Instead of indulging in aggressive posturing, leaders of the region must recognise shifting dynamics and strengthen the East Asian Summit as the mechanism to resolve differences

Three high-level meetings in the past month, between the Prime Ministers of India and China, of Japan and India, and the summit between the Presidents of the U.S. and China have placed an intensified focus on the new dynamics of Asian politics.

Before the previous century ended, many scholars rushed to predict that the 21st century would be “Asia’s century.” This view emerged partly from the theory of Asia’s turn, considering that the 19th was the “British century” and the 20th was the “American century.” In part, it was in recognition of the rise of China, India and other Asian powers. A decade into the present century, however, enthusiasm for Asia stands diminished as realities of global politics assert themselves. During my recent travels to Japan, China, Russia and three Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, I witnessed parts of this new Asian drama and picked up a few clues about the future.

India is a central player on the Asian stage. “Asia” of strategic literature may not really begin at the Suez Canal, stretching up to the Sea of Japan, even though many Indian experts prefer to define Asian space as “the Indo-Pacific Region.” But, unlike in the past, even the narrower definition now unanimously includes India. To Asian governments and strategic communities, “Asia” means “Asia-Pacific” and its composition is seen as identical to the membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS), namely 10 members of ASEAN, six “dialogue partners” and two “Pacific” powers, viz the U.S. and Russia. How their internal dynamics work today came through, with remarkable lucidity, at the “Asia-Pacific Roundtable,” the major Track II conference held in Kuala Lumpur in early June.

China-U.S. relations

China, the drama’s chief protagonist, is undoubtedly the single most important factor which has drawn world attention to the region, justifying the perception that power has been shifting from the west to the east. Until recently, the country was on its “charm offensive” engaged in developing cooperation with neighbours and sharing the fruits of its growing wealth with them. But with expanding treasures came the ability and will to spend huge sums on military hardware and technology, a desire to push old territorial and maritime claims, and consequent flashes of aggressive behaviour. This was a novel development which ASEAN, the main grouping of the region’s states — big and small, sought to address through “the ASEAN way,” i.e. through consultations and consensus, but it failed. Among many reasons for it, two important ones related to fundamental tensions between China and Japan and the complex situation in the Korean peninsula where North Korea, an erstwhile puppet of China, continues to defy everyone and head towards developing a nuclear arsenal of its own. Apart from the robust U.S. response, these reasons may partially explain China’s insecurity, reflected in greater aggressiveness.

The U.S., the country which enjoyed unchallenged supremacy, looks at China somewhat warily. It worries about devising the best strategy on how to grapple with China’s rising power at a time when economic interdependence between the U.S. and China has assumed unprecedented proportions. Responding to requests from ASEAN and the others, the U.S., under Obama 1.0, sought to stage “the pivot” towards Asia by ensuring to enhance its military footprint in the region. When Beijing complained that the U.S. was reverting to the Cold War era policy of “containing” China, the projection from Washington changed. The preferred vehicle now was a “re-balancing” of U.S. strategic responsibilities in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, although little substantial difference was detected between the two postures. At the Kuala Lumpur conference, Ambassador Christopher Hill, a top former U.S. official, asserted that there would be a further policy “re-calibration.” While hedging its bets, the U.S. has no option but to devise cooperative arrangements and avoid conflict in Asia. The U.S. and China are unlikely to advance towards “cold war” or “hot war.” Their future relationship may be stamped by a blend of “cooperation, competition, rivalry and periodic tensions.”

Tier II powers

It may hurt our pride but a realistic assessment shows that India, along with Japan, is a Tier II power, not exactly in the same upper category as China and the U.S. A frank recognition of the fact should help us to craft and pursue a dependable policy to handle Asia’s complexities. New Delhi gave a clear glimpse of how it intended to address the task as it hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on his first visit to India prior to Dr. Singh’s visit to Japan.

India wants cooperation, not conflict, with China. It aims at a relationship based on genuine mutual trust, respect and benefit. In essence, it seeks an equal partnership; it would optimally resist domination of the region by China. These motivations, combined with Tokyo’s own tortured relationship with Beijing, provide a strong foundation for the Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan that the two Prime Ministers proclaimed recently. Economic interests bring them closer together, reinforced by the strategic need to establish a viable balance of power in the region. They look to other democratic countries — Australia, South Korea, ASEAN — for their contribution to ensure that forces favouring cooperation prevail over those elements that could drag the region towards conflict. The proposed “alliance for democracy,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s favourite idea, cannot, however, work if it is structured in patently anti-China terms. This explains why India strives for creating a better balance of power, but stays in the forefront advocating an inclusive regional architecture. We need to strengthen East Asia Summit as the regional mechanism to resolve inter-state differences through negotiations. Proposals for a new friendship treaty, advanced by Indonesia and Russia recently, deserve favourable consideration in this context.

Understanding China

Madam Fu Ying, a leading political figure in China today, was vocal, at the Kuala Lumpur conference, in defining “the Chinese dream.” She explained that China’s new leadership simply wanted a better life for every Chinese citizen, stressing that “the Chinese dream” was part of “the larger Asian dream.” She revealed how her political colleagues often wondered why the world could not understand China’s friendly approach and why China’s neighbourhood is “so unquiet.” I asked her whether it occurred to Beijing’s political elite that tensions in the neighbourhood might have something to do with China’s policy and actions too. Her response was that she “had not heard anything about it.” But our exchange confirmed the chasm between China’s words and actions. If the chasm narrows, trust may enhance, but if it widens, trust will be a further casualty.

Way ahead

In short, the chances of an “Asian century” materialising are mixed at present. They may improve only if Asia’s leading powers begin to do what they are saying and say frankly what they are doing. They also need to reread Europe’s history. To reconcile conflicting national interests, war is not the only option. Sustained dialogue, backed by strong political will, can work. The EAS conference room is where Asian leaders should be spending more time rather than plotting to send soldiers to remote Ladakh, naval ships to the South China Sea and fishing vessels to the East China Sea.

(Rajiv Bhatia, a former ambassador, is director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs. The views expressed are personal.)

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