Asia Realigns to Meet China’s Challenge

The security picture in the Asia-Pacific region is becoming ever more complicated as states big and small respond to China’s bid to become the region’s leader. Frictions may seem minor compared with the big-power rivalry building between China and the US, but in sum they are at least as important.

China is presenting its leadership role this partly as an “Asia for Asians” argument reminiscent of the Bandung Conference of 60 years ago when western colonialism was very much on the agenda. In the current context it is an effort to line up Asian states – however defined – against the presence of the US as an unnatural interference in Asian affairs.

Yet to the Asian states which gave birth to the original Bandung goals of keeping Asia neutral and aloof from big power rivalries – Nehru’s India and Sukarno’s Indonesia – have yet to be convinced that they are comfortable with a China-designed sphere of Asian peace and prosperity.

On the one hand they remain attracted by the prospect of China as a driver of trade and investment at a time when western markets are stagnating. Hence they have been quick to sign up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative, with India becoming the second largest shareholder at around 7.5 percent compared with China’s 30 percent. Whether the AIIB (or indeed that other China initiative the BRICS Bank) actually make more than a modest impact on infrastructure investment remains to be seen. In much of Asia, needed infrastructure is not getting built not for lack of money but of implementation capacity and domestic political and bureaucratic obstacles as in India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

At one level, neighbors see China’s initiatives as a natural outcome of its size and financial clout. Yet at the same time it is increasingly perceived as reflecting a sense of entitlement to be Asia’s arbiter or at least to be able to override the interests of lesser neighbors – as evidenced by its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

This is not just opportunism on Beijing’s part. It reflects a world view, promoted by Chinese versions of history as described in text books and museums, in which neighbours periodically paid tribute to the Chinese emperor. The fact that exchanges of gifts to smooth trading relations had no political significance at the time is airbrushed away in favor of a picture of loose hegemony.

The weaker neighbors thus resort to attempts to balance their commercial interests in dealing with China with their security ones which require strengthening links with the US, Japan and India.

The supposed benefits of massive infrastructure spending to create the One Belt One Road links within and beyond Asia are being viewed in India at least as more strategic than economic. In particular they are seen to spur Chinese penetration into central Asia and into the Indian Ocean. India is embarrassed that despite a population which is expected to exceed China’s within a dozen years, remains far behind in terms of economic and military might. But there is no way that India will accept that as a natural and permanent condition. Thus just as China seeks to keep its security and commercial interests aligned, India will try to separate them. Increasingly too India is seeing its own security issues not just in terms of the Indian Ocean and China’s close cooperation with Pakistan. The issues of the vital waters originating on the Tibet plateau is in the rights of Delhi, and thus by extension the status of a region which was once a powerful independent state.

Indian Ocean politics are themselves currently too complex for long-term strategy. India for example has, with good reason, long had good ties with an Iran uneasy about Pakistan. Yet now as a lever against the US and Saudi Arabia it is cosying up to Beijing and welcoming China’s naval presence in the region. This is probably just opportunism like the Russia-China axis which has no basis in the long term aspirations of either state.

The gradual weakening of US (and other western) power is not simply a consequence of China’s rise. It has opened the way for Asian rivalries to assume importance while also being part of a global picture involving the Russians, central Asians, Arabs and Iranians.

As for Southeast Asia, 40 years of peace and prosperity under the US/Japan economic and strategic umbrella is now being disturbed. Regional stability is no longer a given. However, much as nations may at times have resented US presumptions and lectures, balances are now being upset which not only complicate regional affairs but may well have unpredictable domestic political impact. Even national boundaries may again come to the forefront as others follow China in casting doubts over the validity of lines drawn by colonial powers, or international laws such as UNCLOS devised by institutions deemed western-dominated. Equally non-Hans who became Chinese thanks to Qing imperialism may find foreign friends to back struggles for independence.