In a potentially conflicted setting, marked by increased political restlessness, rising nationalism, and growing competition for natural resources, the stability of Asia in the 21st century will depend in part on the status of two overlapping regional triangles centered on China – and how the United States responds to each. The first pertains to China, India, and Pakistan. The second is tied to China, Japan, and Korea, with the Southeast Asian states playing a supporting role. In the case of the former, Pakistan could be the major point of contention and the precipitating source of instability. In the case of the latter, Korea (both South and North) and/or possibly also Taiwan could become the focus of insecurity.
In both cases, the United States is still the key player, with the capacity to alter balances and affect outcomes. It therefore needs to be stated at the outset that the United States should avoid direct military involvement in conflicts between rival Asian powers. No outcome of either a Pakistani-Indian war, or of one also involving China, is likely to produce consequences more damaging to U.S. interests than a direct U.S. military engagement on the Asian mainland. Indeed, the latter could even precipitate a wider chain reaction of ethnic and religious instability in Asia.
The foregoing obviously does not apply to existing U.S. treaty obligations to Japan and South Korea, where U.S. forces are actually deployed. Moreover, the United States should certainly use its international influence to discourage the outbreak of warfare, to help contain it if it does, and to avoid a one-sided outcome as its conclusion. But such efforts should entail the participation of other powers potentially also affected by any major regional instability in Asia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The first triangle involves competition for Asian primacy. China and India are already major players on the international scene. India is the world’s second most populous country and its economy has been taking off; its formal democratic structure and its future viability, meanwhile, could be a possible alternative to China’s authoritarian model. China, for its part, is already the world’s number two economic power, and before too long that is likely to be the same with regard to its military capacity as it rapidly emerges as an ascending global power. But the Chinese-Indian relationship is inherently competitive and antagonistic, with Pakistan being the regional point of contention. Both countries are the strategic captives of their subjective feelings, and of their geopolitical contexts. The Indians envy the Chinese economic and infrastructural transformation, while the Chinese are contemptuous of India’s relative backwardness (on the social level most dramatically illustrated by the asymmetrical levels of literacy of their respective populations) and of its lack of discipline. The Indians fear Chinese-Pakistani collusion; the Chinese feel vulnerable to India’s potential capacity to interfere with Chinese access through the Indian Ocean to the markets of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
The United States’ role in this rivalry should be cautious and detached. A prudent U.S. policy, especially in regard to an alliance with India, should not, however, be interpreted as indifference to India’s potential role as an alternative to China’s authoritarian political model. India offers promise for the future, especially if it succeeds in combining sustained development with more pervasive democracy. Hence cordiality in relations with India is justified, though it should not imply support on such contentious issues as Kashmir nor imply that a cooperative relationship with India is aimed at China.