New Fault Lines Fester in Asia

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

New fault lines have emerged in Asia — the world’s economic locomotive and largest creditor — that signal increasing geopolitical risks, including for global markets.

The risks have been highlighted by the recent comments of both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who noted that Britain and Germany went to war in 1914 despite being economically interdependent in the same way Japan and China now are — and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, who compared China’s territorial creep with Nazi Germany’s expansionism.

The fact is that Asia today is at a defining moment in its history. Yet the international spotlight on its dramatic economic rise has obscured the serious challenges it confronts.

These challenges range from recrudescence of territorial and maritime disputes and increasingly fervent nationalism to sharpening competition over natural resources and toxic historical legacies that weigh down its major interstate relationships.

The future will not belong to Asia merely because it is the world’s most-populous and fastest-developing continent, where GDP continues to grow by more than 5% each year. Asia’s deepening challenges actually call into question the assumption of some analysts that its continued rise is unstoppable and the West’s decline inevitable.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets.

With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Asia must find ways to get rid of its baggage of history so as to chart a more stable and prosperous future.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with boundaries that they don’t like. But in Asia, renewed attempts to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

In particular, an increasingly muscular China harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by others. Whether it is strategic islands in the South and East China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

Aquino, drawing an analogy between China’s territorial assertiveness and the failure of other powers to support Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s territorial demands in 1938, pointedly asked in a New York Times interview this month: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”

At the root of the rising geopolitical tensions is the fact that Asia is coming together economically but not politically. Indeed, it is becoming more divided politically.  Even as the region’s economic horse seeks to take it toward greater prosperity, its political horse is attempting to steer it in a dangerous direction.

This dichotomy is a reminder that economic interdependence and booming trade by itself is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between states. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to stabilize their relationship.

The slowing of Asian economic growth underscores the risks arising from this fault line. The risks are heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

Unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the twentieth century, which have made war there unthinkable today, the wars in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century only sharpened rivalries, fostering a bitter legacy. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, such as the Korean War, without resolving the underlying disputes.

That the risks posed by the new fault lines are serious can be seen from the situation that prevailed in Europe 100 years ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I.

Abe, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was thus right to warn that economic interdependence cannot by itself prevent war. But by implicitly comparing China with pre-1914 Imperial Germany, Abe sought to gain the moral high ground by depicting Japan as a democratic state that, like Britain a century ago, is seeking to checkmate the expansionist ambitions of a rapidly rising authoritarian power.

The paradox is that China, with its aggressive modernization strategy, appears to be on the same path that made Japan a militaristic state a century ago, with tragic consequences for the region and Japan itself.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) created a powerful military under the national slogan “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.” The military eventually become so strong as to dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the generals are becoming increasingly powerful as the Communist Party becomes beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power. 

China only highlights the futility of political negotiations byovertly refusing to accept Asia’s territorial status quo. After all, frontiers are significantly redrawn not at the negotiating table but through the use of force, as China has itself demonstrated since 1949.

Make no mistake: The risks inherent in the present Asian trends can be contained only by bridging the gulf between politics and economics. The resurgent territorial and maritime disputes underscore that securing Asian peace and stability hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders.

Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Times of India, 2014.

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