast-rising Asia has become the defining fulcrum of global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now help to shape the international security and economic environment. Yet Asia, paradoxically, is bearing the greatest impact of such shifts. A constellation of powers linked by interlocking bilateral, trilateral, and possibly even quadrilateral strategic cooperation has thus become critical to help institute power stability in Asia and to ensure a peaceful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation.

“Asia is rich in people, rich in culture, and rich in resources. It is also rich in trouble.”
— Hubert H. Humphrey, former vice-president of the U.S.

(c) The Economic Times, 2012.