Special Report

Asia-Pacific Power Dynamics: Strategic Implications and Options for India

[With M. Mayilvaganan, Aditi Malhotra, Viswesh R., and Sadhavi Chauhan]

To read the complete report click here

Executive Summary

In the emerging geopolitical discourse today, the Asia-Pacific region has emerged as a major centre of geostrategic interest. Accompanying this change in perception is a change in scope, with strategists not just considering the typical Indian Ocean, but also the western, and sometimes even central Pacific Ocean. The Asia-Pacific ranges from East Africa to the western and central Pacific, including Japan and Australia. Asia-Pacific concept reflected a new reality shaped by the rise of China and India, a revitalized Japan, along with the continued primacy of the United States and also signifies the accelerating economic and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean thus creating a single strategic system.

Based on the proceedings of the seminar, the following inferences on the behaviour and strategies of the major players in the Asia Pacific Region can be made.

China
  • China’s economic performance and its military modernization have made it a major power in the Asia Pacific Region.
  • Though there is a great deal of economic inter-dependence between China and the US, there is great trust deficit that spills over into the strategic and military domains. This has created a new Cold War type situation between the two countries.
  • There was agreement among the participants that China is behaving in an increasingly assertive and aggressive way with its neighbours in the region. This assertive behaviour is particularly prominent in the East and South China seas. This behaviour was directed not only at US allies but also at other countries in the region.
  • China’s aggressive behaviour seems to have the full support of the Party and the PLA. The PLA remains under the firm control of the Party. Participants felt that this assertive behaviour would continue.
  • China’s relations with prominent US allies such as Japan and Philippines have become significantly worse following a string of maritime incidents. Other countries such as Vietnam have also been subject to Chinese harassment.
  • China’s behaviour towards the ASEAN group of countries also suggests that it thinks it has a dominant power position.
  • There seems to be a gap between Chinese local bullying behaviour and the overall strategy that seems to advocate a more reasoned rise.
  • Participants described this variously as “psychological flux”, “muscular leadership” and “no clear sense of direction”.

The seminar proceedings raised a number of questions related to the motives behind China’s behaviour. Some questions are as follows:

  • Is China’s increased belligerence based on the premise that US power is on the decline and that it can now match the US at least in the region?
  • With the presence of “US pivot” and the notion of “Air Sea Battle,” does China believes that it has in place a strategy to deter the US from intervening in the region? or
  • Is the increasing assertiveness based on the belief that the US wants to deter China from bullying its neighbours but will not move towards containing China?
  • By implication does this mean that China does not take the “US pivot” and the “Air Sea Battle” as a hindrance to or a constraint on its actions? or
  • Is the Chinese behaviour a consequence of a gap between the local and global strategies or between the tactical and the strategic? What are or what could be the reasons for this gap? Or
  • Is China’s assertiveness a part of a well thought out integrated approach towards the eventual re-establishment of China’s dominant position in the region?
  • Though some participants raised the question of a new world order with China and the US as dominant power centres, the issue did not emerge as a major point deserving serious consideration.
United States

According to the seminar participants the recent US pivot to Asia Pacific region could be interpreted in many ways.

  • It can be seen as a move away from a dominant or hegemonic position towards a rebalancing position.
  • It can also be seen as a US response to contain a rising China. Many participants mentioned that this was the position that the Chinese were taking in response to the “US pivot” and the concept of “Air Sea Battle”.
  • There seemed to be a broad acceptance amongst the participants that the US actions were not aimed at containing China but rather directed towards deterring China’s bullying tactics.
  • The view that the US sees India as an important ally in its rebalancing strategy also seemed to find acceptance.
  • When the sessions on China and the US are viewed together, the seminar proceedings seemed to suggest ambiguities in both Chinese and American perceptions regarding each other’s motives and intentions in the Asia Pacific area. These grey areas could sow the seeds for future conflicts in the region.
Russia
  • Russia would like to remain relevant as a major power centre in the region. The mature status of the European markets for oil and gas, and the growth prospects for them in the Asia Pacific region (especially in China) will force Russia to look eastwards rather than westwards. If China’s response is positive especially in terms of economic investment in Russia’s eastern regions, Russia may not have any problems in sharing power with China, as a part of the new political order in the region.
  • Developments in Ukraine and their consequences will also move Russia closer towards China to counter the moves from NATO and the western alliance. A Sino-Russian alliance of sorts could well happen soon.
  • Japan
  • The seminar proceedings suggest that Japan is seriously worried about the rise of China and its increasing aggressive behaviour towards it. It is also worried about China’s power and influence over a nuclear and missile capable North Korea that can be used to threaten and coerce Japan.
  • Japan has responded to these developments by strengthening its alliance with the US. As a part of this alliance it will once again allow US bases to operate out of Japan.
  • It is also improving its defence capabilities and if the constitution can be amended it is signalling the setting up of a self-defence force for the country.
  • By signing security pacts with Australia and India it has also indicated its intentions to form alliances with other like-minded countries to counter China’s aggressive behaviour.
ASEAN Countries

The ASEAN as a collective body is divided on how it should deal with China’s increasing assertiveness. Some fall clearly within the Chinese camp while others fall within the US camp and many others would like to remain neutral.

  • Most of the approaches adopted by them to build integrated security architecture with all the major players in the region such as the EAS have not delivered any great results so far.
  • As a consequence, countries are pursuing their own approaches when dealing with this situation.
  • Cambodia and Laos appear to be closely linked to China.
  • Indonesia, the largest country of the ASEAN is trying to remain neutral by providing space to China but also seems to be worried about Chinese actions in waters close to it. It is looking new ways and means in dealing with these problems.
  • Malaysia like Indonesia originally favoured a security architecture that recognized China’s major role but after the spate of maritime incidents, it has moved along with the Philippines towards a multilateral code of conduct approach with the involvement of countries like the US and Japan.
  • Singapore and Thailand are trying to work out arrangements which would favour the continuity of trade with China but also enable them to be linked to a security umbrella under the US.
  • South Korea appears to be moving closer to China both in terms of trade and also because it believes that China can control North Korea. However, in case a major conflict breaks out, it might still look to the US to guarantee security.
  • Given this large variation in interests, it appears unlikely that a grand alliance against China can materialize, even under US leadership. However new security arrangements between countries with similar interests that may include other major powers are already beginning to emerge. This may be the trend for the next few years.
India
  • India does not have a clearly articulated strategy for dealing with developments in the Asia Pacific region including the rise of China. The articulation of such a strategy that includes both hard and soft power components came out as the top Indian priority.
  • Though Indian and US interests are increasingly aligned against China in many ways, India should not become a formal part of the US rebalance strategy. India should also make sure that it has the capabilities to deal with any problems with China on its own without having to depend on other countries.
  • India should continue to actively engage with China in all areas while continuing to be watchful about Chinese actions and intentions.
  • India needs to be proactive in its approach to the region especially with regard to the maritime domain. It must exploit emerging opportunities to send strong signals to all players, that it will preserve and protect its strategic interests. The absence of a clear ‘Look East’ strategy is currently hampering such efforts.
  • In spite of the many problems within ASEAN, India should continue to engage actively and constructively with it.
  • Apart from strengthening bilateral ties with countries like Russia India also needs to look at trilateral agreements with the countries to strengthen its strategic position.

Source: ISSSP Reports, June 2014, http://isssp.in/asia”pacific”power”dynamics”strategic”implications”and”options”for”india”2/’%

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