NEW DELHI: Leading members of the governments of India and South Korea recently met to begin a new “strategic partnership.” They are not alone in doing so, for across Asia, a new security architecture is being constructed, seemingly piecemeal.
How Asia’s geopolitical landscape will evolve over the coming decades is not easy to foresee. But it is apparent that an increasingly assertive China is unwittingly reinforcing America’s role in Asia, restoring US primacy as the implicit guarantor of security and stability in the region.
There are at least four possible Asian security scenarios for the years and decades ahead. The first is the rise of a Sino-centric Asia. China seeks a multipolar world but a unipolar Asia. By contrast, the US desires a unipolar world but a multipolar Asia.
A second scenario is that the US remains Asia’s principal security anchor, with or without a third possibility: the emergence of a constellation of Asian states with common interests working together to ensure that Asia is not unipolar. Finally, Asia could come to be characterized by several resurgent powers, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and a reunified Korea.
Of the four scenarios, the first has caused the greatest unease. China’s neighbors are increasingly anxious about its growing power and assertiveness. While China’s rulers aspire to shape a Sino-centric Asia, their efforts to intimidate smaller neighbors hardly make China a credible candidate for Asian leadership.
After all, genuine leadership cannot come from raw power, but only from other states’ consent or tacit acceptance. If leadership could be built on brute force, schoolyard bullies would be class presidents.
In any event, China’s power may be vast and rapidly growing, but it lacks the ability to compel. In other words, China does not have the capability to rout any rival militarily, let alone enforce its will on Asia.
That fact has, however, done little to allay fears in the region. With its defense spending having grown almost twice as fast as its GDP, China is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle.
For example, China now includes the South China Sea in its “core” national interests, on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, in order to stake a virtually exclusive claim to military operations there. China also has increasingly questioned India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern Indian state that China’s rulers call “Southern Tibet” and claim largely as their own. Indian defense officials have reported a rising number of Chinese military incursions across the 4,057-kilometer Himalayan border.
As China seeks to translate its economic clout into major geopolitical advantages in Asia, a country that once boasted of “having friends everywhere” finds that its growing power may be inspiring awe, but that its actions are spurring new concerns and fears. Which states will accept China as Asia’s leader? Six decades of ruthless repression has failed to win China acceptance even in Tibet and Xinjiang, as the Tibetan and Uighur revolts of 2008 and 2009 attested.
Leadership entails more than the possession of enormous economic and military power. It demands the power of ideas that can galvanize others. Such power also serves as the moral veneer to the assertiveness often involved in the pursuit of any particular cause or interest.
The US and its allies won the Cold War, for example, not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism to other regions. In the words of the strategic analyst Stanley A. Weiss, this “helped suck the lifeblood out of communism’s global appeal,” making it incapable of meeting the widespread yearning for a better and more open life.
China has shown itself adept at assertively promoting its national interests and playing classical balance-of-power geopolitics. But, in order to displace the US and assume the mantle of leadership in Asia, China must do more than pursue its own interests or contain potential rivals. Most fundamentally, what does China represent in terms of values and ideas?
In the absence of an answer to that question, China’s overly assertive policies have proven a diplomatic boon for the US in strengthening and expanding American security arrangements in Asia. South Korea has tightened its military alliance with the US, Japan has backed away from a move to get the US to move its Marine airbase out of Okinawa, and India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others, have drawn closer to the US.
In terms of power-projection force capabilities or the range of military bases and security allies in Asia, no power or combination of powers is likely to match the US in the next quarter-century. But, while America’s continued central role in Asia is safe, the long-term viability of its security arrangements boils down to the credibility of its security assurances to allies and partners. America’s readiness to stand by them when the game gets rough will determine the strength and size of its security-alliance system in Asia in the years ahead.
The third and fourth scenarios can unfold even if the US remains the principal security anchor for Asia. A number of Asian countries have already started building mutually beneficial security cooperation on a bilateral basis, thereby laying the groundwork for a potential web of interlocking strategic partnerships. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation, in fact, has become critical to help institute power stability in the region.
Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.