Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

By Brahma ChellaneyThe Transatlantic Academy

Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

Asia’s dramatic economic rise led some analysts to hastily conclude that the relative decline of the West is inevitable. Developments since 2013 highlight that dangerous new fault lines have emerged in Asia, posing a major risk to peace, stability and prosperity in the world’s largest and most populous continent. The developments create a diplomatic opening for the transatlantic alliance to play a more active role in shaping Asia’s trajectory positively.

Asia today is at a defining moment in its history. Yet the international spotlight on its rapid economic ascent 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.

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.

Asian disputes over territories, war memorials, fishing rights, natural resource reserves, and textbooks are linked with history. Yet historical narratives are never free of bias or embellishment. Objective history, after all, is an oxymoron, with historical narratives often embodying cherished national myths. Historians who dare to probe such myths through factbased interrogation can face backlash or even persecution, especially in autocratic states.

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.

The transatlantic relationship, through diplomatic outreach, can help underscore the imperative for Asia to get rid of its baggage of history in order to chart a more stable and prosperous future. After all, the slowing of Asian economic growth only increases the risks from the new fault lines. The risks are also 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 — when the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started — without resolving the underlying disputes.

As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it is important to remember that Europe was at the time 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. Asia thus must realize that economic interdependence, amid rising political tensions between its major countries, cannot guarantee peace by itself.

Several Asian sub-regions currently are in flux. Although the U.S. and European role in Asia is viewed by a majority of Asian states as a stabilizing influence, the U.S. remains primarily focused on the Islamic world. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in January, did not even mention Asia.

Obama’s supposed policy shift toward Asia — once known as a pivot but now rebranded as a rebalance — has always seemed more rhetorical than real. To make the promise of his “pivot” real, Obama has still to convince Congress at home — and America’s Asian allies and partners — that he means to devote more military, diplomatic and economic attention to Asia as well as stand up to China’s territorial creep.

China’s rift with fellow communist state North Korea — increasingly an estranged and embittered ally — opens diplomatic space for the U.S. and Europe to help transform Northeast Asia’s fraught geopolitics. After all, Beijing today risks “losing” North Korea, the way its once-tight hold on Myanmar has slipped dramatically. China’s increasing territorial assertiveness has also strained itsrelations with several other neighbors, stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Vietnam to India.

A growing chasm between China’s assertive, nationalistic president, Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s defiant young dictator, Kim Jong-Un, has thrown the bilateral relationship into a tailspin. The 31-year-old Kim, the world’s youngest head of state, has presented himself as a tough leader who will not allow China to treat North Korea as a vassal state.

Unlike the U.S. opening with Myanmar, which led to Obama’s historic visit to that country in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to center on a deal to denuclearize it. But such a deal will remain elusive as long as Washington depends on Beijing to “soften” Pyongyang. Washington’s reliance on Beijing as a diplomatic intermediary indeed is a sore point with yongyang, which has sought direct engagement with the United States to counteract China’s leverage over it.

More broadly, the resurgent territorial, maritime and history disputes in Asia highlight 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. America’s neutrality on sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbors, however, could weaken its bilateral security alliances.

This article was originally published in “the State of the Transatlantic World.”