NEW DELHI – In Asia today, the economy is global, politics are local and security is local, regional, and transnational. The Taliban’s rapid return to power in Afghanistan reminded Asians that our security is interlinked. Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the question of how to engineer an economic revival for the entire region.
That is not the end of the region’s challenges. Between the ongoing standoff on the India-China border, the tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea, and the uncertain trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program, it is clear that Asia is now the epicenter of security risks.
The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has forced together a coalition of regional powers — China, Russia and Pakistan, with Iran’s acquiescence — to deal with the extremism and terrorism that the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” will nurture. Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime patron, will try to prevent the “Talibanization” of its own politics, but radical Islamists within its borders have already been empowered and emboldened. China, Pakistan, Russia and the Central Asian countries all face the prospect that homegrown separatists and extremists will find safe haven, weapons and support in the new Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The broadest response thus far has been an effort to reinvigorate counterterrorism cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — a regional group uniting China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the four Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In India, the change in Afghanistan raises the threat level marginally. But that is because India was starting from a higher baseline. For decades, it has faced a significant threat of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, and it has had increasing success in dealing with the problem.
In the broader regional context, the U.S. military withdrawal from Eurasia leaves it free to concentrate on its main strategic priority: the maritime containment of China. In September, the U.S. hosted the first in-person summit of “the Quad” (Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.) and unveiled the AUKUS agreement to supply nuclear-attack submarines to Australia (the first such transfer to a non-nuclear-weapons state). Once deployed, Australia’s eight nuclear submarines will have the potential to change the military balance in China’s near seas.
The Quad has evolved from a security dialogue to a real-world institution capable of providing valuable public goods in the domains of cybersecurity, public health, climate change and technology. Regional and maritime security will still depend on bilateral, trilateral and plurilateral cooperation arrangements, the string of U.S. bases in the region, and interoperability created by exercises like the Malabar naval war games. If fully implemented, these arrangements would constitute a comprehensive and flexible response to China’s rise and the shifting balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
The new great game
Although intensifying Sino-American tensions have so far primarily affected countries and waters to India’s east, they will seep westward soon enough. In the new great-power competition, all of the Indo-Pacific is in play. The Biden administration’s initial hope of compartmentalizing areas of competition and cooperation (namely, on climate change) has already been undermined, perhaps fatally, by China’s insistence that every issue remain interlinked. At the same time, it is hard to see the China-U.S. strategic rivalry remaining undiluted by the two sides’ mutual economic dependence.
For others in Asia, the Sino-American rivalry poses difficult choices. Many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations seek security from the U.S. while relying economically on China. Accordingly, governments across the region have responded by hedging their bets. They are forming local coalitions where possible, while studiously avoiding having to choose between China and the United States. But, given the trajectory of the Sino-American relationship, it remains to be seen whether this strategic option will remain available to them. What is already clear is these countries’ aversion to anything like an Asian NATO. Coalition-building as a form of hedging explains the continued vitality of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the SCO and other alternatives.
Another hedging strategy is to build deterrent capability. Over the past three decades, Asia has been the site of an escalating arms race (one that China has led). There is now a belt of nuclear-weapon states stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, from Israel to North Korea. Offensive-arms acquisitions were reaching new highs just before the COVID-19 recession, and they may now be seen as an effective form of stimulus to drive the recovery.
Meanwhile, China’s belligerence on the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas has led India to double down on strengthening its military and intelligence ties with the United States. More than 100,000 troops are now stationed along the border, and senior Indian officials have made it clear that the country’s partnership with the U.S. must deepen, even if a formal alliance is not in the cards.
The India-China border will remain a live issue, because Chinese actions have cast doubt on the utility of the confidence-building measures that have been implemented since 1993. Both sides are signaling a desire to move away from confrontation, but they differ on how to do so. India seeks a restoration of the status quo that existed on the border before the spring of 2020, and thus links the border issue to the rest of the bilateral relationship. China hopes to move on in the relationship while maintaining the new status quo that it has created. Trade between the two countries continues to grow, setting a record in the first half of 2021. But strong bilateral trade and aggressive territorial incursions do not sit well together.
Other threats to regional security include now-familiar flashpoints like the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, as well as somewhat newer transnational risks like cyberattacks, climate change, energy crises., and pandemics. Now that China has extinguished Hong Kong’s autonomy and destroyed the credibility of its “one country, two systems” policy, Taiwan has been subjected to ever-greater military coercion and pressure from the mainland.
Mutually assured insecurity
Should we worry that all this kindling will soon lead to a bonfire? I believe that a great-power war remains unlikely, at least in the current environment. Though several Asian powers are revisionist, particularly China, the gains to be made from any direct conflict do not seem to justify the potential costs. Moreover, nuclear deterrence should help keep the peace between the major powers. That said, the risk of local clashes, civil wars and proxy conflicts has certainly grown, as has the risk of miscalculation and accidents.
More worrying, then, is the international and regional system’s inability to address these issues, most of which have been apparent and festering for some time. Global governance institutions have steadily weakened, and there is a notable absence of effective regional security institutions. There is no balance of power or set of rules, norms and practices that would ensure stable and predictable interstate relations in Asia.
Concerned primarily with their own political survival, many governments are relying increasingly on nationalism and populism to establish their legitimacy, leaving less room for maneuver to address regional security issues or pursue multilateral solutions.
For now, Asia seems fated to live with chronic uncertainty and darkening prospects.
Shivshankar Menon, a former foreign secretary and national security adviser of India, is a visiting professor at Ashoka University. © Project Syndicate, 2021
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