Asia – Pacific : Some Observations and Conclusions

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There is not much doubt that the Asia-Pacific is the part of the globe where “things will be happening” in the 21st century. In the foreseeable future, be it both in economic as well as political terms, neither Europe nor Latin America nor Africa, nor the Middle East will become global players to the same degree as Asia-Pacific. States such as the USA, China, Japan and possibly India, which in all likelihood will now - with the change in government - be able to project its influence beyond the borders of SAARC and become a much wanted partner for the above mentioned states. Additionally, also the “second league” of Asia-Pacific such as ASEAN, Australia and ROK dispose of tremendous potential in each relevant respect and will increasingly relativize the weight of other regions on the globe.

Yet on the other hand Asia-Pacific, in spite of its tremendous potential as regards economics and not at least innovation in all walks of life is on the way to become possibly the most crisis-prone region on the globe. A serious destabilization of Asia-Pacific would nullify any hope of progress in whatever sense for the whole of mankind.

Unfortunately disputes regarding territorial claims in the South China- and East China Sea are only the tip of an iceberg which is constituted by conflicting and antagonistic understanding of concepts of national sovereignty. It is highly unsettling to learn from conversations with opinion leaders of main Asia-Pacific countries that they do not rule out a military conflict within the next 3 to 5 years.

In January this year, Admiral Locklear, US PACOM-chief rightfully pointed out that Asia Pacific is becoming the most militarized region on the globe both with regard to quantity as well as quality of armaments. It is a serious hypothesis to say that the higher the level of armaments on part of respective adversaries gets, the higher gets the inclination in favor of preemption and thereby the likelihood that a spiral of escalation will be put into motion.

The magnitude of dangers which could evolve from Asia-Pacific controversies and which have the potential of destabilization on a global scale requires another approach of attempting at understanding the root causes of those very negative developments looming behind reciprocal accusations and provocations. One thing is crystal clear: There is no point whatsoever in trying to find out who - from the legal point of view - is right. Whatever historical point is made in order to justify one`s claim to islands, rocks, shoals and adjacent waters can easily be refuted by stressing other historical facts of the case. Attempts at invoking so called international law in order to decide on territorial controversies in Asia-Pacific will always remain futile not at least because, to a similar degree, no sphere of jurisprudence is ruled by normativity of facts as is the case with international law. Reciprocal accusations regarding perceived violation of international law are only components of a “smokescreen” whereby the adversaries themselves are not sufficiently aware of the true nature of controversies. This is a dangerous situation as relativization of one's own point of view which unfortunately is blocked by that “smokescreen”, would be an indispensable precondition for conflict resolution.

There are three factorswhich the current escalation-prone controversies in the Asia Pacific live on : 1. Economic interests that are mainly nurtured by the prospect of exploiting huge reserves of mainly oil and gas 2. Control of sea lines of communication (SLC) respectively unhampered use of those and 3. Not at least deep seated irreconciliability of the socio-cultural auto-stereotypes (here: the picture a society has of itself) on part of the main adversaries. If it was possible to soften, contain or even dissolve those irreconciliabilities the problem of contradictory economic interests and demand for control of SLC could be solved in a constructive and cooperative manner.

At this stage I would like to formulate two hypotheses in order to simplify the extremely complex topic and make discussion focus on the really essential points:

1. In the first place it is the contradictoriness of the auto-stereotypes of China and the USA which is at the bottom of current conflicts in the Asia Pacific.

2. All other conflicts such as between China and Vietnam, China and Philippines and others are of a secondary nature in the sense that to the degree to which a softening of the above contradictoriness of auto-stereotypes of China and the USA can be achieved, chances of neutralization of those other conflicts by lifting them up to a level of cooperative arrangements are increasing.

Some remarks on the US-auto-stereotype: In spite of quite a few setbacks as far as results of US engagement on the globe since the end of the Cold War are concerned, the deep seated conviction in the universal applicability of the American model has somewhat been dented but is still governing the worldview as it dominates thinking and feeling of the US – society at large. This worldview contains a firm belief in the superiority of the American political and economic model which all other societies should adopt. In the same vein there is still a very strong historico-culturally based conviction that the USA cannot extricate itself from the mission to contribute to as many as possible other societies moving towards the US-model which in some respect represents an “end of history”. That quasi missionary commitment is intertwined with the claim to maintain the status of sole superpower which is at loggerheads with the concept of a multipolar system of international relations let alone with another state moving towards the status of second superpower. For today’s political decision- makers China is such a case and it is the Asia-Pacific where China’s rise must be checked and China’s increasing assertiveness kept within bounds.

The US-auto-stereotype is in irreconceilable contradiction with the Chinese auto-stereotype: The Chinese power elite is deeply convinced not only that China is on its way to becoming the second superpower besides the USA but also that it is historically entitled to such a status. In order to do justice to this claim Beijing is focused in first place on maintaining China’s economic dynamic, which again depends on unhampered supply of energy presupposing best possible access also to respective resources as well as best possible control of SLOs. This is to say that China’s being introvert e.g. taking maximum care of economic growth, implies at the same time a high degree of assertiveness in Asia-Pacific. In other words it would be too simplistic to explain China’s assertiveness and fade out the domestic context I have been trying to allude to.

Some brief remarks on China-specific attitudes of Japan and India. Regarding the unfolding controversy between China and Japan the above explanation might not be sufficient for understanding the Chinese-Japanese dualism: In this case burdensome historic experiences seem to play a role on their own as well as the quest on part of both sides for a dominant regional role which does not merely live on the interest in maximum use of natural resources for the sake of economic growth. But this is also a topic on its own. As far as India is concerned it will see to it that the principle of “strategic autonomy” will be observed - under the new government more than it was the case under the UPA-government. This is to say that India will not be prepared to join an USA-led anti-China alliance but it will try to cooperate with Japan as well as China as well as the USA and its allies in a very pragmatic way. It is interesting to note in this context that recent US-offers to supply India with state of the art weaponry were indirectly commented by PM Modi’s stated aim of “self-reliance in arms” which he had given utterance to on occasion of his recent visit of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya.

In conclusion one can only hope that the reciprocal understanding between USA and China regarding respective auto-stereotypes will make progress and thereby bring more stability to Asia-Pacific before unwanted incidents could trigger an escalation of conflict which is in the interest of nobody.

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Author: Prof. Dr. Klaus Lange