If the Global War on Terror was the tag word of the last decade, for this one, it has to the Rise of Asia. Of course, we could also use another related label, the Relative Decline of the West. But, I prefer the former because, being a student of ‘critical’ geopolitics, I understand the importance of perspectives.
And, yes, some unfinished business of the last decade had carried on into this one, and might even carry on into the next. Who knows what craziness can unfold, anytime and anywhere? But the dominant theme will be the tectonic shift of power relations.
(A side note: One of the main reasons why I’m almost in love with geopolitics is its proclivity to metaphor. Anyone familiar with only the basics of geopolitics – space and place – will know what I’m talking about! It’s all in the mind, our ancient Vedic sages used to, it’s all in the mind.)
Getting back. That this is a period of ‘great change’ in the world is clear and how the world will be at the end of this interregnum, as it is called, we can only assume, but what I’m most interested in is how the process of change itself will unfold. In what terms, or on what terms, will Asia rise. And who will define these terms?
The big boy, of course, is China. And to put it simply and as it is, the West is very wary. Considering the greatest events of the past century, the two World Wars or the one European Civil War (call it what you want), this is even justified, but only to a certain extent. So, a rising China, once it has risen enough according to the point of view of its own leaders, will seek a revision in the world-order? Just like Germany did?
This view is, however, contrary to how China seeks to frame the discourse of it’s own rise. China’s leaders, very often, assert that China’s will be a ‘peaceful’ rise. But is this only ‘talk’… until… Can the world, read the West, be expected to take China at its word?
There is a popular term in US foreign policy regarding East Asia – hedging. Of course, this is an already notorious term considering what ‘hedging’ has done to the world economy. But, US foreign policy discourse seeks to frame it as a neutral word. What does hedging involve? Building ‘relations’ with China’s neighbours, long term ‘ties’, not ostensibly aimed at China, (no, of course not), but just a sort what if… against future contingencies.
What is this hedging, then? Nothing but a euphemism for containment! The bad bad world of balance of power is returning, creeping surreptitiously, into Asia and inter-Asian relations.
And it is not the states of Asia themselves who are making the moves, it is being influenced from outside, (read:USA), slowly sucking its ‘victims’ in. First, it was only talk about the USA propping up India against China, only hedging. We denied it. But somehow, I believe, that we’ve come to accept that we’ll have to indulge in the balancing game. Some signs : recent enhancement of diplomatic engagement with Vietnam and Myanmar. Of course, in one way, this is run-of-the-mill diplomacy. The danger is – what this will be interpreted as.
Will China see this as India trying to make a strategic move of some sort? If they do, will they respond? How do Vietnam and Myanmar see themselves positioned? There’s an interesting editorial in the Indian Express today, which was the influence behind this post, that these two countries could be leveraging their ties with one of the two Asian giants for gains against the other. If this is the case, we’re moving into dangerous territory in Asian relations. Although the editorial I referred to is of the opinion that relations of these two countries with either India or China is not a zero sum game, it also mentions the term balance of power and the necessity to maintain it.
So, perspectives again. What we are doing is not so important as what we are perceived to be doing. It is according to the latter that other parties will respond and react. Or, I should put it as, how they perceive the latter. So, it becomes a three step process. As anybody who’s ever played Chinese (!) whispers will know that the longer the line of communication is, the more obscured the communication becomes.
Another complication in this danger of skewed perceptions is, the outside players, a-gleefully skewing them. Of course, the USA would not like to be called an outsider. It sees itself as a resident Asian power, but I don’t believe any Asian country would agree. Unless, of course, they want to send signals to China.
This decade (and the coming) is going to see the Rise of Asia. How Asia is to rise and how a risen Asia is to be, has to be an Asian decision. But one thing for sure, the Rise of Asia should never be similar to the Rise of the West. It would be catastrophe. Asia has to write it’s own script. It would be dangerous if we start including plotlines from the Western script and, willingly or not, that’s exactly what has been creeping in. If Asian states begin to think of relations between them as power politics we should expect a dangerous future.
However, there is a solution, like there always is, and we need not look too hard for it. In the ASEAN we have a model of cooperation between states which has balanced sovereignty and mutual benefit with great adeptness. Asia, I believe, has to conceive a continent wide forum for cooperation and dialogue. There is too much to be gained in working together and too much to be lost otherwise. We need to stifle those Chinese whispers.