Maintaining a balance in Asia
Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012
By BRAHMA CHELLANEY
NEW DELHI — At a time when Asia's power dynamics remain fluid, with new military capabilities and resurgent border disputes challenging regional stability, U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are embarking on separate Asian tours that culminate with their participation in the East Asia Summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Singh's Tokyo visit seeks to cement a rapidly growing relationship between Japan and India — two natural allies — while Obama's historic visit to Myanmar promises to aid India's "Look East" policy by marking a formal end to a 24-year U.S. policy of punitively isolating a country that is the Indian gateway to Southeast Asia.
By undertaking an Asian tour shortly after his re-election, Obama has signaled that Asia will move up in importance in his second-term agenda. His previously announced "pivot" toward Asia actually chimes with India's "Look East" policy, which has graduated to an "Act East" policy, with the original economic logic of "Look East" giving way to a geopolitical logic.
The thrust of the new "Act East" policy — unveiled with the United States' blessings — is to contribute to building a stable balance of power in Asia by re-establishing India's historically close ties with countries to its east. India, in fact, has little choice but to look east because when it looks west, it sees only trouble. The entire belt to India's west from Pakistan to Syria is a contiguous arc of instability, volatility and extremism. A "Look East" policy allows India to join the economic dynamism that characterizes Southeast and East Asia.
It is in the east again that Indian and U.S. interests now converge significantly. The fundamental shift in the U.S. policy on Myanmar eliminates an important constraint on India's closer engagement with continental Southeast Asia.
India's new strategic ties with countries as varied as Japan, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam are important moves on the grand Asian chessboard to increase its geopolitical leeway. The U.S., for its part, has strengthened and expanded its security arrangements in Asia in recent years by making the most of the growing regional concerns over China's increasingly muscular approach on territorial and maritime disputes.
Both the U.S. and India have deepened their ties with Japan, which has a $5.5 trillion economy, impressive high-technology skills and Asia's largest naval fleet. The first serious Japan-India naval exercise was held five months ago involving a search-and-rescue operation.
India and Japan, despite their messy domestic politics and endemic scandals, actually boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today. Since they unveiled a "strategic and global partnership" in 2006, their engagement has grown dramatically. A free-trade agreement between the two countries entered into force last year. Their 2008 security declaration was modeled on Japan's 2007 defense-cooperation accord with Australia — the only other country with which Japan, a U.S. military ally, has a security-cooperation arrangement. The India-Japan security declaration, in turn, spawned a similar India-Australia accord in 2009.
Singh's Tokyo visit will likely set the stage for building closer bilateral security cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. At a time when India is reflecting on the lessons of its rout by the invading Chinese forces 50 years ago—the only foreign war communist China has won—Japan has been concerned by a new war of attrition China has launched by sending patrol ships daily to the waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands group that Beijing claims.
This physical assertiveness, which coincidentally began around the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Chinese military attack on India, followed often violent anti-Japanese protests in China in September and a continuing informal boycott of Japanese goods that has led to a sharp fall in Japan's exports.
India and Japan are set to sign a formal agreement for the joint development of rare-earth minerals in India. This will be the latest of several such international agreements since China used its monopoly on rare-earths production to cut off such exports to Japan and restrict sales to Western countries in 2010, prompting the U.S., the European Union and Japan to file a World Trade Organization complaint alleging that Beijing was using that monopoly as a weapon. Thanks to the various new agreements, production of these critical minerals is expanding at plants outside China, undercutting the Chinese monopoly.
At a time when Asia is troubled by growing security challenges, trilateral U.S.-India-Japan security consultations and cooperation are also taking place. These three democratic powers recently held their third round of security consultations in New Delhi, after similar meetings earlier in Washington and Tokyo.
These consultations are just one sign of their shift from emphasizing shared values to seeking to trilaterally protect shared interests. Their trilateral cooperation could lead to trilateral coordination, with a potentially positive impact on Asian security and stability.
The U.S. has conducted more joint defense exercises with India than with any other country. Japan has twice joined the annual U.S.-India Malabar naval exercises, and may do so again next year. U.S. defense sales to India, meanwhile, are booming, with America emerging as the largest arms seller to India. But now Japan could bag its first defense contract with India: In response to the Indian Navy's global request for information for nine amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft, Japan has offered to sell its ShinMaywa US-2, which can land on and take off from water.
More broadly, the nascent trilateral security cooperation may signal moves to form an entente among the three leading democracies of the Asia-Pacific, along the lines of the pre-World War I Franco-British-Russian "Triple Entente," which was designed to meet the challenge posed by the rise of an increasingly assertive Germany. The present steps, however, are still tentative, and meaningful trilateral security collaboration can emerge only in response to important shifts in the U.S., Japanese and Indian strategic policies, including a readiness to build trilateral military interoperability.
Such an entente's geopolitical utility, however, is likely to transcend its military value. A geopolitical entente, for example, can help strengthen maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region — the world's leading trade and energy seaway — and contribute to building a stable Asian power equilibrium.
A fast-rising Asia has become the defining fulcrum of global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now help to shape the international security and economic environment. Yet Asia, paradoxically, is bearing the greatest impact of such shifts, as underscored by the resurgence of Cold War-era territorial and maritime disputes.
A constellation of powers linked by interlocking bilateral, trilateral, and possibly even quadrilateral strategic cooperation has thus become critical to help institute power stability in Asia and to ensure a peaceful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of "Water: Asia's New Battlefield" (Georgetown University Press, 2011), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.