While the international relations usually move at a steady pace, but from time to time game changing events push a rethink in global affairs. 9/11, and subsequent US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, revamped the conduct of global affairs. The emergence of Arab Spring, Russian annexation of Crimea and the situation of Ukraine, has pushed for recalibration of international relations once more.
It is perhaps these developments that caused renowned American strategist and former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to comment the world needs new conceptual frameworks to identify underlying problems, analyze them, and develop solutions. The statement was made at the inception of Asia Society’s Policy Institute (ASPI) on April 8 with an overarching emphasis on understanding and managing US-Asia relations.
“We have designed the Asia Society Policy Institute to be a different kind of think tank. Using leading-edge technology, we will connect a powerful global network of advisers and thought leaders to build understanding and solutions addressing critical issues and opportunities for Asia and the world,” Asia Society President Josette Sheeran stated in her opening remarks.
While the events of Ukraine, and the Russian aggressiveness in Europe are alarming, they are not distracting US from its Pivot to Asia, and appear to have actually energized it. Moreover, it has brought on a renewed focus on the China-Russia alignment and attempts to understand China’s strategic intent. The US is now applying the full might of its political, economic and military intellect to tackle and manage the rise of China.
President Obama is slated to visit Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Malaysia in late April. On the other hand, defense secretary Chuck Hagel just took a trip to the region reassuring the regional allies, while continuing the engagement process with China. Countries such as South Korea, Philippines, and Japan are worried by the perceived aggressive Chinese moves in the South and East China Sea and by recently declaring an air identification zone.
Meeting with Chuck Hagel on April 9th, President Xi was quoted by CCTV as stating, “Both sides should stick to the principle of non-confrontational, non-conflict, mutual respect and mutual benefit to proactively push for pragmatic co-operation in various aspects.” Chinese defense minister Gen Chang had earlier commented: “With the latest developments in China, it can never be contained.” He went to add, the U.S. is “a country of worldwide influence, and the Pacific Ocean is huge enough to hold both China and the U.S. for common development and also huge enough to hold the other Asia-Pacific countries.”
Lack of Fresh Thinking
The question hotly debated at the inaugural ceremony of ASPI, which included Pakistan’s former prime minister Shaukat Aziz, reflected a key worry; how to manage the rise of China. Associated with this concern was a discussion about the availability of conceptual contexts to understand world affairs and where it may be heading, as pointed out by Henry Kissinger. For example, he stated, there is a difference of opinion on what triggered Arab Spring and its future direction. A topic covered extensively by PoliTact in this space previously.
If we continue to use old paradigms to understand world affairs, then the default mode points to the ‘balance of power’ and spheres of influence’ frameworks. Disturbance in the global balance of power in favor of one actor, will lead to a reciprocal response by other actors. Additionally, it will cause the players to form and realign alliances, and attempt to counter and contain the other party. The risk is this trajectory could ultimately lead to another grand conflagration.
Engagement, Interdependence and Win-Win Senarios
Obviously, the dilemma is how to counter and manage this risk. The predominant thinking is; creating linkages and economic and energy interdependence will likely produce the enabling environment leading to sustainable peace. Moreover, this has to be accompanied by clarity of thought and leadership. While these are indeed lofty ideals, security imperatives have frequently come in the way of implementing this vision fully.
Another approach often cited is to focus on convergences as oppose to divergences. For example, US and China share goals as in regards to climate change, trade, combating drug trafficking, preventing proliferation of WMD’s, and even on Iran and Afghanistan.
However, the ‘Pivot to Asia’ has stirred quite a bit of resentment from the Chinese side, which sees it as an attempt to contain and build alliances against it in the Pacific. Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiank insisted at the ASIP event they are not against the US presence in the Pacific; after all they have been there for a while. Furthermore, US businesses have large presence with in China as well. What they (Chinese) are worried about is the US intent when it is building alliances in the region and conducting military exercises.
On the other hand, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, Alyssa Ayres, who is now a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, commented that that ‘Pivot ’ has been misunderstood. She clarified it is meant to engage rising powers, such as China, India and Indonesia, and to increase communications and prevent misunderstandings.
Whatever the case may be, China and US both want to avert confrontation that develops when emerging and established powers meet, and develop ties on the basis of win-win scenarios. This requires constant communication and engagement.
While the Russian aggressiveness in Europe is clearly worrisome, according to Kissinger, it’s China that has the size and the economic wherewithal to challenge US. Moreover, this challenge does not appear to be a military one but perhaps more of an economic one, as was visible recently in Europe. China seems to be speeding up its Pivot to Europe based on building business ties and trade. President Xi Jinping completed his 11-day trip to Europe on April 1. “The relationship between China and the EU has become one of the most important financial relationships in the world,” Xi stated. During his trip to Europe, China sealed 50 deals with the total value of 18 billion Euros ($25 billion). It’s not clear at this point if China in the long run will adopt an approach similar to the present Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, but it could certainly develop leverage over Europe.
While Geopolitics may be transforming into Geo-economics, without inclusiveness, it just becomes another weapon to use against potential adversaries. When asked about what would Kissinger advice the Chinese and the US in the present circumstances. He stated that he would tell China to not let the military issues overhang in their ties, while he will tell US not to get involved in military provocations, exercises in the region, or develop bases.
In addition to China, US has another strong reason to focus on Asia. Writing for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, senior associate Muthiah Alagappa, recently provided the following incentive for why US should develop strategic ties with Malaysia:
“In terms of its size and regional importance, Malaysia may be a small potato in comparison with neighboring Indonesia, but it is growing in both categories. It is an influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 56-state body promoting Muslim solidarity in economic, social, and political matters. It is also a successful, moderately Islamic, multicultural developing country.”
PoliTact has referred to this part of the equation in the past. As the US perception deteriorates in the Middle East and South Asia, Russia and China appear to be in a position to exploit, and Muslim nations of the Asia Pacific provide a good counterbalance.