NEW DELHI – President Barack Obama’s first foreign trip since winning a second term highlights Asia’s new centrality to America’s economy and security. But Obama’s Asian tour also underscores the main question about American policy in the region: Will the United States’ “pivot” to Asia acquire concrete strategic content, or will it remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of old policies?
The United States, quick to capitalize on regional concerns triggered by China’s increasingly muscular self-assertion, has strengthened its military ties with its existing Asian allies and forged security relationships with new friends. But the heady glow of America’s return to center stage in Asia has obscured key challenges in remaining the region’s principal security anchor in the face of China’s strategic ambitions.
One challenge is the need to arrest the erosion of America’s relative power, which in turn requires comprehensive domestic renewal, including fiscal consolidation. But the need for spending cuts also raises the prospect that the US might be unable to finance a military shift toward the Asia-Pacific region – or, worse, that it will be forced to retrench there.
Attending conferences in Europe and the United States over the past three years, I have been struck by the increasing Western preoccupation with Asia’s rise, the growing influence of the rising powers of Asia, and the challenge they pose to Western values and norms governing international institutions. There is resistance to the idea that the rise of these powers will lead to changes in the decision-making practices of institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.
Although it is recognized that China, for example, should have a greater stake in international decision-making, the approach has been to ask whether China will abide by the rules set by the US and Europe after World War II. Europeans are particularly concerned about the decline of their influence and the norms and values that are espoused by them in global diplomacy as Asian powers seek a larger role in global affairs and assert their values.
TOKYO – China is now engaged in bitter disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, both located far beyond China’s 200-mile-wide territorial waters in the South China Sea. Indeed, so expansive are China’s claims nowadays that many Asians are wondering what will satisfy China’s desire to secure its “core interests.” Are there no limits, or does today’s China conceive of itself as a restored Middle Kingdom, to whom the entire world must kowtow?
So far, China has formally referred to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang province as “core interests,” a phrase that connotes an assertion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that will brook no compromise. Now China is attempting to apply the same term to the Senkaku Islands in its dispute with Japan, and is perilously close to making the same claim for the entire South China Sea; indeed, some Chinese military officers already have.
Asia’s rise as a locus of international financial and economic power only increases the need to better understand how changes in important structural factors impact security dynamics. In that context, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses held its 14th annual Asian Security Conference in New Delhi this month. The goal of the gathering, entitled “Nontraditional Security Challenges – Today and Tomorrow,” is “to capture the complex issues involved in Asia’s emergence as the new locus of international affairs in the 21st century and India’s emergence as a factor in the continent’s evolving economic, political and security dynamics.”
The IDSA, an ISN Partner, is an Indian think tank devoted to the study of global strategic and security issues. The organization is funded by the Indian Ministry of Defense, but functions autonomously. It has brought together academics, policy analysts, and officials from government and multilateral organizations, from various Asian countries as well as other parts of the world every year since 1999 to debate upon issues pertaining to Asian affairs.
Opening remarks at the conference were made by IDSA Director General Dr. Arvind Gupta, with a keynote address by Shri Shivshankar Menon, the national Security Advisor to the Indian prime minister. A special address was given by Roza Otunbayeva, former president of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. This meeting addressed the issues of water security, climate change, natural disasters, energy security, transnational crime, and financial and economic security. Each of these challenges has a related impact on food, water and energy resources, as well as implications for national economies and the movement of people, all of which fall between the short- and long-term and consequently are contributing factors to traditional security threats.
The IDSA is at the forefront of an effort to narrow the perception gap between about the relationship between non-traditional and traditional security issues. The hosting of this conference by an India-based organization is highlighted by the fact that India sits at the cross-roads of several important gateways to global power centers: including for energy, economic and trade hubs, sea lanes of communication, and maritime power. This point was highlighted by Ajit Doval in the closing plenary session of the 2011 ISF here in Zurich. Certainly in the case of Asia, the emergence of new threats and the changing context of regional security issues will increasingly become the centerpiece of policy and research agendas around the world.
As Asian economies keep posting positive growth numbers with the momentum for a full recovery shifting irreversibly to the East, and as banker’s bonuses and Wall Street profits return to pre-2007 days, the temptation to look away from the root causes of the global financial crisis is as great as ever. But has the chance to learn a valuable lesson really just been lost in the face of a fragile recovery?
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