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Jakarta Post

Asia Pacific: The need for regional strategic balancing

  • Imron Cotan

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, September 16, 2014   /  01:11 pm

When the Cold-War era ended, Russia lost its military stronghold around the world and was reduced to a mere '€œregional power'€. Since then, its influence has also been challenged by countries that had traditionally fallen under its sphere of influence, the latest being Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US emerged triumphantly to become the sole superpower with the capability to project its military power virtually anywhere in the world by using its military bases, which are scattered worldwide, including in the Asia-Pacific region.

The maintenance of these military bases augured well with the US'€™ forward-strategy military doctrine, dictating that it would only engage in military campaigns outside of US territory. The US government was, therefore, shocked when al-Qaeda brought the theater of war to US soil in September 2001, by attacking the financial center of New York and the Pentagon.

The US'€™ reaction to the 9/11 attacks was as forceful as it was deadly. Under the banner of a War on Terror, the US led international coalition forces to invade Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

It is also currently engaging in low-level military support to topple President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
As part of a P5 plus Germany endeavor, the US is still bogged down in coercing Iran not to produce nuclear weapons.

The conflict in the Korean Peninsula as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict round off the US'€™ global agenda, apart from its protracted standoff with Cuba and a few left-leaning governments in Latin America.

While the US has been continually preoccupied with recalcitrant problems, China continues unhindered on its reform agenda, which was first introduced by Deng Xiaoping, whose 1997 statement, '€œ['€¦] it doesn'€™t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice'€, summed it up nicely.

Pursuing Deng Xiaoping'€™s agenda, President Xi Jinping introduced in 2013 the concept of the '€œChinese Dream'€, which is aimed at creating a moderately well-off society by 2020 and becoming a fully developed nation by 2049; that is to say, one that is strong militarily, economically, socially and environmentally (The New York Times, June 2013).

The results so far have been tremendous. China is now the world'€™s second-largest economy after the US. The Economist has asserted that China will bypass the US by 2021. Its economic growth is predicted to reach 7.5 percent this year.

China also owns roughly 30 percent of the world'€™s foreign reserves, with around US$4.5 trillion at its disposal. China'€™s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is also high, hovering at around $7,000 (World Bank, 2013).

Commensurate with its economic prowess, China has increased its defense spending. The National People'€™s Congress agreed last March to put aside $132 billion for military spending in 2014, an increase of around 12 percent from 2013. The Economist, however, has speculated that a 40 percent increase is more likely.

China is not without its problems, which include an economic bubble driven by artificial property prices, as well as separatist tensions and extremism, notably in Xinjiang province and Tibet.

Thus far, the Chinese government is in full control of the situation, although low-level conflict in Xinjiang and the tug-of-war with the Dalai Lama continue unabated.

The rise of China as a regional power has irked the US as the sole military power-projecting country.

Apparently, the US is convinced that its lack of focus on the region for decades had enabled China to emerge as an awesome competitor.

US President Barack Obama accordingly decided to refocus his administration'€™s attention on this region by introducing his '€œpivot-Asia policy'€, believing that '€œthe dominant issues of the 21st century will be decided in that region'€, as former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell said in an interview with the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Constantly confronted with recurring problems, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran, the US seems ill-resourced to play a determining role in Asia Pacific, creating maneuvering room for China.

The world is, therefore, witnessing the emergence of Chinese assertiveness, especially on issues considered to be central to its national interests, such as the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

China has taken a number of steps to assert its claims over these disputed territories, including issuing legislation to incorporate them into its territory; amending Chinese passports, depicting the contested zones as part of China; sending research and military expeditions to the contested territories, and establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

All these moves have been refuted by the contesting countries, as well as the US.

If these simmering tensions are not checked, the potential for open conflict will become a chilling reality. The hope that the US with its Asia pivot will provide a counter balance to China is an over-statement; the country is fully preoccupied with the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as with Iran.

The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq and Syria has further complicated the US'€™ agenda.

It is, therefore, fair to assume that the US'€™ strategic rebalancing in Asia Pacific has now stalled, enabling China to continue to assert its power '€” at least until the US has managed to free itself from these ongoing problems. It is going to be a long ride.

It must be kept in mind that the strategic rivalry between the US and China is neither a doomsday scenario nor an either-or option.

So, what can countries in the Asia-Pacific region do to help preserve the peace, security and stability needed to further their respective development programs?

First, they must put aside the '€œfalse hope'€ that the US'€™ Asia pivot will provide them with a security blanket, as it is fully preoccupied with pressing matters elsewhere.

Second, they must convince China not to rock the boat. As part of the wider Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN countries account for around 600 million people with combined GDP of approximately $3 trillion, which makes ASEAN the world'€™s sixth-largest economy.

Third, they must engage China in a series of consultations to complete negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, focusing on the need to jointly explore the disputed territories for the benefit of all.

Finally, they must invite China to help build regional connectivity by investing heavily in sea, land and air infrastructure projects across Asia Pacific, which would augur well with China'€™s '€œGo Global Investment'€ policy and with its drive to internationalize its currency, the renminbi.

The more China invests, the less likely it would rock the boat. Countries in the region should persuade China to do so before the US returns to this region in full swing. By then, China would already have a solid soft-power base in this dynamic and resourceful region.

Arguably, this approach should also be seriously contemplated by the next government in Indonesia, as it needs to live with the reality that the US will continue to be a military power-projecting country, while China'€™s efforts to become a key player are unstoppable.

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The writer was Indonesian ambassador to Australia and Vanuatu (2003'€“2005) and to China and Mongolia (2010'€“2013). He graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy - Tufts University, Boston, (2011) and was a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Wuhan University and Xiamen University, China (2011'€“2013).

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