The Asian challenge


ALTHOUGH the world attention is focused today on a new ‘Cold War’ in Europe, it is in Asia that the prospects of global peace and prosperity will be determined. Asia is now the world’s most economically dynamic region.

Within two decades, most of the world’s largest economic and military powers will be in Asia. But, Asia also has vast poverty; it is geographically, ethnically and politically diverse; plagued by numerous territorial disputes; in the midst of multiple transitions — strategic, political, economic, social and cultural. It is thus a volatile and dangerous place.

Many powerful actors play a role in Asia. Yet, the central relationship which will affect Asia, for good or bad, is the one between the US and China.

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The US and China are now deeply interdependent for economic growth, national security and global stability. During the past four decades, Sino-US relations have not been confrontational. This could change. There are growing differences on a series of issues: military, political, economic and social. Unless these are wisely addressed, Asia may become embroiled in a cold, or even a ‘hot’, war. Decisions and developments on a number of issues are likely to determine the future of Asia.

First, military postures and deployments. When China was invaded and divided by the European colonial powers, it was the world’s largest economy, as it will be again. China’s desire for military security is understandable. The US is a Pacific and global power. Its presence in Asia is natural. What matters is the nature of the US, Chinese and other military deployments in Asia. Are these threatening and adversarial in nature?

Thus, deployment of forces on borders and sensitive areas; or the deployment of inherently offensive and destabilising military systems, like anti-ballistic missiles, can be seen as threatening and invite responses that could spiral into military confrontation. A Sino-US military dialogue can help to avoid costly mistakes.

Second, military alliances. These are adversarial by definition. There is no need for rival military blocs in Asia. The creation of alliances, formal or informal, by the US with countries on China’s periphery, is likely to create the very outcome sought to be avoided. Asia should learn lessons from Europe’s bad and good experiences and build ‘cooperative’ security.

In this, several Asian powers — India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia — can play a positive role, primarily by eschewing incorporation in rival alliances and building security in Asia’s ‘sub-regions’. Russia too is an Asian power. Its positions will influence Asian events. Given memories of the past, Japan’s more muscular posture is likely to evoke a generally negative Asian response. Australia will need to balance its Anglo-Saxon ties with its economic interdependence with China.

Third, territorial disputes. Each of the numerous disputes afflicting Asia needs to be patiently and constructively addressed, principally by adherence to international law and mutual accommodation. The resolution of the maritime disputes in the East and South China Sea is essential. But it would be counterproductive to try and secure solutions by attempting to ‘isolate’ China.

South Asia also requires strategic attention. The festering dispute over Kashmir and the ongoing Indo-Pakistan conventional and nuclear arms race, in combination, have created the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in the world today. The nuclear negotiations with Iran can produce a durable solution only if a broad strategic understanding is achieved involving Saudi Arabia and other West Asian powers.

North Korea’s erratic behaviour requires patient management and reassurance regarding regime survival. The six-power forum is also a good vehicle to stabilise the complex relationships in Northeast Asia.

Ironically, combating terrorism provides a promising basis for cooperation among almost all Asian powers. The Muslim world is particularly affected by this phenomenon. But, counterterrorism can succeed only if there is willingness to address the root causes of terrorism. These causes are different in each area; but they are all political in nature. Among these causes are the visible instances of the suppression of Muslim peoples, as in Palestine and Kashmir.

Fourth, trade and development. The recent global financial crisis has led to a visible reversal of globalisation and a revival of state mercantilism. The creation of trade blocs that attempt to exclude China or other major economies will retard progress and exacerbate political and military rivalries. It is vital to re-launch global efforts for trade, financial and services liberalisation through the World Trade Organisation and the UN. Technological progress now offers the possibility, including in the field of energy, to enhance production, consumption and growth on a universal and sustainable basis. Despite the recent slowdown, Asia will continue to be the world economy’s central dynamo.

Fifth, ideology. Now that capitalism has been universally embraced, it is the promotion of democracy and human rights that has become the rallying cry for the West. Democracy versus authoritarianism is the new ideological divide. Realising the common good will have to be achieved by each country and society according to its own circumstances. Attempts to impose Western concepts and practices will continue to be resisted by most Asian powers, promote instability and provoke confrontation.

Last, like other regions, Asia can benefit from effective institutions of cooperation. The institutions created after the Second World War — the UN Security Council, the IMF and World Bank — are now outdated and need to be restructured to reflect current realities, particularly those in Asia. Asia also needs to create its own region-wide economic and political organisations — such as Europe’s OECD and the OSCE — to build cooperative security and prosperity.

By MUNIR AKRAM; a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

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