Present at the Asian creation

As Obama vows to move the US’ focus East, powerful nations begin to stake out their territory in the region.

obama japan
As world economic power shifts eastward, China and India have become rivals for regional supremacy [GALLO/GETTY]

New Delhi, India – Asia’s economic dynamism is beginning to find a parallel in the region’s diplomacy, particularly where security is concerned. Indeed, we may now be “present at the creation”, as former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson called his memoir, which described the construction of the post-World War II global security order.

This time, what is being created is a security order for Asia that reflects its newfound primacy in world affairs, though what that order will ultimately look like remains to be determined. Security has moved to the top of the regional agenda not only in response to China’s rise, but also because the United States and the West will be leaving a gaping hole in Asia’s security architecture when they remove their troops from Afghanistan, without first having established peace there.

Perhaps of greater importance for long-term security, the US-Pakistan relationship continues to plumb new depths, while Iran’s relations with the West go from bad to worse, marred most recently by the mob invasion of the British Embassy in Tehran in November.

The battle for the South China Sea

Bit by bit, initiative by initiative, many of the region’s powers are struggling to forge a coherent co-operative framework to enhance their security. For example, Australia’s Labour government has agreed to sell natural uranium to India, reversing a policy that had been in place ever since India developed its nuclear-weapons capacity. Almost simultaneously, US President Barack Obama announced the stationing of US Marines in northern Australia. No one has explicitly linked the two moves, but they are arguably related strategically, as Australia seeks to boost its ties with both the US and Asia’s other giant, India.

India and the US have also been strengthening their strategic relations with Japan, not only bilaterally, but also in a unique trilateral way, which US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has suggested could “reshape the international system”. Burns, and much of the rest of the US’ foreign-policy establishment, now thinks that India’s regional influence has become comprehensive; its “Look East” strategy, announced earlier this year, is being translated into “Act East” policies.

So far, India’s security relations with Japan and South Korea are somewhat understated. But that is changing. During Indian Defence Minister AK Antony’s recent visit to Tokyo, it was agreed that Japan and India would hold their first-ever joint naval and air force exercise in 2012. This elevates bilateral defence co-operation to the role of primary national-security tool, most importantly for Japan, which has broadened its strategic horizon beyond its immediate surroundings and the country’s longstanding alliance with the US.

Indeed, Japan and India have now agreed to co-operate on “maritime security issues, including anti-piracy measures, freedom of navigation” and on “maintaining the security of the Sea Lanes of Communication to facilitate unhindered trade, bilaterally as well as multilaterally with regional neighbours” – meaning, of course, China.

Chinese assertiveness

A “Japan-India Defence Policy Dialogue” will be held in Tokyo in early 2012, and staff-level talks are to take place between Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force and the Indian Army, along with staff exchanges between the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force and the Indian Air Force. Indeed, Japan and India are beginning to build the type of comprehensive military co-operation that has long characterised Japan’s ties with the US.

India and China’s rival aspirations to be acknowledged as regional Great Powers… are compelling both countries to seek greater maritime security.

This development will, undoubtedly, disturb China, which has been making ever more strident moves toward regional suzerainty. Chinese assertiveness, most of it currently focused on the country’s claims to the South China Sea, has been a wake-up call about the type of regional order that China would establish if it had the power.

Fears are running so high that 15 of the 18 countries at the recent East Asian Co-operation meeting in Bali singled out China’s behaviour concerning the South China Sea as a threat.

The core issue is maritime security – and not only in the South China Sea. “The Indian Ocean”, says US author Robert Kaplan, is “where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India, and also with America’s fight against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, which includes America’s attempt to contain Iran.”

India and China’s rival aspirations to be acknowledged as regional Great Powers, as well as their quest for energy security, are compelling both countries to seek greater maritime security. India, however, has a clear advantage, as its recent “Look East” policies show that it can forge enhanced security ties not only with the US, but also with the region’s other key powers – even Indonesia.

Stephen P Cohen, a renowned analyst of India, has argued that, since the country gained independence, its “officials have inculcated the precepts of George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796: that India, like the United States, inhabits its own geographical sphere, in India’s case between the Himalayas and the Wide Indian Ocean, and thus [it] is in a position of both dominance and detachment. During the Cold War, this meant non-engagement; now it means that Indians see themselves with their own separate status as a rising power.”

The problem, of course, is that China views itself the same way. So, how are Asia’s two giants to live in neighbourly accord without encroaching on the other’s space? So far, the response has been to construct a regional security structure with no Chinese participation.

That need not be the case, but the current impulse behind today’s Asian security diplomacy will not change unless China rethinks its attitude towards its neighbours. Otherwise, its leaders will find themselves present at the creation of a regional order that holds little appeal for them.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence.

A version of this article was first published on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.