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Asia's Challenging Strategic Calculus

Introductory Observations

Asia’s strategic calculus contemporarily is in a state of flux and dominated by strategic uncertainties due to a complex power-play within Asia itself. The global strategic calculus too reflects this state of flux as the Asian landmass extends geo-strategically from the Mediterranean to the Pacific and from Russia in the North to the tip of the Indian Peninsula, jutting prominently into the Indian Ocean, in the South. Asia’s strategic complexion therefore vitally affects the global power-play between the United States and Russia.

Lately, far too much has been made in policy analysis circles of the prospects of the “Asian Century” being on the horizon. Such summations basically emerge from an overwhelming weightage being given to Asia’s economic resurgence without taking into account Asia’s strategic uncertainties. Such summations also arise from a disproportionate weightage being given to the so-called strategic decline of the United States and the mistaken reading of Russia’s resurgence in the Cold War mould of ideological confrontation resulting in congealed lines of military confrontation in Europe and elsewhere around the globe.

That the coming into existence of an “Asian Century” is a myth stands analyzed in a previous SAAG Paper of this Author. SAAG Paper No. 2677 dated 12.04.2008 (http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers27/paper2677.html) “Asian Century” Is Strategically A Myth

Optimistically, at the global level the power-play between the United States and Russia can be expected to end with the dawning of a strategic realisation that both the United States and Russia would stand to gain by a mutual co-ptive strategic management of the Asian strategic calculus as opposed to exploitation of Asia’s strategic uncertainties for gains at each others expense.

The strategic calculus within Asia itself is far too complex and conflictual and does not present a picture of optimism in terms of stability, both strategic and political. Asia’s strategic calculus today includes two emerging powers i.e. China and India with global aspirations and a host of other powers jostling for regional power status in different regions of Asia.

Asia’s strategic calculus gets further complicated by an over-abundance of territorial disputes and ethnic disputes all superimposed by new challenges in the form of energy security strategic moves and water disputes.

Asia’s complex strategic calculus would be incomplete without reference to the fact that it abounds in countries with nuclear arsenals, namely China, India, Pakistan and Israel and those with closet nuclear weapons like North Korea and Iran.

Asia’s strategic calculus is challenging and further more challenging because Asian nations, even the major ones have not reached the stage of political development and maturity which could further Asian regional cooperation and security.

Asia today stands bedeviled with more strategic issues that divide it within than those that unite it.

This itself is a powerful pointer to the strategic reality that Asian stability and security has to be underwritten by the United States, primarily.

In such a strategic setting, it becomes that much more pertinent to carry out a general survey of the strategic challenges, conflictual issues and prospects of stability in each of the major regions of Asia. With this in view this Paper addresses the theme under the following heads:

The Middle East: Asia’s Explosive Powder Keg Central Asia: The Strategic Power Play South Asia: Strategic Destabilization by China-Pakistan Nexus South East Asia: Up for Grabs by China East Asia: Global and Regional Power Tussle Asia’s Security & Stability: Future Perspectives

The Middle East: Asia’s Explosive Powder Keg

The Middle East as being Asia’s explosive powder keg would be an understatement. Israel as the only island of political stability in the Middle East has been under relentless military and terrorism onslaughts from its Arab neighbours over the Palestine-Israel dispute.

In 60 years of incessant armed conflict neither the combined effort of major Arab nations nor a vituperative Iran have been able to wipe Israel off the map as they nauseatingly threaten.

However, it are the new strategic conflicts and challenges that have emerged lately that make the Middle East more explosive. These are: (1) United States as the prime ideological enemy of Islamic fundamentalists/Jihadis combine. (2) Strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional power status. (3) Implicit in this is also the sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict that predominates in the Islamic World (4) Nuclear arms race that would be generated by Iran’s nuclear weapons program (5) United States and Western countries severe opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons program (6) The current confrontation in Iraq between USA and Sunni/Shia armed militias (7) Ethnic problems like those of Kurdistan. (8) The US-Iran confrontation.

While any global power play would be confined to control of energy resources, strategic choke points and political influence in the region, it’s the intra-regional conflicts and rivalries that make the Middle East as an explosive powder keg and a region of acute strategic uncertainties.

Conflict resolution in the Middle East has been a mirage so far and would continue to be so for years to come.

Arab unity or Islamic unity as cementing forces for stability within the region have remained a myth.

The United States continues to be the most powerful strategic player in the Middle East with predominant military and political coercive capabilities.

Central Asia: The Strategic Power Play

Central Asia as a distinct region on its own came into focus after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Central Asian Republics that emerged were all Islamic by religion and were soon engulfed as targets for control by Islamic fundamentalists with varying degrees of success.

The strategic salience of Central Asia has emerged post 9/11 as an area of strategic rivalries between the United States, Russia and China. All of them jostle for the Central Asian strategic space.

The United States would wish to draw these nations into the Western orbit for reasons of energy security and so also for strategic hemming-in of China.

While no infra-regional disputes exist, strategic turbulence does exist as a result of the power play between USA and Russia.

In terms of military and political coercive capabilities in the region, Russia is better placed currently by virtue of geographical contiguity and the economic interdependence of this region on Russia.

South Asia: Strategic Destabilization by China-Pakistan Nexus

South Asia would have emerged as a region of peace and stability if the naturally predominant and strategically pre-eminent power of India would have been allowed to prevail.

However, South Asia got caught up in global and regional power games. During the Cold War, it was the United States which ended building up Pakistan as the regional spoiler state, militarily.

China in its bid for Asian domination ended up more venomously by building up Pakistan as a nuclear weapons and nuclear missiles state to confront India. China has been using Pakistan as a proxy to keep India strategically off-balance.

Kashmir was used as a conflictual flashpoint excuse to strategically brow-beat India. However, even after four wars being imposed by Pakistan and one war by China, India has emerged as a contending power for global player status.

And here lies the strategic rub for South Asia. It is no longer the focus of India-Pakistan rivalry. South Asia has emerged as the prime arena for a more powerful strategic rivalry between India and China as they jostle for global power status.

Despite their meaningless friendly rhetoric China and India perceive each other as military threats. In the case of China, this has become more pronounced with the evolution of the US-India Strategic Partnership.

One can expect a hardening of stances in the future between China and India, and while both may not opt for direct war, they could end up doing the same through proxies.

Afghanistan continues to be militarily turbulent with sizeable United States/NATO Forces now deployed in restoring stability. The turbulence is due to Pakistan Army’s unceasing military support to the Taliban to strategically destabilize US operations and the Karzai Government. China too is involved in military supplies to the Taliban against the United States.

All of the above generates a clash of strategic interests between USA and India with the Pakistan-China strategic nexus

South East Asia: Up for Grabs by China

South East Asia’s strategic complexion can be expressed very briefly as follows: (1) Strategic vacuum has been caused in the region by US strategic distractions in Iraq and Afghanistan (2) US has lost interest in South East Asia after open efforts by countries like Malaysia to keep the United States out of the East Asia Summit economic grouping (3) Russia under Putin has made limited forays in the region.

In such an environment, the region is ripe for a strategic grab by China. Such an attempt by China in itself carries the seeds of confrontation with USA as it would not be that China just walks-in and grabs South East Asia. The United States would not strategically tolerate a China takeover of South East Asia however late in the day.

East Asia: Global and Regional Power Tussle

In the Asian strategic calculus, it is East Asia that figures most significantly after the Middle East. However, as opposed to the Middle East mired in intra-regional tussles, East Asia is distinguished by a power play on a much higher plane.

In East Asia, China and the United States perceive each other as major military threats more pointedly. If ever China makes a grab for superpower status, it will be East Asia as the starting block where it will attempt to force the United States to exit from its forward military presence in the Western Pacific.

In East Asia, in terms of American forward military presence, the largest number of military bases and deployments exist here. That signifies how seriously USA takes the China threat in its strategic planning.

Russia’s resurgence could witness restoration of Russia’s strategic assets in the region also but it is unlikely that this would tilt the military balance in China’s favor.

China like Pakistan in South Asia, has built up North Korea as the regional spoiler state to destabilize the region. Once the United States stabilizes Iraq and Afghanistan it is likely to deal with North Korea’s strategic delinquencies more firmly.

East Asia is also a witness to the regional power tussle between China and Japan. Japan is no strategic push-over and complicates the East Asian strategic calculus for China in favor of the United States.

Asia’s Security & Stability: Future Perspectives

Asia may be presenting a very rosy picture, but this rosy picture is a luxury which only economists can thrive on. For strategists, Asia’s picture in terms of security and stability perspectives into the future, if not dismal, are not promising either, as the foregoing survey would indicate.

In terms of future strategic perspectives on Asia the following realities are likely to prevail:

“Asia Century” is a myth strategically Within Asia a strategic power tussle between China, India and Japan would predominate In this three-some power play China would stand isolated with India and Japan enjoying strategic convergences This Asian power tussle will have corresponding impact on the global power play. In the global power play, it would be more logical and advisable for the United States and Russia as the erstwhile “status-quo” global powers to view the challenge from China as a ‘revisionist power’ in strategically convergent terms. The Middle East and East Asia will be the most challenging regions in the Asian strategic calculus.

Concluding Observations

Asia’s strategic calculus presents more complex and complicated challenges than opportunities for security and stability.

Asia has not reached the stage of political development and maturity which could facilitate emergence of regional groupings for security and stability.

The Asian power tussle between China, India and Japan adds further strategic uncertainties to an already complex Asian strategic calculus. It is unlikely that a China-India-Japan triumvirate could emerge to jointly ensure political and strategic stability in Asia.

In terms of Asia figuring in the global strategic power play, while India’s and Japan’s rise as major powers would be viewed as benign and in positive terms, the same would not apply to China.

In terms of global power play, China could therefore end up as a “strategic threat” for the United States and a “strategic irritant” for Russia.

(The writer, Dr. Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. mail:drsubhashkapila@yahoo.com) Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, www.southasiaanalysis.org)

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