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Weekly Column by Ravi Dutt Bajpai

Asia Pivot Vs. Asian Pivot

Ravi Dutt Bajpai,  Weekly Column No. 1002/2014


 The re-emergence of Asia-Pacific as a global powerhouse has different geostrategic implications for different parts of the world.  On the one hand, the rise of Asian economies has emboldened enthusiasts to advance the grand emblematic narrative of the ‘Asian Century’ while on the other,the skeptics have advanced the grand strategic narrative of the ‘Asia Pivot’. The moot point remains that if the Asian Century is upon us then why is there no ‘Asian Pivot’, a grand strategic collaboration of the states from within the region? There are fundamental differences and suspicions that still drive the region and despite the regional economic interdependence, somehow the regional security framework warrants mediation by external powers.

 It can be argued that most of the states in this region, regardless of their domestic political structure,depend upon the United States to be their patron and protector. The end of the Cold War robbed the United States’ strategic community of their biggest obsession, i.e. nuclear Soviet Russia and the specter of communism. In the early 1990s, during the first term of President Bill Clinton, Pentagon officials were desperately seeking another challenger to focus their well-devised strategies of containment.  There were speculations about United Europe getting too strong and big, Japan’s ambitions to remilitarize and the Middle East unraveling altogether. It is worth noting that neither China nor the global terror network merited much attention in this assessment. China was committed to its paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping’s sage but savage advice to ‘hide the ambitions and bide the time’.  The uninterrupted rise of China finally rose in the esteem of American strategic thinkers and then there was no turning back. The ‘rise of china’ soon found itself as a new school of thought in the Western international affairs discourse, to the extent that in 2006 an American scholar, Minxin Pei observed, “the only thing rising faster than China is the hype about China.”

 The long drawn out but largely inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had forced the American people to doubt their leader’s rhetoric of hope and seek a different narrative. ‘The audacity of hope’ finally reached white house in 2008 in the form of President Barack Obama.However, just beyond the initial glory days, the new President’s agenda was reset by the Global Financial Crisis. The global superpower looked more pensive, withdrawn and occupied with its own domestic challenges. China’s rise,though still a concern was not the most pressing priority. While the lack of American supervision was generally welcomed in other parts of the world, the clamor for greater American interventionism was highest in the Asia-Pacific region. The Asia-Pacific states were craving for restoration of the traditional ‘hub and spoke’ system, as the ‘red star’ was threatening to overtake their galaxy.

 President Obama, largely bereft of any significant foreign policy achievements was quite eager to stamp his foot prints anywhere in the world.The Asia-Pacific seemed a very generous host than the Middle East and the much-hyped ‘Asia Pivot’ was launched. In a nutshell this strategic rebalance intended to deploy 60% of American air and sea power to Asia by 2020.  The American establishment and its strategic clairvoyants have finally constructed a clear and present danger to their way of life, liberal democratic order and even global peace. In American assessment, the rise of China has somehow crossed the strategic threshold and it must be met with requisite power in order to contain its influence. The normative liberal discourse of containment and democratization mission are straight from the Cold War anthologies; so essentially the ‘Asia Pivot’ is Cold War V2.0. However, the Asian states need to undertake some reality checks before they jump onto the bandwagon. Unlike Post WWII Western Europe, Asia never received any Marshall plan then, and now the US does not seem to have either the resources or the clout to undertake such an exorbitant exercise. The Asian states can have all sorts of security alliances with the US but a NATO like partnership does not seem probable.

 The regional alliance partners of the ‘Asia Pivot’ include some premier economies of the region that share unprecedented levels of bilateral trade with China. In the conventional strategic circles, economics is referred to as ‘low politics’ while military-security affairs are referred to as ‘high politics’. The intense globalization may have elevated trade and commerce to a higher level but the strategic balance is still derived from Mao’s ‘barrel of the gun’ theory.  It would seem harsh to claim that the Asian states can only handle ‘low politics’ among themselves and that they still seek Western guidance to monitor their ‘high politics’. The Asian states may have reached the 21st century but their mutual suspicions and distrust are still mired in some earlier period. The incessant latent (sometimes open) hostility among the Asian states has mandated a ‘neutral umpire’ to oversee the proper conduct of the game of international affairs in this region. However, it must be emphasized that the‘Asia Pivot’ itself is the latest manifestation of ‘the great game’ the Western powers have perpetuated in this continent.

 The entire Asia-Pacific region is faced with seemingly insurmountable security threats; however, most of these challenges do not originate from military rivalry and these challenges cannot be overwhelmed by military means either. The Asia-Pacific region needs an‘Asian Pivot’ where the priorities, strategies and mechanism of collaboration are formed and shared by the regional states.For the ‘Asian Pivot’ to materialize, one needs to find answers to two questions. Is   Asia big enough to accommodate rising China and is China smart enough to accommodate growing Asia?

( Ravi Dutt Bajpai is currently pursuing a Masters in International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is associated with the Institute for Post Colonial Studies in Melbourne and is a regular social and political commentator with the Hindi daily, Prabhat Khabar, published from Bihar and Jharkhand. With expertise on China, India and Australia in world/Asian politics, he is a regular commentator on Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Hindi in Australia. Email id:  bajpai.ravibajpai@gmail.com. )

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