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My buddy Hans-Inge Langø over at the Hegemonic Obsessions blog recently posted what I thought was quite an interesting piece with deep perspective on the US pivot towards Asia in an era of growing Chinese power. As any good analysis would, it raised further questions regarding the shifting power dynamics in Asia, which, in this century, means the world. As can be expected, there are many ingredients to this game of geopolitical jenga, and while the consequences of one wrong move may not be as catastrophic or unforgiving as in the game, the price could, nevertheless, be steep.

Also Sprach Hans

A dirty (half) dozen states have gathered together in Asia to counter growing Chinese influence – Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Russia, and even Burma. However, as Hans points out, the picture is murkier than it seems – for five of these countries, China is their largest trading partner (or has been in the last three years); for another, it is the second-largest (Russia). If we enlarge our focus to include the Indo-Pacific rim, we find that China is Australia’s largest trading partner too. Not to forget the superpower, China is the United States’ second-largest trading partner. As Hans astutely notes, what we see in Asia is not an alliance but an alignment. While all these countries are concerned about China’s growing economic (and therefore political) clout, its rapidly expanding military budget and modernisation, and its increasing assertiveness in regional (and even global – Iran, Syria?) crises, they are loathe to overtly declare their huge Asian neighbour a threat and draw Beijing’s attention upon them prematurely. Instead, as long as China’s leaders keep the stakes small, Asia would rather continue to trade with both the United States and the new power on the block.

Hans cites Stephen Walt’s 2009 paper from World Politics, “Alliances in a Unipolar World,” to argue that this clustering of Asian states closer to the dominant power, the United States, is merely a special kind of regional balance of power. As Kautilya would have advised, the regional hegemon is always a greater threat than the distant superpower. Walt argues, and Hans agrees, that the nature of the unipole is important in what sort of relations form. The United States is powerful, far away, and not perceived to have colonial ambitions in Asia (while we can quibble about the ‘colonial’ intent of American multinational corporations, this point must be conceded). These three reasons precipitate in more Asian goodwill towards the United States than towards China. In Hans’ own words, “it is more desirable for these states to align themselves with the relatively benign unipole than a potentially revisionist great power.”

While there have been a few rumblings from China’s economy, the general consensus is that China will grow more powerful in the coming decade. There will soon be a day when the sum total effect of China’s proximity and power in relation to China’s neighbours will balance or tip the sum total effect of US distance and power. In other words, the world system will revert from a unipolar arrangement to a bipolar one as it was during the Cold War. At this juncture, it will be more difficult to “soft-balance” China and the coterie of small Asian states along the Asian giant’s periphery may feel compelled to choose between the United States and their unpleasant neighbour. Another possibility that Hans mentions is the rise of some of the Asian states themselves, such as India. A successful cabal – India has adamantly refused to consider an alliance – usually has one dominant actor whose lead other members, however begrudgingly, will follow. If there are multiple power centres within the cabal, it runs the risk of fracturing as the lure of collective security is less than the necessity of pursuing one’s own strategic interests – a prime example is India’s differences with the United States on Iran. Furthermore, given the limits of American military power, the US will not wish to engage in a full-blown Cold War and prefer to allow regional balances of power to maintain the status quo as long as possible. But Hans warns that whatever alignment or alliance that coalesces in Asia would “not [be] an issue of values, but [of] security and sovereignty. Regional hegemons are perceived as more dangerous than offshore hegemons…but that does not mean that Asian states will support the United States no matter what. Increased economic interdependence with China (the carrot) could alter the political calculation. So could an increasingly capable Chinese military (the stick).”

Balance and Counterbalance

The explanation above, no doubt, captures the present Asian moment. However, it remains incomplete in that it simplifies the system to a US – China rivalry (with some justification) and does not map out the effect of other critical dyads, such as US- Russia, Russia – China, or India – China. Including these extra variables will not make Hans’ observations incorrect but enrich them and forewarn us of what paths are open to Asia and the world system in general.

What are the initial conditions in Asia? The most obvious one is that of all the countries so far mentioned – Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Russia, Burma, and Australia – only Burma and Australia have not fought a war against the Chinese. However, Burma has experienced Chinese meddling in their affairs before – during the U Nu and U Thant years, China’s support of the Communist Party of Burma made for acrimonious relations. As for Australia, they have the comfort of some distance and ANZUS, but Canberra briefly considered going in for nuclear weapons in the 1960s because of their anxiety about China. While these events seem distant to an outsider, they are still fresh in the minds of the countries that have fought the Chinese (and hence their interest in a somewhat attenuated American presence in Asia). Nonetheless, foreign policy and strategy is seldom so binary, and these nations have their own claims to power that they do not wish to sacrifice before an American security umbrella either.

This hesitant quasi-coalition against China has two types of members – those who wish to avoid domination and protect their strategic interests (Burma, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam), and those who have claims to power, regional or global, of their own (Australia, India, Russia). The relations between the Asian cabal are not so strong as to form sub-alliances, nor would the states be willing to develop such relations at the cost of their relations with the United States. Thus, Washington remains the seed crystal around which the Asian countries will settle with more or less eagerness.

Dramatis Personae

The main actors in any alliance or alignment with or against China will necessarily be the states with greater capabilities and ambitions, i.e., Russia and India. Although Japan is quite concerned about China’s growing power, the country is quite aware that it possesses neither the manpower nor the necessary strategic depth to stand firm against its larger Asian neighbour. On the Indo-Pacific rim, Australia is a safer distance from the hungry dragon, but nonetheless, Canberra would rather retain its natural geographical hegemony (by virtue of its size and wealth) in the southern Indian Ocean and watches closely as Beijing builds itself a blue water navy. Of course, a closer look at Asia would reveal many more of China’s disgruntled and wary neighbours – Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Cambodia, Thailand – but these states have so far remained quieter than most. For example, Djakarta’s response to Washington’s recent overtures (attending the East Asia summit and ending a decades-long ban on joint military exercises), despite the former’s maritime dispute with China, have been lukewarm. These countries can be considered as a third type of member – observer – in the Asian system taking shape.

India: Looking past New Delhi’s amateurish attempts at running the country, it is immediately apparent that what India says and what India does are two entirely different things. Akin to the famous Indian head bobble, where the words and the head movements are difficult to match up, Indian leaders have repeatedly declared that they do not see China as a threat while the military and defence research laboratories have gone ahead and produced nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), nuclear submarines, sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and some pretty nifty reconnaissance satellites. India is also reportedly working on a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) in conjunction with Russia.

Due to problems in defence development and procurement, India’s armed forces have had to rely heavily of foreign-made equipment. In the past few years, India has procured 10 C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift transport aircraft, half a dozen tactical lift C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, signed a $10-billion deal for the purchase of 126 Multirole Medium Range Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) with France’s Dassault, ordered over 150 helicopters from Russia, and is awaiting the delivery of 40 ships and submarines that would give the Indian Navy two aircraft carriers, several stealth destroyers, frigates, and long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft such as the P-8i by 2013. India is also raising mountain divisions and has stationed at least two squadrons of Sukhoi-30 MKIs (Tezpur, Bareilly, and perhaps Nyoma) along her border with China. Thus, despite the peace rhetoric and annual $50-billion trade, the Indian military has made a dramatic shift from a largely Pakistan-centric force to a two-front war machine.

The heavy investment in defence can only be justified if India sees China as its foe (and there are plenty of reasons to do so), for India’s purchases make little sense in a purely asymmetric scenario that Pakistan is likely to foist upon New Delhi. Nonetheless, India has been frustratingly reluctant to forge an alliance with the United States. During the Bush administration, Indo-US relations moved from strength to strength, and despite the many domestic hiccups, has flowered into a real partnership. Indian access to the US defence market, the nuclear deal, India’s membership to elite technology control regimes, and regular joint military exercises have all given New Delhi more room to manoeuvre with Beijing; South Block hopes that between the military acquisitions and diplomatic tango, they can continue to soft balance China. India’s reluctance to form closer relationships with the United States or any other power stems from four reasons: 1. an intellectual allergy to security partnerships arising from a misunderstanding of Nehruvian geostrategy, 2. the high probability that India will have to play the junior partner in any meaningful alliance (and the loss of prestige therefrom), 3. a deficit of trust between India and the two most plausible partners (the US and Russia) in any anti-China alliance, and 4. a heightened sense of grandeur, or a sense of Indian exceptionalism, that her ancient culture can somehow guide her through the rocky shoals of modern realpolitik. Unfortunately for any country relying upon New Delhi, while the trust deficit might be solved, the other three reasons require a fundamental shift in Indian thinking. Such a shift, in all likelihood, is out of reach short of a crisis (a case in point is the shift in economic attitudes because of the crisis in 1991).

What should one make of India’s relationship with Russia? The two countries have shared a long strategic relationship from since the death of Josef Stalin. The Indian military, in spite of many large purchases from Western vendors, is still comprised of 60% Russian equipment. Even more telling is the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, whose whole purpose was to balance the Sino-American rapprochement initiated by US President Richard Nixon in 1969. However, the end of the Cold War has resulted in some distancing between Moscow and New Delhi, largely because the latter wanted to explore new markets and other economic and military options. The stumbling block between the two Cold War partners is India’s budding relationship with the United States. It is all well and good for Race Course Road and Foggy Bottom to engage in cooperation on ballistic missile defence (BMD) in South Asia, but the same has been a source of great acrimony between Russia and the United States in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet republics. Russia has made its displeasure known by creating difficulties with transfers of technology (T-90S) and cost negotiations (Admiral Gorshkov). Between joint military exercises, defence research cooperation, and a still sizeable arms trade, Indo-Russian relations will not weaken over the United States and BMD, but Indo-US and Russo-US relations will certainly inform and shape the Indo-Russian partnership and any joint ventures – bilateral or multilateral – against China.

Russia: After the end of the Cold War, the heir to the erstwhile Soviet Union, Russia, was ignominiously relegated to a second-tier power. The defunct military and the haemorrhaging economy left Moscow with little choice in 1991, but since then, Russia has reasserted itself quite strongly. Despite its overall weakness in comparison to the United States, China, and in some ways even India, the world’s largest country still possesses some excellent defence research facilities and know-how, and with an estimated 10,000 nuclear warheads, demands to be taken seriously.

Russia’s reaction to the American pivot has been interesting. On the one hand, Moscow was critical of China’s claims in the South China Sea during the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Indonesia, and has reacted positively to the formation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic grouping about 40% larger than the 27-member European Union (EU). On the other, the Kremlin has launched its own “pivot” policy in Asia to counter Washington’s initiative. Over the past few years, Russia has embedded itself in major regional security and economic fora, from the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit to the Six-Party Talks on North Korea and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russia’s energy-hungry southern neighbour, as well as India and other Asian countries, has made it easier for Moscow to develop and expand its Far Eastern and Siberian regions.

In some ways, Russia finds itself in a very enviable place. In 1972, Nixon had visited Mao Zedong and tilted towards Beijing against Russia. Forty years later, as Henry Kissinger had predicted after Nixon’s visit to China, the US finds itself considering a tilt towards Moscow against China (albeit 20 years later than Kissinger’s prediction). The irony is not lost on the Kremlin, and no doubt, there will be a price for Moscow’s cooperation. But until President Barack Obama (or one of his successors) makes that move, the Eurasian behemoth is shopping for strategic partners. Russia is rumoured to be close to concluding a $4.1-billion deal with Beijing to sell it some of its latest Sukhoi-35. This is even more noteworthy given that China reverse engineered the Sukhoi-27 a few years ago, and is working on its own FGFA, the J-20 – the Sukhoi-35’s advanced radar (and any other tricks) could come in handy to Chinese designers. Such arms deals make little sense to China’s neighbours who are preoccupied with the notion of a yellow peril, but from Russia’s perspective, China is not a threat – yet. The view from the Kremlin shows a China still grappling with internal problems, a state whose geopolitical ambitions, for the time being, are focussed eastwards and southwards but not northwards, and a government that has neither gloated upon the demise of the Soviet Union nor lectured Moscow on its internal affairs. More importantly, Russia is no longer a guardian of the global order as it was during the Cold War, and it feels no anguish at the demise of two and a half centuries of Western hegemony. China’s rise and chipping away of US preponderance heralds the arrival of a multipolar world in which Russia can again be a major player. In all likelihood, Russia is more worried about a Sino-American century (note, for example, the G-2 hype since 2005).

Russia’s relations with the United States has been rockier. After the dust had settled from the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian premier Boris Yeltsin sought to create an equal partnership with the United States to tackle issues of mutual concern. Given the yawning power disparity and divergent national interests, Washington chose to go it alone. Russian – and Chinese – leaders suspect that US and Western support of democracy and human rights is a ploy to further undermine states that are friendly or of strategic importance to them. Moscow is wary of increased US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, its sponsorship of the regime change in Libya, and now its confrontation with Iran and Syria. The US has also been the major obstacle to closer Russo-EU ties, which Moscow sees as essential ‘modernising alliances.’ With this alignment of the global chessboard, a somewhat distant Chinese threat appears less intimidating than US encirclement. While Moscow will certainly milk its position between Beijing and Washington for all it is worth, it also means that an overt anti-China alignment by Russia is not in the cards.

Nonetheless, Moscow needs to craft a coherent policy towards Asia. The lack of it is because Russia is unhappy with any of its choices – Russia itself, and the least odious of the other powers, India, are too far behind to take centre stage; and while Moscow cannot be sanguine about the next superpower being on its border, it is certainly not reassured by continued US hegemony.

The United States: For the United States, the pendulum has swung half way – from a strategic partner during the Clinton years, China became a strategic competitor during the presidency of George W. Bush. It was only left to Obama to enunciate what the United States had been thinking and doing during Bush’s second term. It is well-known that the Bush team had come to power with the goal of redefining America’s relationship with China from the Pollyanna-esque farce left by their predecessor to a realistic acknowledgement of Beijing’s power. This agendum was sidelined in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but not abandoned. Particularly during the Bush second term, the US reached out to India, Vietnam, Taiwan, and other Asian countries on the Chinese periphery. In 2007, the United States’ maritime policy declared that it intends to remain the preeminent power in both the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, and began moving critical nuclear attack submarines, Aegis missile defense platforms, and naval surface combatants to bases in Guam and Japan. Furthermore, the United States Navy has been busy creating what is being called the “AirSea Battle Concept,” which some defence officials say is the early stages of a new Cold War-style military posture against China. The TPP, another Bush legacy that has grown stronger under Obama, will see US and allied forces from ASEAN, Japan, Australia, and India involved in the region from Guam to Darwin to the Minicoy Islands in the Indian Ocean. The cooperative venture will control three gateways into the South China Sea – the Malacca Strait, the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait – and sea lanes that see the annual passage of at least $5 trillion worth of cargo, most of it Chinese. In times of heightened tension, a sea denial strategy could easily strangulate more than half of the Chinese economy. US cooperation with the countries of the Indo-Pacific will only increase in the coming years – in January 2012, the White House issued a ‘Defence Strategic Guidance‘ to the Department of Defence, announcing US intent to pursue a long-term strategic partnership with India and bolster its ties with Japan and South Korea with an aim to maintain US access to the global commons and freedom of maritime movement.

From all this, it would seem that the US is committed to its pivot but it lacks an appropriate lever in Asia to anchor the deal on the other side of the ocean. This is far from the thinking in Asian capitals. While Russia has its own apprehensions about a larger US role in Asia, most other countries see the US as an unreliable ally. For example, Taiwan has had to make do with upgrading its aging F-16 fleet for years because the China lobby in Washington has persuaded successive administrations that the sale of newer jets would irreparably compromise Sino-American relations. Meanwhile, the US has been unable to convince China to stand down the 2,000 missiles it has pointed at Taiwan (area: 36,000 sq. kms). Similarly, South Korea is unhappy with US failure to either curb North Korea or persuade China to do so.

Also, Indonesia has refused to be wooed by recent friendly overtures by Washington – policy analysts in Djakarta have warned the government that removing the restrictions on joint military exercises with Indonesia’s Special Forces does not commit the US to the island’s security. Therefore, Djakarta is waiting either for a more substantial US presence in Asia or a stronger showing of US business in the country.

India, America’s newest strategic…something in the region, is deeply suspicious of US pronouncements too. As Delhi sees it, Washington for decades equated US-India ties with US-Pakistan relations, not once considering the fact that as the larger country, India is the natural hegemon in South Asia. Despite India’s repeated warnings, the US turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s support of terrorism until September 11, and the Ronald Reagan White House followed a duplicitous policy on Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation. Yet until George W. Bush, India and Pakistan were treated on par with each other. Now, in its showdown with Iran, Washington is trying to persuade India that nuclear proliferation, particularly in a regime that sponsors terrorism, is dangerous. Indian leaders, not unsympathetic to the difficulty, are frustrated with US doublespeak (hypocrisy?) on terrorism – how can Foggy Bottom launch a global war on terror while maintaining close diplomatic and military relations with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? It is this whimsical, somewhat spontaneous change of allies and enemies has kept India from embracing the United States as a strategic partner.

And Pakistan, one of America’s oldest friends in the region, has accused the US of not bringing enough pressure to bear on India to resolve the Kashmir issue, holding defence sales hostage to American policy whims, and insufficient US interest in Pakistan’s economic development. Not all claims may be legitimate, and part of the problem is that Washington has an uncanny ability to ensconce itself into both sides of a problem – India and Pakistan, South Korea and China, Taiwan and China. While it is a truism in politics that states have neither friends nor enemies but only interests, the US has managed to rub its allies’ faces in this pithy fact. Consequently, US image in the region has had to pay the price.

Beyond bilateral tensions, assumed promises, and disappointed hopes, another reason the US pivot has met with a lukewarm welcome is the general mistrust that the superpower is there to stay – if Asia committed fully and overtly to an alliance to contain China and the US left when their interests changed, what would happen to the smaller alliance members? The United States’ attention was already diverted from China to the Middle East by the attacks of September 11, and the region seems no better  now after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the Arab Spring. Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Iran are all simmering powder kegs that could again pull the US out of Asia. Even now, US presence in central Asia is dwindling – in Kyrgyzstan, the US military presence will vanish as its current lease on the Manas air base expires in 2014, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has allowed itself to be bullied by its biggest member, Russia, into agreeing that no foreign military base could be established on any member state’s territory without the consent of the other members, and in Pakistan, the United States has been quietly evicted from the Shamsi airbase. The US is also falling over itself to get out of Afghanistan. Fuelling Asia’s doubt is also the health of the US economy and its ability to finance the vast military machine: this year, the US Department of Defence was given half a trillion dollars less to play with than it originally planned, and experts have pointed out that whatever the nominal increase the final budget shows will be eaten away by inflation, rising operations and maintenance costs, unanticipated high tempo of operations, and expanding health care, pay, and retirement benefits for military personnel and their families.

China: Perhaps the most important actor – clearly the antagonist of the pivot story – is China. Neither the United States nor any of China’s neighbours have treated the power calculus as inevitably leading to war, but China has stepped on far too many toes in its rise for them to accept Beijing’s kitschy platitudes about peaceful cooperation and co-prosperity. If anyone can take the wind out of America’s new Asia policy, it is Beijing’s most exclusive group.

It is a telling sign that China has 23 boundary disputes with the 14 countries it borders. Most of the disputes are entirely meaningless (except as a show of Chinese strength) in that the disputed territory represents neither a concentration of natural resources nor is it a strategic junction in China’s defence posture – a good example is the dispute between Seoul and Beijing over Socotra Rock, literally a rock submerged 4.6 metres below the sea and in South Korea’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Many of China’s territorial claims come from a nationalistic reading of China’s own myths about its glorious empire, but the Middle Kingdom has been able to resolve 17 of its border disputes (for now – China has been known to revive issues at a later date) through intimidation or limited violence, as in Tibet.

China’s rapid modernisation and enlargement of its armed forces, steadily increasing defence budget, and opacity of its doctrines, budget, goals, and processes has done little to quell its neighbours’ fears (one is reminded of the conversation about the Doomsday Machine between Ambassador DeSadeski, Dr. Strangelove, and President Muffley – “Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?!”). Beijing has also been aggressive in acquiring basing rights, secured docking, and real estate from Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Burma, its ‘string of pearls.’ This is all ostensibly to protect its shipping but may very well choke the same sea lanes of vital resources to other countries.

China has so far appeared unwilling to make an effort to persuade its neighbours that they have nothing to fear from the awakening dragon. Some positive steps towards reducing the continent’s apprehension (and blunting the impetus for an American pivot) would be to give up its outrageous territorial claims with Japan, India, and Vietnam, reduce its support of failed states like Pakistan, participation in more joint military exercises with neighbouring militaries, a moderation in its defence spending, expressing with greater clarity Beijing’s intent, and regional initiatives for collective security, anti-piracy, and humanitarian relief.

For the Want of a Lever…

As things stand, it is unlikely that anything will come out of Obama’s Asian pivot. Given the mistrust, suspicion, and tangential goals of the main players, it is unlikely that an anti-China alliance will form unless China tips the scales by crossing the inflection point. A loose alignment is certainly possible and already there in some respects, but the price of this flexibility is its lack of focus and an increased probability of defection. Since no country sees a confrontation with China as inevitable, they are all rationally hedging on grand declarative statements of intent. The United States is also unwilling, given its waning relative power, to forge an alliance out of the alignment. Even if it did, the Asian states are not beyond abandoning the US-led grouping and condemning the superpower’s bellicosity and imperial intent in Asia. The Russian Bear finds itself in a stalemate reciprocated by Beijing – it does not seek a collision with its Asian neighbour, while hoping that the other won’t be in collusion with the United States. And as for India, ironically, the US pivot to Asia and the web of interests and cross-interests it involves allows New Delhi to maintain its cherished non-alignment. There may be no loneliness greater than distrust, but distrust and caution are also the parents of security.