Asia’s Strategic Landscape: Continuity and Change
Image Credit: The White House

Asia’s Strategic Landscape: Continuity and Change


The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with Muthiah Alagappanon-resident Senior Associate in the Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia, Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Change, and Asian Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features – is the ninth in “The Rebalance Insight Series.

Please explain the nature of Asia’s strategic landscape.

Although it has become fashionable to talk about a transformed or transforming Asian strategic landscape, I believe that landscape is characterized by both continuity and change. Continuity stems from the fact that most Asian countries, which became free of colonial rule only in the post-World War II period, continue to be engaged in contested processes of making nations and states that are likely to endure for several more decades, if not centuries, with no set terminal point. As in other parts of the world, change including progress, setbacks and reversals, should be expected. For now nation-making concerns center on forging single, unified nations out of multiple peoples inhabiting territories claimed by the state, unifying divided nations or seeking autonomy if not outright independence for certain peoples. State-making concerns center among others on developing widely accepted political systems for the acquisition and exercise of state power, devolving state power to local levels, and the desire of several incumbents – parties and individuals – to hold on to state power in perpetuity. Most violent conflicts in Asia including those on the Korean peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, between India and Pakistan and the numerous so-called minority struggles for autonomy and independence are grounded in contentions over nation and state-making projects. Future conflict may also arise from contestations over limitations imposed from above on public political participation and competition for state power especially in countries with one-party dominant political systems. In light of their primary focus on nation and state-making challenges, political leaderships in Asian countries do not envision a clear break between domestic and international concerns. Their international behavior has and will continue to be shaped by concerns relating to winning domestic struggles over nation and state-making.

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The change dimension in the Asian strategic landscape stems primarily from the sustained rapid economic growth of Asian countries especially China over the last several decades. China is now the world’s second largest economy followed by Japan. Asia has become one of the three core economic regions of the world with growing interest on the part of Asian powers in reshaping global and regional orders to increase their weight and influence in those orders. Rapid economic growth has also enabled Asian countries to devote greater resources to military modernization and build-up contributing to change in the strategic landscape. Interest in reordering regional and global orders, preserving territorial integrity and sovereignty, and resisting “imperial” domination frequently pits certain Asian powers, especially China, against the United States which will continue to be the primus inter pares power in the region for several more decades. Consequently, the China-U.S. dynamic is growing in significance in the Asian strategic landscape. Although this dynamic could become a de facto fault line, thus far it has not fundamentally altered existing dynamics of the numerous conflicts in the region. In the foreseeable future the foreign and security policies of Asian countries will be driven by the symbiosis of continuity and change with strong emphasis on territorial integrity, preserving sovereignty, resisting imperial domination, and increasing their weight and influence in regional and global orders.

How does the dynamic of continuity and change affect the future of U.S. rebalance in Asia?

The U.S. rebalance is incomplete in that it basically seeks to address the change dimension in the Asian strategic landscape arising from the growing economic and military power of Asian countries. It does not relate to the continuity in the landscape: nation and state-making challenges in Asia. Consequently, the rebalance has been muscular and heavy on the military dimension. Emphasis on the military dimension is important, but if not finely calibrated, it can also be counterproductive. In addition to shoring up U.S. alliances to ensure a “favorable” balance of power in the region, U.S. regional military strategy must also cohere with the ASEAN goal of ensuring no country dominates the region. U.S. engagement in the region must aim at constructing rule-governed inter-state interaction, settlement of outstanding disputes among them and countering security threats posed by non-state actors.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) when concluded would strengthen the economic dimension of the rebalance. In addition to writing the rules of trade in the Asia-Pacific region, the TPP could become the standard for global trade. However, the U.S. economic rebalance in Asia must go beyond the TPP to encompass most or all key aspects of economic order in the region.  Most important, the rebalance as presently articulated and understood does not address the political dimension beyond stating that democracy and human rights are universal values.  The rebalance is weak on political development. Recognizing the limits of external actors, the U.S. should encourage political development institutions and processes to bring about peaceful change in all political matters. It must especially urge and nudge friends and allies to embark on political development. More thought is required on the purpose, content and operationalization of the political dimension. The key point is that rebalance must become more comprehensive to include political, economic and military dimensions.

What is the geopolitical impact of a P5+1 Iranian nuclear deal on Asia?        

A nuclear deal with Iran when reached will be important in its own right. However, it will have limited or no impact on Asia’s strategic environment. For example, it is unlikely to affect North Korea’s nuclear capability or the response of other Asian countries to the nuclear program of that country. I am not a believer in any kind of domino theory especially in the nuclear domain. Countries develop or forego the development of nuclear weapon capability based on their security circumstances, their technological know-how situation and the costs they are willing to bear. Further, contrary to conventional wisdom I believe that the slow spread of nuclear weapons in Asia has strengthened strategic stability. Without doubt this is a small minority viewpoint, but which I hold to be true.

What is the strategic context of civil society in Asia’s political change?  

Political development in Asia especially East Asia has lagged economic growth.  Many of the political structures and systems in East Asia are unsustainable. Public political participation and competition for state power are inevitable in an era of popular sovereignty. Parties and individuals who seek political domination in perpetuity will inevitably fail. Likewise, peoples who resist incorporation into other nations cannot be indefinitely controlled by coercion. Countries in Asia will have to accept competition for state power, devolution of that power to local authorities, genuine autonomy and if necessary outright independence for certain peoples. Civil societies can play important roles in political development in Asia. However, that role may not always expand democratic space.

How might the next U.S. administration optimize U.S. leadership in Asia’s evolving security order?

The U.S. can and should play important roles in constructing the evolving Asian security order. Wherever possible it must act in concert with other Asian countries and ASEAN. In addition to balancing the growing power of China and ensuring no one country dominates Asia, the primary focus of the U.S. in Asia must be on constructing rules of interaction including the use of force and settlement of outstanding disputes. It must also play a role in developing more complex and nuanced understandings of concepts like nation, state and sovereignty to enable peaceful change in political systems, constitution of the nation and in national political maps as in the United Kingdom and Canada. This may be a difficult role for the U.S. as its own understanding and practice of these concepts appear for the most part to be rooted in the past. Engaging in a common learning process may be fruitful. U.S. rebalance and leadership role in Asia will continue to be important but also contentious.  The ultimate goal of U.S. engagement in Asia should be to foster peaceful change through the inculcation of liberal political and economic values that sustain and further develop international norms, rules, institutions and processes it helped construct in the aftermath of World War II.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.

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