Asia-Pacific Power Dynamics: Strategic Implications and Options for India
Authors: M. Mayilvaganan, Aditi Malhotra, Sadhavi Chauhan, and Viswesh R
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Background: China’s rise, unresolved maritime disputes in Asia Pacific, and the US pivot to Asia have led to the re-emergence of Asia- Pacific as a strategically important region. This new found focus has created a growing need to understand the regional dynamics in a more nuanced way. Given this backdrop, the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP) of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore has been engaged in a medium term project focusing on China. A primary objective of this project was to study the behaviour of regional countries in the face of a crisis in the Asia Pacific. As a part of this effort, ISSSP organised a workshop titled ‘Asia-Pacific Power Dynamics: Strategic Implications and Options for India’ on March 11, 2014.
Workshop Agenda & Methodology Validation: The agenda and the proceedings of the workshop were finalised through a number of stages. The first stage involved in-house discussions over potential trigger events that could spur a crisis in the Asia-Pacific. The second stage involved the identification of crisis events and possible scenarios along with the compilation of a database, which included relevant information of all the countries in the region. Finally, the agenda and programme for the workshop were decided upon through a validation exercise, held on August 20, 2013, which brought together area experts and scholars. The validation meetings concluded with a consensus on the trigger events that would facilitate the simulation exercise. It was also suggested that the workshop be preceded by a seminar where subject experts would reinforce the current baseline positions of the various countries of the region.
The Groups: The workshop was structured into five groups, keeping in mind the alliances and the major power blocks in the Asia-Pacific region. The first four groups comprised of China and its allies, US and its allies, ASEAN, and India. There was a fifth group, the Control, which included all the other countries, coordinated the events and documented the responses of the other four groups. The groups were made up of area experts hailing from the defence and diplomatic services, academics, and scholars.
Workshop Findings: The Workshop revealed the following strands of strategic thinking amongst the different groups:
The workshop commenced with a baseline position wherein the US did not want to confront China but only deter it. However, the workshop exercise suggested that if the current tensions transform into a crisis that could escalate into a confrontation, the US will be willing to escalate the crisis and would not yield to Chinese threats.
- The workshop revealed that the US maybe willing to reassert its dominance in the Asia-Pacific if needed; this was displayed by its assertive actions in the region.
- As events progressed in the workshop, America’s stand transformed from deterrence to containment and eventually from containment to possible confrontation with China.
- The responses also suggested that the US looks at the region as an integrated entity. Specifically, the US clubbed the East China and the South China Seas, and the Indian Ocean region as one domain, when dealing with China. Thereby, it hoped to invoke a multilateral response to the China threat. This was achieved by a strengthening of ties with its current regional allies (Japan, Korea), and seeking more allies in the South China Sea (Vietnam) and the Indian Ocean Region (India).
- Although the US wanted India to be a part of its alliance, it was not willing to get involved in India’s bilateral issues with China.
- Unlike the US, China did not view the Asia Pacific region as an integrated entity. Whether this was a conscious part of its strategy or whether it was an inherent flaw in the way they think remained unclear.
- China’s treatment of regional and global issues seemed to reveal an absence of a clear link between them. Though Taiwan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea issues are all connected especially through geography, China chose to deal with them separately.
- The divide and rule approach adopted by China was also revealed in its preferences for bilateral negotiations even though many of the maritime disputes in the region are multilateral ones.
- China’s strengthening of its military and political partnerships with South Asian countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh were aimed to check India, which Beijing identified as a crucial US ally.
- China’s responses highlighted its aspirations to attain parity with the US in a new bipolar world order, where it enjoys the same status and power that the erstwhile USSR commanded during the Cold War Era.
- ASEAN’s responses to the events reflected the lack of unanimity amongst its member countries.
- During crisis situations, ASEAN preferred to use diplomatic negotiations to defuse tensions.
- The workshop reflected that ASEAN is interested in an enhanced US presence in the region that allows its members the luxury to trade with China, without the problem of political domination by China.
- Though ASEAN seemed comfortable with the current power structure in the region, an unleashing of Japanese power seemed to have been a matter of grave concern to them. The group’s responses established that ASEAN was as concerned about Japan as it was about China. This is understandable since many of the member countries have been victims of Japanese aggression in the past.
- Looking at the overall scenario, it can be inferred that ASEAN’s ability to respond in an affirmative manner remains restricted to diplomatic endeavours. Though individual members of ASEAN such as Vietnam or Cambodia could be important from the viewpoint of the US or China, the ASEAN collective did not seem to be a major force in a crisis escalation scenario in the region.
- Throughout the crisis, India practiced strategic restraint and made conscious attempts to stay out of a China-US conflict.
- India’s responses made it clear that it did not view crisis events in the South China Sea as important enough for it to take any actions.
- The only time New Delhi contemplated military action was when its territorial interests were in peril.
Issues and Questions: The workshop raised a number of issues to be addressed in greater detail. These issues arise from the various assumptions that went into the formulation of the baseline positions, the trigger event for the crisis and other events that lead to crisis escalation.
- Under what circumstances (that threaten its current dominant position) will the US move from a strategy of deterrence or containment of China towards a more aggressive posture of reasserting its dominance?
- Is China’s current aggressive posture, which has transformed a number of neutral countries into potential adversaries, a part of a broader grand strategy? Or is it based on an ad hoc judgment of its interests by vested parties within the Chinese establishment?
As a corollary to the above, the following questions may also need more detailed investigation:
- Do China’s actions in the region display a prioritisation of its interests? Would it help if China asserted its maritime territorial claims after it has resolved the Taiwan issue? By creating multiple adversaries in the Asia-Pacific, is China creating problems for itself?
- Is the US approach of looking at the region as an integrated whole the right way to look at the problem?
- Why does China continue to breach the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), even though it is a signatory to it? Is there some well thought component of a Chinese grand strategy behind some of its overtly irrational and inconsistent behaviour in the region?
- Under what conditions will India play a more proactive role in an Asia-Pacific crisis?
For the Indian strategic community, there is an undoubted need to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving regional dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, as a result of China’s rise. ISSSP intends to conduct a series of workshops on this theme in the coming years. Future workshops would incorporate more countries and participants, in order to make the events, scenarios and proceedings more realistic and relevant.