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Asian powers scrambling for regional space

by Joshy M. Paul

Special To The Japan Times

Asia is witnessing a jostling among its major powers — China, Japan and India — for regional strategic space, and a flurry of activity by these countries is focused toward the Southeast Asia region, once a stable region but now a potential area for conflict. China, which is already a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is a superpower aspirant, while Japan and India are yearning for a permanent slot in the UNSC. A common thread is all three need a favorable regional system to prop up their position and prestige.

At the same time, Southeast Asian countries are now increasingly welcoming major powers, including the United States, to be involved in regional security matters in order to withstand China’s high-handedness in the disputed waters of South China Sea. China is involved in territorial disputes in the resource-rich Spratly and Paracels islands in the South China Sea with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

China is increasingly asserting itself in the South China Sea, the latest action being a massive naval drill in the disputed waters in mid-June, hundreds of miles from China’s southern most border, in what is widely perceived as intimidating Vietnam. In fact, in May, cables of a seismic survey ship owned by Vietnamese oil and gas company Petro-Vietnam were allegedly severed by a Chinese fishing boat, which Vietnam accuses as a deliberate provocation. An unidentified Oceanic Administration official was quoted in China’s news media as saying that the civilian maritime surveillance force would be increased to 1,500 from 9,000 personnel by 2020 to safeguard Chinese interests in the Sea.

Recently, Japan has made major overtures to the region, especially to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Japanese vice-minister of defense, Kimito Nakae, said after a meeting of Japanese defense officials with ASEAN counterparts in Tokyo in September that the relationship has “matured from dialogue to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” on an array of security issues concerning the region. Besides, both sides have sought to deepen regional cooperation amid China’s creeping expansion in the South China Sea, and Tokyo signaled its willingness to play a bigger role with the regional countries.

Tokyo and Hanoi recently signed an agreement on nuclear energy cooperation and a Tokyo-based consortium has begun feasibility study for the construction of two 1000-megawatt nuclear reactors in Vietnam. These reactors are expected to become operational by 2021 and 2022. Though the Fukushima incident has created further hurdles at the domestic level for Japanese nuclear power companies, they are aggressively seeking opportunities in foreign markets.

Another development that will help Japan gain greater strategic depth into the ASEAN region is its agreement with Philippines on maritime security, signed during the visit of President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo in September. A strategic partnership with the Philippines and Vietnam not only provides Japan the opportunity to play a crucial role in the security apparatus of the Southeast Asian region, but the regional countries could generate some kind of confidence in its resistance to China’s assertiveness. Both China and Japan are now in a competitive quest, and trying to prevent the other’s rise to regional dominance.

On the other hand, India has decided to continue its hydrocarbon exploration activity in two offshore blocks given to the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by Vietnam, notwithstanding China’s protest. During the visit of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to India on Oct. 12-15, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding for joint oil exploration activities in the South China Sea, besides initiating a strategic dialogue. China had raised its objection against Indian exploration projects, claiming they are in its “indisputable” area. Admittedly, on Oct. 12, China Energy News, published by Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said that cooperation between India and Vietnam in these seas was a bad idea, and warned that “India’s energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool.”

The maritime domain has become a major source of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region compared with other parts of the world. Eminent analyst Robert Kaplan argues, “East Asia, or more precisely western Pacific, is quickly becoming the world’s new centre of naval activity,” which is entirely different from the post-World War II Euro-centric security calculation. China’s silent push for strategic primacy in the East Asian region has led to a period of military modernization by other regional countries. Indeed, to match China’s quantitative military buildup, all regional countries are making both qualitative and quantitative weaponization programs.

Evidently, China has cultivated a delicate foreign policy toward the Southeast Asian region over the years. It initially followed soft-power diplomacy by providing economic aid to various infrastructure projects and opening its domestic market for Southeast Asian manufactured products without antagonizing the region politically. This “feel-good factor” paid dividends as it helped China to sign a code of conduct on the dispute of the South China Sea with the contending parties, which eventually benefitted China’s “peaceful rise” theory.

Like the Western Hemisphere for the U.S. and Eastern Europe for the former Soviet Union, China necessarily needs a favorable regional system to enhance its global position. An economic consolidation in the Southeast Asian region is not sufficient for China as it seeks to reformulate the world order, a political pre-eminence is necessary especially in the immediate neighborhood. China envisions a new “negotiated world order,” in which it aims a hedging strategy of avoiding direct confrontation with the U.S. but prepares favorable conditions to shape its own order — a hierarchical order — in the longer-term in Asia.

China needs a peaceful neighborhood at present; otherwise its long-term ambitions may suffer. However, contrary to its calculations, none of the littoral countries is willing to accept Chinese supremacy in the South China Sea. China is thus lately shifting its focus to the Southwest Asia region comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran for a larger political role particularly after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. This may give China a more advantageous regional system as well as an assured entry to the Indian Ocean region. Yet, the Southeast Asian region still remains a challenge for China’s global ambitions.

In a way, in the coming years, all the three major powers of Asia can be expected to increase their presence, both economic and political, in the region. The bottom line is each one’s effort to augment its own status and power, though preventing China’s rise to regional dominance also figures prominently in the strategic calculus of India and Japan.

Unless the three countries behave maturely and prudently while engaging in strategic competition, Asia will be poised for a potential military conflict.

Joshy M. Paul is a visiting fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo and a fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. These are his personal views. He can be reached at mpjoshy@gmail.com.