Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Asian tensions are getting more serious

Why are such tensions among Asia’s great powers becoming more serious, and why now?

For starters, Asia’s powers have recently elected or are poised to elect leaders who are more nationalistic than their predecessors. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and Narendra Modi, who is likely to be India’s next prime minister, all fall into this category.

Second, all of these leaders now face challenges stemming from the need for structural reforms to sustain satisfactory growth rates in the face of global economic forces that are disrupting old models. Different types of structural reforms are vital in China, Japan, India, Korea, and Indonesia. If leaders in one or more of these countries were to fail on the economic front, they could feel politically constrained to shift the blame onto foreign “enemies”.

Third, many US allies in Asia (and elsewhere) are wondering whether America’s recent strategic “pivot” to Asia is credible. Given the feeble US response to the crises in Syria, Ukraine, and other geopolitical hot spots, the American security blanket in Asia looks increasingly tattered. China is now testing the credibility of US guarantees, raising the prospect that America’s friends and allies—starting with Japan—may have to take more of their security needs into their own hands.

Finally, unlike Europe, where Germany accepted the blame for the horrors of WWII and helped to lead a decades-long effort to construct today’s European Union, no such historical agreement exists among Asian countries. As a result, chauvinist sentiments have been instilled in generations that are far removed from the horrors of past wars, while institutions capable of fostering economic and political cooperation remain in their infancy.

This is a lethal combination of factors that risks eventually leading to military conflict in a key region of the global economy. How can the US credibly pivot to Asia in a way that does not fuel Chinese perceptions of attempted containment or US allies’ perceptions of appeasement of China? How can China build a legitimate defensive military capability that a great power needs and deserves without worrying its neighbors and the US that it aims to seize disputed territory and aspires to strategic hegemony in Asia? And how can Asia’s other powers trust that the US will support their legitimate security concerns, rather than abandon them to effective Finlandization under Chinese domination?

It will take enormous wisdom on the part of leaders in the region—and in the US—to find diplomatic solutions to Asia’s multitude of geopolitical and geo-economic tensions. In the absence of supporting regional institutions, there is little else to ensure that the desire for peace and prosperity prevails over conditions and incentives that tend toward conflict and war.