Shifting Asia-Pacific landscape

Courtesy:- Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Last week’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies offered an opportunity for defence officials and experts from Asia-Pacific countries to discuss a range of emerging and enduring security issues.

The eleventh annual dialogue took place in a fluid geopolitical environment. The question that loomed largest at the conference was whether relations between the world’s two biggest powers, China and the United States, will be cooperative or confrontational in the future – and its impact on the region’s stability.

The conference agenda included an interesting mix of issues. They included America’s “pivot” to Asia, China’s growing power, the South China Sea dispute, new forms of warfare, South Asia’s challenges, North Korea issue and the future regional security architecture.

The high-powered delegation from the US comprised Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unlike last year, when China sent its defence minister General Liang Guanglie, this time he did not attend. This sparked speculation that his absence marked Beijing’s displeasure over the conference’s inclusion of the South China Sea dispute.

Refuting this, John Chipman, director general of the IISS, told the 350 conference delegates that domestic priorities kept General Liang away – a reference to the Communist Party’s upcoming leadership transition. The Chinese delegation was led by Lt General Ren Haiqan, deputy commandant of the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Science.

The security summit met against the backdrop of America’s ongoing disengagement from the two wars that preoccupied it in the past decade and shift of its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region. The end of the military mission in Iraq and the drawdown underway from Afghanistan marked what the Pentagon chief called a “strategic turning point” earlier this year. This has enabled the US to rebalance its diplomatic and military strategy towards Asia-Pacific, and assess force structures, roles and inventories at a time of sharp budget cuts.

In a major policy speech to the conference, Panetta spelled out what the new US military strategy and strategic “pivot” meant. The reconfiguration of forces will entail assigning 60 per cent of the US Navy’s assets to the Pacific Ocean by 2020. This will be bolstered by expansion of US military exercises and increased port visits across a wider area. “Make no mistake”, Panetta declared, “the United States military is bringing enhanced capabilities to this vital region”.

Panetta reiterated US commitment to strengthen alliances with Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia and expand “key” partnerships with India, Indonesia and Singapore. Despite protestations to the contrary, these plans and ongoing American efforts to woo and ‘rehabilitate’ Myanmar, represent a more overt expression of an evolving US policy to contain China’s rise.

Conspicuously missing from Panetta’s speech was any mention of Pakistan. Even when he spoke of Afghanistan’s 2014 transition and the role that a number of Asia-Pacific nations are playing, he gratuitously skipped Pakistan. This underscored Washington’s present stance towards Islamabad and the depths to which bilateral relations have sunk.

When Panetta told the gathering that the strategic “pivot” was not aimed at containing China’s growing power it was met with disbelief by many. Conceding differences with China on several counts Panetta asserted that the only option was a “mature relationship” with China, improvement in military-to-military ties and communication with one another.

When a questioner suggested that the enlarged American military footprint in the region would heighten tensions, Panetta reiterated the US desire to work with China. He also said Asian nations had to evolve ways to resolve their own disputes and not expect the US to come and do this for them.

Another questioner pointed to comments in the official Chinese media warning that US militarism in the region would “endanger peace” with the announcement of the new American defence strategy in January. Panetta again said China should not be concerned about the new US military focus on Asia. Washington would endeavor to keep the world’s most critical bilateral relationship on an even keel. This reinforced an agreement between US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and State Councillor, Dai Bingguo during last month’s strategic dialogue to prevent a clash, historically associated with a status quo and a fast-rising power.

In its first official reaction to Panetta’s speech a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman described the American decision to shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as “untimely” and called on the US to play a constructive role and respect China’s interests in the region.

In discussions on the sidelines of the Shangri La conference, concerns were voiced about the potential for instability in Sino-US ties as a result of enhanced military deployments in the Pacific. But the response from Chinese delegates was instructive. Their reaction was exceptionally calm and restrained, conveying an extraordinary sense of national self-confidence.

Chinese scholars seemed to take the new US military posture in their stride. The current US strength in the region is already “heavy” so “we live with this reality” said one non-official delegate. There will of course be challenges, he said, but there are opportunities for cooperation among regional states, as people want stability and don’t want to be forced to take sides.

Another Chinese defence analyst told me that the US had always followed a two-track policy of engagement and containment with China. So the new US military posture offered no surprise. It was part of a familiar carrot and stick approach. China would of course take the evolving situation seriously but it would adopt a ‘preventive’ and ‘defensive’ posture, he added.

Most important, said another Chinese delegate, was that these developments would not deflect China from focusing on its economic development and improving the lives of its people. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region want peace, development and cooperation, not another cold war. The priority therefore had to be on stability and not an arms race that would set back the goal of economic progress.

The President of Indonesia, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in his keynote address, voiced similar sentiments. He called for seizing the strategic opportunity to build a lasting architecture of Asian security predicated on a “new geopolitics of cooperation”. Acknowledging that strategic mistrust still persists in Asia-Pacific he said the threat of military attack had given way to the danger of eruptions of border clashes, naval standoffs and brinkmanship.

“Today there is no war in Southeast Asia”. In contrast with the past ASEAN nations were in charge of regional affairs. While rivalry and competition existed, a win-win outcome was possible, driven in part by the emergence of nontraditional threats that urged collaboration among states.

The Indian Ocean, he said, must not become the site of a new rivalry. As for the major powers, they had an obligation to construct peaceful and cooperative relations because the ramifications extended much beyond them.

For this scribe the highlight of many interesting interactions on the summit sidelines waswith Chinese delegates from whom there were generous expressions of China’s “enduringsupport” for Pakistan and empathy for the many challenges it faces. A senior member of the Chinese delegation also had this counsel to offer. “The best experience we can share with Pakistan is that it should choose and follow its own, independent path to economicdevelopment and not be confused or distracted by the views of outsiders”.

This echoed what Chinese premier Wen Jiabao stressed to his Pakistani hosts during his visit in December 2010: chart your own development path and stick to it rather than rely on “external” prescriptions. Wise counsel, but never followed by Pakistan’s aid-addicted ruling elite unwilling to change its mindset of dependency – and take charge of the country’s destiny.


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