Insights into Editorial: Reading the tea leaves
Reading the tea leaves indicates that 2017 may well be the year which marked the reordering of the Asian strategic landscape. Although it has become fashionable to talk about a transformed or transforming Asian strategic landscape, the landscape has been characterized by both continuity and change. The change dimension in the Asian strategic landscape stems primarily from the sustained rapid economic growth of Asian countries especially China over the last several decades.
China’s rise in one generation as a global player under authoritarian rule has come to epitomise the qualitative reordering of power in Asia and the wider world. China will likely stand to more profoundly affect global geopolitics than any other country. China’s ascent, however, is dividing Asia, not bringing Asian states closer. In addition, Beijing has been pushing India closer to the US through continuing military and other provocations.
Given that the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events as much in the Indian Ocean rim as in East Asia, Tokyo and New Delhi are keen to work together to promote Asian peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes.
China’s ascent, U.S. ‘rebalancing’ and shifting balance of power
The two slow moving trend lines clearly discernible since the Cold War ended a quarter century ago are the shift of the geopolitical centre of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region and the rise of China.
The U.S. ‘rebalancing’ announced in 2011 driven home by the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Most of the rivalries are being played out in the crowded geopolitical space of the Indo-Pacific, and Asian economies now account for more than half of global GDP and becoming larger in coming years.
China’s rise is reflected in a more assertive China. According to Chinese President ‘two guides’ policy announced in February, China should guide ‘the shaping of the new world order’ and safeguarding ‘international security’. China is not just willing but eager to assume leadership and expects other countries to yield space. China has suggested ‘a new type of great power relations’ to the U.S. Its assertiveness in the East China Sea with Japan and in the South China Sea with its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbours sends a signal that while multi polarity may be desirable in a global order, in Asia, China is the predominant power and must be treated as such.
Even though China has been a beneficiary of the U.S.-led global order, it is impatient that it does not enjoy a position that it feels it deserves, especially in the Bretton Woods institutions. During the last five years, it has set about creating a new set of institutions (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank) and launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to create a new trading infrastructure that reflects China’s centrality as the largest trading nation.
The BRI is also complemented by a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Beginning in 2009, the PLA Navy started rotating three ship task forces through the Indian Ocean as part of the anti-piracy task force off the Somalia coast. Visits by nuclear attack submarines to littoral ports began to take place. In addition to Gwadar, China is now converting the supply facility at Djibouti into a full-fledged military base.
What are the recent developments that accelerated these geopolitical trends?
- America First policy:
The U.S. “pivot” to Asia has been the defining feature of American foreign policy in 2008-2012. Essentially, the pivot is meant to be a strategic “re-balancing” of U.S. interests and resources from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia. As the United States pulls together its resources from within and afar to bring to bear on the Asia-Pacific region, it tried shaping a new regional order in the process.
But after the recent US elections, by invoking ‘America first’ repeatedly, President of US has made it clear that the U.S. considers the burden of leading the global order too burdensome. Policy has already made several US loyalists recalibrate their alliances.
- Nuclear and long-range missile tests by North Korea
Recent nuclear and long-range missile tests by North Korea have added to South Korean and Japanese anxieties. Japan has been particularly rattled by the two missiles fired across Hokkaido. Given the U.S. push for more sanctions that depend on China for implementation, most Japanese reluctantly admit that North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability is unlikely to be dismantled any time soon.
The US military build-up on its Asian bases, the deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system across the Korean border, and China’s anxiety because of this deployment, along with US frustration with China’s inability to contain the erratic North Korean leader – all these factors are leading to a number of possible eventualities.
- Doklam stand-off between India and China
Another significant development was the Doklam stand-off between India and China that lasted from June to August. The Chinese playbook followed the established pattern — creating a physical presence followed by sharpened rhetoric, together becoming an exercise in coercive diplomacy. This worked in pushing the nine-dash line in the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam even as China built additional facilities on reclaimed land in the area.
Differences with China did not begin with Doklam.
- It was preceded by the stapled visa issue for Indians belonging to Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir,
- growing incidents of incursions along the disputed boundary,
- blocking of India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group last year,
- ensuring that no language relating to Pakistan-based terrorist groups found mention in the BRICS summit in Goa and
- Preventing the inclusion of Masood Azhar from being designated as a terrorist by the UN Security Council by exercising a veto.
Old China policy does not serve India’s national interest
Since 1988, India has followed a consistent China policy based on putting aside the boundary dispute and developing other aspects of the relationship in the expectation that this would create mutual trust and enable a boundary settlement. However, the gap between India and China has grown, both in economic and military terms, and with it has emerged a more assertive China. The shared vision of an Asian century with a rising India and rising China is long past. After Doklam, there is changing consensus that the old China policy does not serve our national interests and a review is long overdue.
A new strategic landscape for India
The contours of a new relationship were defined during Japanese PM’s earlier tenure, in 2006-07, when annual summits were introduced, the relationship became a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, Japan was invited to join in the Malabar naval exercises and a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was concluded. Since then, significant content has been added.
- A singular achievement was the conclusion of the agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy last year. Under negotiation for five years, this was a sensitive issue for Japan given the widespread anti-nuclear and (misplaced) faith in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- To deepen strategic understanding, the two sides initiated a 2+2 Dialogue involving the Foreign and Defence Ministries in 2010. A memorandum on enhancing defence and technology/security cooperation was signed and talks on acquiring the amphibious maritime surveillance ShinMaywa US-2i began in 2013.
- Trilateral dialogue involving both the U.S. and Japan and covering strategic issues was elevated to ministerial level in 2014. Japanese participation in the Malabar exercises, suspended because of Chinese protests, was restored in 2015. Once the agreement for the 12 US-2i aircraft is concluded with a follow-up acquisition as part of Make in India, the strategic relationship will begin to acquire critical mass.
The imperative is that India and Japan should look beyond their lofty geopolitical aims
The strategic partnership between Indian and Japan needs stronger economic ties. Today, India-Japan trade languishes at around $15 billion, a quarter of trade with China while Japan-China trade is around $300 billion. Therefore, the primary focus during the recent visit has been on economic aspects. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail corridor is more than symbolism, in demonstrating that high-cost Japanese technology is viable in developing countries and that India has the absorption capacity to master it. The bigger challenge will be to transfer the know-how of best practices to other sectors of the economy.
Another major initiative is the recently launched Asia-Africa Growth Corridor to build connectivity for which Japan has committed $30 billion and India $10 billion. This adds a critical dimension to the ‘global partnership’ between the two countries. However, to make this productive, India needs to avoid cost and time over-runs in implementing projects abroad.
Ensuring effective implementation and setting up mechanisms for delivery will align India’s Act East policy with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. This alignment sets the stage for the reordering of the Asian strategic landscape.
The China-U.S. dynamic is growing in significance in the Asian strategic landscape. In the foreseeable future the foreign and security policies of Asian countries, especially India, will be driven by the symbiosis of continuity and change with strong emphasis on territorial integrity, preserving sovereignty, resisting imperial domination, and increasing their weight and influence in regional and global orders.