It is easy to ignore a seemingly frivolous diplomatic incident in Asia at a time when the world’s attention is firmly invested in the Middle East, which saw the latest edition of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian saga playing out in Gaza last month. Add to that the much-vaunted economic rise of Asia in the past decade, and the Asia-Pacific region barely comes to mind as a potential flashpoint or a threat to international peace and security.
Years of breakneck economic growth in China, India and the Asian Tiger economies like Indonesia has lifted millions out of poverty leading to the intensification of economic engagement among the countries of this dynamic region. One of the most important manifestations of this has been the emergence of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which brings together Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Over the years, ASEAN has, as a trade bloc, forged a labyrinth of partnerships with Asia’s four largest economies – China, Japan, India, and South Korea. The result has been closer economic integration and greater prosperity for the region’s people, even holding out prospects of an Asian economic union in the future.
However, this increasing economic integration has not translated into any tangible political and diplomatic agreement on the nature of the emerging strategic landscape in Asia, the most important of which is the rise of China. The “peaceful” nature of China’s rise, any impression that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao vigorously sought to promote, may have come to pass and its policy formulations may no more be benign. The first evidence of this came days after China’s national congress rubberstamped a new set of leaders in the once-in-a-decade transition, when Beijing began issuing new Chinese passports with maps claiming ownership of the entire South China Sea – parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – as well as disputed areas on the China-India border. This was followed by Beijing giving its maritime police powers to intercept foreign vessels in the South China Sea setting off a wave of protests in the region. In response, India began stamping visas with its own version of the maps while Philippines and Vietnam began issuing stapled visas to avoid being seen as validating China’s position on the contested regions.
Asia’s myriad territorial rows are further complicated by the so-called US pivot to Asia, a foreign policy formulation of the Obama administration intended to shore up regional alliances and re-assert America’s intention to remain a Pacific power. Under the plan, Washington seeks to re-deploy 60 per cent of its warships to the region by 2020 - this would include six aircraft carriers, a majority of cruisers, destroyers, combat ships, and submarines. The new US policy also seeks to deepen ties with traditional allies, such as with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines, and also with other countries like India and Indonesia. While America’s presence is likely to reassure allies in the region, to many observers this would seem like an Asia spiraling towards a cold war-like policy of containment to stall China’s rise. For the first time in decades, defence spending in Asia is poised to overtake that of Europe. China and India earlier this year announced an 11 per cent and 17 per cent jump in defence spending to US$106bn and US$40bn dollars respectively, while South Korea and Japan also announced a rise in defence spending. Meanwhile, countries in South East Asia spent US$24bn on defence in 2012, a rise of 13.5 per cent over last year with the figure expected to rise to US$40bn dollars by 2016. Many would dismiss this view about an emerging arms race in Asia as alarmist - arguing that the strong economic links forged within the region would make a potential conflict too costly, and thus remote. That may well turn out to be the case, but it is imperative to recognize that the trends in recent months do not inspire much confidence. Much will depend on the path China’s new set of leaders will take as they seek to respond to a strong wave of nationalism at home amid a desire to overcome the humiliation of the past with an assertive foreign policy.
Unless, a consensus emerges on the political terrain of an emerging Asia, the possibility of latent tensions blowing into larger conflagrations cannot and should not be ruled out. Most crucially, what is remarkable is the absence of any full-fledged regional security architecture to manage tensions despite the presence of a several economic forums in the region like ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (which includes the ten members of ASEAN as well as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Russia). Since 2002, the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual event organized by the London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has brought together defence officials of 28 Asia-Pacific states to discuss regional security, while the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has brought together officials to promote confidence-building in the region since 1994. These forums are however still nascent and need to be upgraded to meet the challenges of a region with faultlines as complex as in the Asia-Pacific. Irrespective of the forum of choice, what is beyond doubt is the pressing need to infuse preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention capabilities through greater institutionalization of regional processes through the establishment of a secretariat and beefing up political and security monitoring capabilities to anticipate and respond to potential conflicts. Furthermore, any security architecture must include China within its ambit if it is to emerge as a credible vehicle for conflict prevention in Asia.
An Asian NATO has the potential to create the political and security conditions for the realization of the region’s long-term economic renaissance. The nations of the region would do well to invest political capital into crafting such a regional security architecture.