Two important events are having a significant influence on existing security arrangements in Asia Pacific.
The result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), led by President Xi Jinping, and US President Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is that many Asian states are re-orientating their long-held policy towards the two giants.
Vague commitments by the US towards its traditional Asian allies, coupled with offers of billions of dollars in infrastructural investments by cash-rich China, have the potential to disrupt the usual order of things in Asia.
Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and Xi’s policy of ‘deep pockets’ for China’s neighbours have already made several US loyalists recalibrate their alliances.
The starkest shift has come from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Despite having long-standing issues with China after a standoff over Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea, and the Philippines being one of the US’s trusted allies in Asia, Duterte has publicly shunned the US and signed multiple bilateral treaties with China.
China has donated a $7.35 million shipment of more than 3,000 assault and sniper rifles along with ammunition to the Philippines, weapons that are likely to be used in Mindanao against radical militants. Even five years ago, the world would have expected the US and the West, not China, to have supported the Philippines’ fight against radical militants.
Duterte’s fallout with the US can be attributed to the US being critical of his hardline policies against drug dealers. Duterte has said on several occasions he does not like the US military presence in his country. By contrast, China is unlikely to infringe upon Duterte’s strong leadership, nor will it be critical of him over human rights.
Thailand and Malaysia, too, have been pulled closer towards China’s orbit of influence.
Thailand’s military government did not have especially comfortable relations with the Obama administration anyway; and now China and Thailand are pursuing a planned high-speed railway project worth $5.15 billion. Thailand's junta has targeted infrastructure spending as a long-term means of boosting the economy, with China offering billions through BRI.
If the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia also move closer to China, this all has the potential to shake the fundamentals of the geopolitical orientation of ASEAN nations.
ASEAN driving forces
When ASEAN was formed 50 years ago, there were two driving forces. One was to make economic gains through better trade among member states, and the second was to form an alliance against the spread of communism in the region, led by the then Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Today the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, and communism is dead. China is not interested in exporting ideology, but in expanding trade in the region. The inevitable question is, “Will economic gains create sticky-enough glue to hold countries in the bloc together as they tread unchartered territories, and respond to a surging China and a waning and unsure US?”
One probability is that ASEAN will form its own defence pact to avoid being caught in the China-US regional power play, and to retain regional peace and stability.
Contention in the South China Sea has exposed potential rifts, with countries like Cambodia reluctant to upset China, while others express support for the ruling of the International Arbitration Court in the Hague.
In spite of lingering doubts about continued US engagement in the region, a US Navy destroyer early this month sailed close to the disputed island in the South China Sea; and the US has proposed increasing its naval presence from 272 vessels to 350.
As it celebrates 50 years, ASEAN leaders can’t deny or defer forever the inevitable geopolitical realities and the implications for the bloc’s ability to remain united over the next 50 years in the fast-changing security dynamics of the region.
An increasingly aggressive North Korea led by Kim Jong Un has tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined. Already, 16 missiles have been fired during10 tests in 2017, and the country’s ultimate goal is to produce a missile capable of reaching the US, topped with a nuclear warhead.
An end to patience
North Korea’s sabre rattling makes Japan and South Korea uneasy. The Trump administration has announced an end to the “era of strategic patience” and declared that “all options are on the table”.
The US military build-up on its Asian bases, the deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system across the Korean border, and China’s anxiety because of this deployment, along with US frustration with China’s inability to contain the erratic North Korean leader – all these factors are leading to a number of possible eventualities.
The likelihood of a US attack, with the resulting impact on the region, is no longer improbable. No matter how unlikely it may have sounded even a year ago, the emergence of “One Korea” in the aftermath of the chain of events that may happen if the North Korean missile tests continue, is no longer an impossibility. That is, of course, a debate requiring separate analysis and argument.
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An increasingly powerful China is showing signs of assertiveness in the neighbourhood, including the South China Sea. While joining celebrations on the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China, President Xi Jinping had strong words of caution: “The central government will unswervingly implement the policy of “one country, two systems and make sure that it is fully applied in Hong Kong without being bent or distorted”.
The general mood of resignation is echoed in the words of Carrie Lam, the newly appointed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, who told the BBC that she cannot guarantee that freedom of speech will protect those who call for independence. These developments will certainly not offer any reassurance to Taiwan, considered by China as a “breakaway province” to be united with the mainland in the future.
Old rivalries persist
In South Asia, there is little hope for any amity between India and Pakistan, or of them reaching a solution to longstanding issues such as Kashmir and border disputes. Indeed, matters have taken a turn for the worse following the attack last year on Indian border guards in Pathankot, and subsequently Uri, by alleged Pakistani militants.
Rivalry between the two largest countries in South Asia has undermined regional cooperation, and South Asia continues to be one of the least integrated regions of the world, with trade between its countries not even amounting to 5% of the total trade that countries of the region conduct with the rest of the world.
With a population of about 1.7 billion, South Asia houses two nuclear-armed, mutually hostile neighbours; any misjudgement or miscalculation by either side could have catastrophic consequences, not only for the two countries, but the region as a whole.
While the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is virtually a dysfunctional body – particularly when compared to ASEAN – the Indo-Pak rivalry is also impeding other regional and sub-regional initiatives, like the BRI and The Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM). The China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor runs through the contentious Kashmir region, making India a non-participant in the BRI and sceptical of BCIM.
In June, Chinese troops started building a road towards India's border, onto Bhutan’s Doklam plateau, which is claimed by the Chinese as its own enclave. Bhutan, in turn, has sought help from neighbouring India, which sent troops across the border from the northeastern state of Sikkim.
India’s chicken's neck
The standoff between China, India, and Bhutan began because of India’s sensitivity to Chinese building activity in the region. While the Doklam plateau is not Indian territory, activity in the region gives the Chinese access to the “chicken’s neck” corridor that connects India to its remote northeastern states. It is suspected by China, and many in Bhutan, that Bhutan’s assertion of its claims may be prompted by New Delhi because of the corridor’s strategic importance to India.
The inability of these two Asian giants to have some form of minimal strategic relationship for mutual economic, trade, and connectivity advantages, not only continues to deprive them, but other countries in the region as well.
A reorientation by India is seeing Prime Minister Modi moving closer to the US and Japan, as a US-India-Japan-Vietnam regional alliance is in the offing.
The visit to Israel by PM Modi – the first by an Indian prime minister – and the signing of a defence deal worth billions of dollars between the two countries, reflects a shift from India’s traditional dependence on Russia as its major supplier of military hardware.
The joint military exercise last year between Russia and Pakistan, and Russia’s flirting with the Taliban, as insurgents in Afghanistan launch increasingly bold attacks, and a new branch of Afghanistan-ISIS is taking control of Afghanistan’s fortified territory, previously considered to be a Taliban stronghold, are all changing the dynamics of regional power play.
US troop withdrawal, Pakistan’s uncertain commitment to eradicating the Taliban, and now Russia getting involved, does not bode well for the region.
Even Australia had a fallout with the US after the botched phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over questions of refugee asylum. And Turnbull publicly said he was open to the idea of China taking the place of the US in leading Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, following Trump’s withdrawal.
Today, China is Australia’s largest market for merchandise exports. Turnbull is also in consultation with other nations to forge ahead with TPP minus the US, and he is in talks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
As traditional US allies find ways to come together without the US, and China continues its drive with trade regimes, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as well as mega infrastructure projects like BRI, the geopolitics of Asia Pacific are going through realignments and changes not seen since the end of the World War II.
As the Asia-Pacific region navigates through unchartered waters, it will test the strength of old economic alliances like ASEAN, as well as challenge the conventional wisdom that used to see countries with democratic credentials and free markets politically and militarily aligned to the leader of the free world, the US.
Economics, politics, and military alliances may no longer follow the same trajectory as before. The future of the region is fraught with challenges and uncertainty that require a much better understanding of both the strategic issues and economic interests, along with the forces that are either uniting or driving a wedge between countries.
Complex issues need mature understanding, which at this moment seems to offer the Chinese an edge over the Americans, as anxious Asians wait and watch events unfold. One thing is for sure, things will never be the same.