Fri, Jan 08, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Asia’s shifting power balance

As US-China ties deepen, the strain in some of the US’ existing partnerships could become pronounced

By Brahma Chellaney

At a time when Asia is in transition, with the specter of a power imbalance looming large, it has become imperative to invest in institutionalized cooperation to reinforce the region’s strategic stability. After all, not only is Asia becoming the pivot of global geopolitical change, but Asian challenges are also playing into international strategic challenges.

Asia’s changing power dynamics are reflected in China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, the new Japanese government’s demand for an “equal” relationship with the US, and the sharpening Sino-Indian rivalry, which has led to renewed Himalayan border tensions.

All of this is highlighting the US’ own challenges, which are being exacerbated by its eroding global economic pre-eminence and involvement in two overseas wars. Such challenges dictate greater US-China cooperation to ensure continued large capital inflows from China, as well as Chinese political support on difficult issues ranging from North Korea and Myanmar to Pakistan and Iran.

But, just when the US’ Sino-centric Asia policy became noticeable, Tokyo put the US on notice that it cannot indefinitely remain a faithful servant of US policies. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government is seeking to realign foreign policy and rework a 2006 deal for the basing of US military personnel on Okinawa. It also announced an end to its eight-year-old Indian Ocean refueling mission in support of the US-led war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, China’s resurrection of its long-dormant claim to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and its needling of India over Kashmir (one-fifth of which is under Chinese control), is testing the new US-India global strategic partnership.

The US has chartered a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal Pradesh issue — to the delight of China, which aims to leave an international question mark hanging over the legitimacy of India’s control of the Himalayan territory, which is almost three times as large as Taiwan. Indeed, the Obama administration has signaled its intent to abandon elements in its ties with India that could rile China, including a joint military exercise in Arunachal and any further joint naval maneuvers involving Japan or other parties, like Australia.

Yet, the recent Australia-India security agreement, signed during Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to New Delhi, symbolizes the role of common political values in helping to forge an expanding strategic constellation of Asian-Pacific countries. The Indo-Australian agreement received little attention, but such is its significance that it mirrors key elements of Australia’s security accord with Japan — and that between India and Japan. All three of these accords, plus the 2005 US-India defense framework agreement, recognize a common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, and obligate their signatories to work together to build security in Asia.

An Asian geopolitical divide centered on political values would, of course, carry significant implications. And, while Asia — with the world’s fastest-growing markets, fastest-rising military expenditures, and most-volatile hot spots — holds the key to the future global order, its major powers remain at loggerheads.

Central to Asia’s future is the strategic triangle made up of China, India and Japan. Not since Japan rose to world-power status during the Meiji emperor’s reign in the second half of the 19th century has another non-Western power emerged with such potential to alter the world order as China today. Indeed, as the US intelligence community’s assessment last year predicted, China stands to affect global geopolitics more profoundly than any other country.

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