The 16th Asian Security Conference (ASC), held at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), in February 2014, on Emerging Strategic Trends in Asia and India’s Response, had an interesting mix of scholars from China, Japan, Vietnam and Australia and some other countries, along with the Indian component from IDSA and other institutions.
The bare facts of Asia’s geopolitics were set into motion in the very first session. Yan Xuetong, an influential figure in the Chinese foreign policy process, speaking on “Bipolarization in East Asia“, categorically stated that in the next ten years, China and the US will emerge as the major powers in international politics capable of competing with each other. As the only country capable of posing a challenge to the US, especially after Russia’s decline since 1992, a change in China’s foreign policy is visible with its New Model of Major Power Relations (NMMPR) which indicates that the relationship between China and the US will be competitive if not cooperative, but it will not be confrontational. Xuetong cautioned that while national interest drives international politics among states, China is worried about the turn of events in East Asia, especially the ideology of Japan, if not its military capability. Ideology has been instrumental in causing wars, like the Cold War between the US and erstwhile USSR. Differing with Xuetong, Sujit Dutta, who presented “Asia’s power transition: uncertain future of stability and peace”, elaborated on three factors that impacts Asia’s power transition. First, globalization, which has resulted in China’s integration into international institutions leading to huge capital flows, trade, and interdependence, even between China and Japan and China and South Korea. Globalization has created overlapping interests, norms and structures in Asia leading to huge growth patterns in the Indo-Pacific. Second, globalization has changed the state system in Asia. Due to social media and satellite based communications, there have been calls for social change by popular movements. Even within China, popular movements have called for political, economic and land reforms, and fight against corruption, etc. Hence, the international relations of Asia will have to account for these domestic forces. Third, balance of power in Asia is superimposed due to the US-China factor.
During informal interaction when I asked Xuetong why, despite peace and tranquility agreements, Chinese PLA had upped the ante against India by aggressive cross border incursions during 2013, he asked how I claimed so. I replied that as a retired army officer, I knew about them from reliable army sources. While IDSA scholar Dr. S Kalyanaraman clarified that in India the public had a right to know about such matters, I added that Indian media was quite resourceful and that we accepted and appreciated that in China, the media is controlled by the Communist party.
Former director of Japan’s defence intelligence, Vice Admiral Fumio Ota’s paper titled ‘Chinese military expansion and other Asian states’ reaction’ was the most informative one on the Chinese long term aims and the exceptional pace of its military build up. Referring to Military Balance 2012/2013 issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), People’s Liberation Army(PLA) Air Force created 10 fourth generation fighter squadrons during 2011-2012. This is the same as the entire Japanese Air Self Defense (JASDF) fourth generation fighter squadrons. From 2001 to 2005, China built 16 new submarines which is the number of submarines in the current Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s (JMSDF) order of battle. The subsequent five year period between 2006 and 2010 the Chinese increased their building rate, producing 22 submarines, which equals the total number that JMSDF is planning to build up to ,according to the latest National Defense Program Guidelines. Chatting with me, Vice Admiral Ota acknowledged the importance of Japan’s maritime cooperation with India. It is noteworthy that the strain in India-Japan relations following India’s nuclear test of 1998 didnot at all affect the ongoing cooperation between both nations’ coast guards. An interview of India’s then Defence Minister George Fernandes by a Japanese TV news agency, in which he elaborated on India’s threat perceptions/ reasons for the 1998 nuclear test, was in fact very well-received in Japan.
However, it is the recent visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India which boosted the India-Japan Global and Strategic Partnership. With the thirdIndian Navy (IN) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) bilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean in 2014, where Japan supports India’s presence, the other very significant agreements are civilian nuclear cooperation, Japan’s sale of US2 amphibian aircraft to India and regular consultations between the national security advisors of bothcountries. Also, in view of the recent Chinese policy of declaring an AirDefense Identification Zone (ADIZ), defied by Japan, South Korea, Philippines and surprisingly on which India took a stand, both Prime Ministers underscored the importance of freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the recognized principles of international law and the relevant standards and recommended practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Takenori Horimoto from Japan looked at “How is power transition in Asia taking place?” He described US, Japan andAustralia as the status quo states andChina as the revisionist state. In terms of ASEAN, despite its focus on cooperative security, ASEAN’s interests were opaque. China, with its growth in power, has been inclined to question Asian power structures and has asserted that Indian Ocean cannot be just limited to India.
Michael Wesley from Australia highlighted the importance of maritime in Asia’s new geopolitics, especially reemergence of the old trading highway discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1492. Heargued that the Indo-Pacific is emergingas an important strategic realm in the heart of Eurasia. This has given rise to two contradictory trends: economic interdependence and rising strategic rivalry. Wesley indicated that while China and India have enjoyed growth, this growth is dependent on energy imports. Wesley indicated that China’s rise has resulted in strategic rivalry in Asia, with tightening partnerships between Japan and South Korea, Japan and India, and an increase in the purchase of maritime naval systems in Asia.
According to Dr Uttam Sinha, IDSA Fellow and editor of two of its publications, the 16thASC, was “significant for its thought provoking and provocative deliberations. The candid and often blunt expressions by the speakers of the emerging strategic trends in Asia left the audience at times gasping for breath. Not an inch was asked for andnot an inch given. The speakers spoke with courage and conviction and the quality of discussion and participation was unprecedented. The conference discussed the structural dimensions of Asian geopolitics, the impact ofbipolarity and multipolarity, shifts andanxieties related to power transition and an uncertain future, and the maritime dimension. The theme very effectively brought out the interplay with the geophysical, the geo-economics and the geopolitical”.
During the final panel discussion on ’India’s Response’, chaired by IDSA’s DG, Dr Arvind Gupta, issues of Asia-Pacific as a zone of conflict or cooperation in future were discussed. While India was largely hailed for playing a stabilizing role in Asia, the panellists however felt that the country needed significant domestic and economic reforms and governance. India was urged to identify priorities clearly,make a clear ideological map and takeinitiative, in both near and extended neighbourhood. The panellists exhorted India to try to consolidate its position in the Bay of Bengal and to explore options and work out agreements with South East Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. Panelists also stressed that India should be more assertive, active in shaping regional order, take initiative in cyber and water where it has strength.
Lt Col Anil Bhat is the Associate Editor