Tue, Mar 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

A new order is required
for the Indo-Pacific region

Indo-Pacific powers must take stronger action to strengthen regional stability, reiterating their commitment to shared norms, not to mention international law, and creating robust institutions

By Brahma Chellaney

Illustration: Yusha

Security dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific region.

The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources and the most dangerous strategic hot spots.

One might even say that it holds the key to global security.

The increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” region — which refers to all nations bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans — rather than “Asia-Pacific” region, underscores the maritime dimension of today’s tensions.

Asia’s oceans have increasingly become an arena of competition for resources and influence.

It now seems likely that future regional crises will be triggered and/or settled at sea.

The main driver of this shift has been China, which over the past five years has been working to push its borders far out into international waters, by building artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Having militarized these outposts — presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the world — it has now shifted its focus to the Indian Ocean.

Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which has expropriated its main port from a Dubai-based company, possibly to give it to China.

Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s China-controlled Gwadar port and it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that would provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines in the Indian Ocean.

In short, China has transformed the region’s strategic landscape in just five years.

If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages.

The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most nations in the region support.

Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

To mitigate the threat, the nations of the Indo-Pacific region must confront three key challenges, beginning with the widening gap between politics and economics.

Despite a lack of political integration and the absence of a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific region, free-trade agreements are proliferating, the latest being the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

China has emerged as the leading trade partner of most regional economies, but booming trade alone cannot reduce political risks. That requires a framework of shared and enforceable rules and norms.

In particular, all nations should agree to state or clarify their territorial or maritime claims on the basis of international law, and to settle any dispute by peaceful means — never through force or coercion.

Establishing a regional framework that reinforces the rule of law would require progress on overcoming the second challenge: the region’s “history problem.”

Disputes over territory, natural resources, war memorials, air defense zones and textbooks are all linked, in one way or another, with rival historical narratives. The result is competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms that imperil the region’s future.

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