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Updated: March 11, 2013 22:46 IST

Asian conflict trajectories

Swaran Singh
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Chennai: 08/03/2013: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Titale: Asian Rivalries. Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-Level Games. Author: Sumit Ganguly and William R. Thompson.
Chennai: 08/03/2013: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Titale: Asian Rivalries. Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-Level Games. Author: Sumit Ganguly and William R. Thompson.

An attempt to develop a theory of rivalry that can help predict conflict trajectories

Professor Sumit Ganguly is no stranger to scholars on and in South Asia. He has authored, co-authored and co-edited over a dozen books on different issues of South Asian security, mostly India-Pakistan and Kashmir. Professor William Thompson is equally well-known for his works in tracking long-term patterns of change in international systems. He has authored and co-authored over two-dozen books on international politics. They come together in this book project to understand enduring rivalries amongst Asian powers and to initiate research towards building a theory of rivalry that can predict trends of escalation and de-escalation. The book also seeks to examine the relevance of Robert Putnam’s famous two-level game theory in predicting trends in Asian rivalries.

At the very outset, the editors define rivalry as inter-state relationship “characterised by hostility, threat perception, and mistrust” where mutual interpretation of each other’s behaviour remains vulnerable to multiple political processes. These include (a) factional foreign policies involving competing domestic groups developing alternative foreign policies; (b) rivalry outbidding where factions agree on who is external enemy but compete in outlining tougher-than-thou policies; (c) diversion tactics of domestic leaders using external threats to distract attention from internal failures; (d) inter-departmental politics reflecting the tug-of-war amongst organisational interest; and (e) threat inflation where leaders exaggerate threats to gain domestic support for expanded foreign policy or higher defence expenditures.

This research design is chosen for two reasons. First, Asia not only contains largest populations but has become so central to the global economic system. Second, rivalries have been the main vehicle of interstate conflicts in Asia and can provide an ideal tool to predict their future. But in face of dozens of rivalries across Asia, the book selects only seven rivalries that the editors believe to be most enduring, resilient, and influential. Predictably, five of these rivalries involve China that lies at the centre of Asian rivalries with “most rivalry experience” and “with rivalries connections to South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.” In addition to China’s rivalries with the U.S., Russia, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, the book examines two critical dyads of two-Koreas and India-Pakistan.

China at the centre

Andrew Scobell, who examines Asia’s most visible rivalry between China and Taiwan, finds it most inexplicable. The balance of power is so very lopsided that it does not ideally deserve to be treated as serious rivalry except that mere existence of Taiwan hits very hard at the domestic and international legitimacy of Communist Party’s rule over mainland China. Moreover, Taiwan has unleashed a process of democratisation to deal with the unprecedented rise of China, thereby shifting their contest from territory to identity. Besides, this rivalry becomes potent given the interest and interventions by several Western powers, especially the United States. Indeed, Taiwan seems to be the most dominant part of the larger China-U.S. rivalry examined by Lyle Goldstein. This is especially so because unlike other contentious issues in China-U.S. rivalry, China’s response with regard to Taiwan remains extremely emotive and therefore threatening.

China’s other rivalry with greatest potential for evolving system shaping capabilities is the one with India. Manjeet Pardesi builds his case stemming from their overlapping ‘spheres of influence’ which is interesting but not well-grounded. Contemporary connotations of spheres of influence have been and remain alien to these two countries to say the least. He examines the shifting sands of this rivalry using two episodes of China’s military crackdowns in Tibet in 1959 and 1987 and highlights the contrast in India’s response to these. He believes that much higher influence of media and military in India’s policy making in the second period was the reason why the two managed to avoid another war. Not enough weightage is given to tumultuous changes inside Chinese polity.

Rivalry between China and Russia, believes Lowell Dittmer, is fundamentally geopolitical in nature reflecting the historical contest between their territorial ambitions. This clearly is no longer the case and the two are no longer even seen as major rivals. China’s rivalry with Vietnam, which Brantly Womack describes as having moved “from intimate support to hostility to normalcy” is scripted by not deterministic but resilient asymmetry between two closed political systems. He calls this asymmetric rivalry as archetypical given that it has existed for over a millennium. It is also called enduring as it has withstood the metamorphoses in China’s fast expanding trade and investments into Vietnam. And the wild swings of this rivalry make Womack describe it as a barometer of China’s relationships with its neighbours.

Divided nations

Veteran Korea expert Samuel Kim examines Inter-Korean rivalry as something much beyond mere dyadic rivalry involving major global actors, especially the physical presence of U.S. forces. Approached from domestic politics perspective such rivalries should constitute zero-sum violent fratricidal conflicts to legitimise oneself as the sole successor state. But given its geographical location and small size, trends in Korean rivalry are not determined by Koreans themselves. This strategically located peninsula has been conquered, colonised, liberated, and divided thereby mutating a stunted identity of being “a shrimp among whales” of China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S.

And finally, the India-Pakistan rivalry that Paul Kapur calls the “quintessential” Asian rivalry seeks to explain the reasons not only for fluctuations but especially the “long peace” between liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 to the Kargil War of 1999. His long historical narrative is premised on the centrality of the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir. He sees this as result of two contradictory self-images of secular and theocratic states of India and Pakistan; this even as there have existed streams of religious fundamentalism in India and spots of secularism at least in Jinnah’s Pakistan. Overcautious on ensuring objectivity this well-known expert on India-Pakistan occasionally becomes elementary and repetitive and does not break any new ground on this over researched subject.

The book is firstly an attempt to evolve a rivalry theory for predicting the potential for conflict. Second, the editors wish to explore what makes rivalries ‘tick’ especially by examining the relative role of internal and external factors and forces. The conclusions in the first case are tenuous but those in the second are revealing.

Most chapters conclude that domestic politics had very little to do with the evolving trajectories of these rivalries. They explain that unlike ‘agents’ of liberal democracies who Putnam believed are constantly negotiating between domestic players and outside actors, ‘situations’ of rivalries remain far too vulnerable to external forces. Besides, most states under study do not qualify the criterion of being called liberal democracies. Is that what the editors wish to say without saying it?

This zero determinism of domestic politics seems a bit loaded. Starting from the recall of McArthur from Korean War to Vietnam War, the U.S. itself had witnessed determinism of domestic debates. Cultural Revolution for China remains another apt example. Each Asian nation has had such charged domestic debates on issues of rivalries. This sounds counterintuitive that in all these cases, domestic politics was never more influential than external politics. This may be partially so given that most of the authors are U.S.-based academics and have viewed Asian rivalries from an external perspective. Middle East for instance is viewed as distinct from Asia which is not how Asian scholars look at it.

(Swaran Singh is Professor for Diplomacy & Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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