The possibility of a looming new cold war was on most attendees’ minds at the recent Asia-Pacific Roundtable on Asian Security Governance and Order in Kuala Lumpur. Hanging over the meeting was the reality of an increasingly influential and assertive China, and the anxiety this has created in the United States.
What was striking, however, was that, at least among some of the regional states in attendance, the perception is that China’s growing power in the region is wholly benign. Malaysian Prime Minister Razak, for instance, said that he would not belittle “the positive transformational effects China’s ascendancy has and will continue to have on Asia and beyond.” Mahathir Mohammed, the elder statesman of Malaysia, went even further by suggesting that because China has never colonized Asian countries in the way Europe once did, Malaysia might have more reason to fear modern Europe than modern China.
China’s own perceptions about security in Asia and the Pacific called this logic into question. The Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN spelled out the Chinese position on the South China Sea, making light of the repercussions of Chinese assertiveness on this matter. Other Chinese scholars openly admitted that confrontation with the U.S. was inevitable, as the U.S. rebalance towards Asia was aimed squarely at China and posed a direct threat to it, even well admitting that the two countries shared an interest in proceeding with cautious pragmatism. This is likely to generate greater cooperation between the two.
By China’s own admission, moreover, its impressive rise in the region was forcing weaker countries to perform the feat of “putting legs on two boats.” Many ASEAN nations seemed to more or less agree with this assessment. For example, the Indonesian Foreign Minister said that each country in the region is “worried” about having to choose between two competing sides. “We do not want to be put into that position,” FM Marty Natalegawa said. “The Pacific is sufficiently accommodating to provide not only the role of China and the U.S., but of emerging powers too.” An ASEAN spokesperson later added that ASEAN would not like to dictate the roles of different powers in the region. Instead, it would rather act like a flight controller at a busy airport, making sure that all planes arrive and depart without collision.
But sooner or later, countries in the region will have to develop a cohesive Asian strategy to deal with the challenge of Chinese assertiveness. In contrast to many of the ASEAN powers, India and the U.S. seem to understand this reality. This is pushing them towards greater cooperation.
The U.S., for example, has decided to reorient its foreign policy to give greater attention to the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. President Obama was candid about Washington’s’ strategic objectives in the region when he stated, “I am determined that we meet the challenges of the moment responsibly and that we emerge even stronger in a manner that preserves American global leadership and maintains our military superiority.” The real debate in America today is not about the importance of Asia, but rather over what the best methods are for the U.S. to engage the region.
India too understands what’s at stake. To be sure, like the U.S., India has an interest in working with the U.S., China, and other countries in revamping the regional security system in a way that is compatible with India’s own interests. Furthermore, India has tried to smooth over tensions with China by identifying the issues- particularly multilateral ones like international trade, the global financial system, and the environment, in which cooperation with China can be enhanced.
Nonetheless, New Delhi is under no illusions about the potential challenges a rising China creates. At least two of these stretch back decades, and yet, because of their intractable nature, continue to animate Sino-Indian relations. These include: the unsettled border between the two countries and Beijing’s continued support of Pakistan. In addition, China’s military modernization, focusing as it does on the PLA Navy, has also raised the possibility of Beijing coming to dominate the sea-lanes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This would simply be unacceptable for India.
India-U.S. relations have undoubtedly benefitted from the changing dynamics of the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, both sides were all smiles when External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in June for the third round of their bilateral strategic dialogue. That is not to say that the issues that have bedeviled the bilateral relationship over the last two years had disappeared. They hadn’t. Nonetheless, they had been sidelined in favor of focusing on the larger, long-term objectives in which U.S. and Indian interests happily coincide.
The impetus for focusing on these larger issues, of course, was the growing tensions between China and some of the ASEAN nations over the South China Sea, which coincided with the strategic dialogue. Even as the disputes in the South China Sea have continued throughout the summer, new tensions have emerged between China, South Korea, and Japan over maritime sovereignty issues in the East China Sea.
As these developments have unfolded the U.S. has largely cast aside its initial doubts about India and begun to embrace it as the “lynchpin” of its new security architecture. This was made evident by Secretary Leon Panetta during his trip to India immediately prior to the strategic dialogue, when he sought to enlist India as a partner in Asia-Pacific, whatever may have been the irritants in the past.
The elaborate Joint Statement issued at the end of the strategic dialogue makes the context very clear. “The U.S. and India have a shared vision of peace, stability, and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and the Pacific region and are committed to work together, and with others in the region, for the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture.” It’s rare for Indo-U.S. statements to express the unified role of the two countries in the region in such stark terms.
Nor were these just empty words. Indeed, real changes are already being seen. For instance, the U.S., once wary of upsetting Pakistan by encouraging India to take an active role in Afghanistan, now seeks out new opportunities to intensify the efforts of the two countries for consultation, coordination, and cooperation in promoting a stable, democratic, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan. This has gone so far as Washington putting aside its decades-long opposition to regional projects that involve the Islamic Republic of Iran. For example, even as U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorate, Washington has suggested it would support a proposal for India and Afghanistan to help develop Iran’s Chabahar Port in order to facilitate greater trade among these three countries.
The references to defense relations in the joint statement are of particular importance. Instead of continuing dwell on India’s fighter aircraft contract not going to a U.S. company, the statement celebrated the fact that India had awarded defense contracts worth $9 billion USD in recent years to U.S. companies. It noted the many joint military exercises and exchanges that have been held over the last six years, and reaffirmed both sides desire to strengthen defense cooperation through increased technology transfers.
None of this is to say that an intense strategic rivalry between India and the U.S. on the one hand, and China on the other is inevitable. Indeed, New Delhi is likely to continue seeking ways to ameliorate tensions with China by cooperating on issues where both countries’ have similar interests.
Some also hope that India and China will find ways to dampen their running disputes. Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, together with an Indian and a Chinese scholar, has suggested an India-China diplomatic structure to monitor these issues and to find temporary, if not permanent solutions.
Nonetheless, given China’s present assertiveness, these solutions are likely to prove unworkable. As they do, India will have to search for ways to provide for its own security in the larger context of the evolving regional environment, rather than bilaterally with China. In this sense, greater U.S. involvement may be an important factor.
Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan is the Vice-Chairman and Executive Head of the Kerala State Higher Education Council with the rank of Vice-Chancellor. In his 37-year career with the Indian Foreign Service, he served in many distinguished positions including Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Vienna, Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vienna, and Ambassador to Austria and Slovenia (2000-2004), among many other positions.