Averting power disequilibrium in Asia

AT A time when Asia's power dynamics remain fluid, with new military capabilities and resurgent border disputes challenging regional stability, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are embarking on separate Asian tours that culminate with their participation in the East Asia Summit meeting in Phnom Penh.

Dr Singh's Tokyo visit seeks to cement a rapidly growing relationship between Japan and India - two natural allies - while Mr Obama's historic visit to Myanmar promises to aid India's "Look East" policy by marking a formal end to a 24-year United States policy of punitively isolating a country that is the Indian gateway to continental South-east Asia.

Mr Obama, by undertaking an Asian tour shortly after his re-election, has signalled that Asia will move up in importance in his second-term agenda.

His previously announced "pivot" towards Asia actually chimes with India's "Look East" policy, which has graduated to an "Act East" policy, with the original economic logic of "Look East" giving way to a geopolitical logic. The thrust of the new "Act East" policy - unveiled with US blessings - is to contribute to building a stable balance of power in Asia by re-establishing India's historically close ties with countries to its east.

India, in fact, has little choice but to look east because when it looks west, it sees only trouble. The entire belt to India's west, from Pakistan to Syria, is a contiguous arc of instability, volatility and extremism. An eastern orientation in its policy allows India to join the economic dynamism that characterises South-east and East Asia.

It is in the east again that Indian and US interests now converge significantly. The fundamental shift in the US policy on Myanmar eliminates an important constraint on India's closer engagement with continental South-east Asia.

India's new strategic ties with countries as varied as Japan, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam are important moves on the grand Asian chessboard to increase its geopolitical leeway. The US, for its part, has strengthened and expanded its security arrangements in Asia in recent years by making the most of the growing regional concerns over China's increasingly muscular approach on territorial and maritime disputes.

Both the US and India have deepened their strategic ties with Japan, which has Asia's largest naval fleet, a US$5.5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) economy, impressive high-technology skills, and a per capita income almost six times greater than China's, when adjusted for purchasing power parity. The first serious Indo-Japanese naval exercise, involving a search- and-rescue operation, was held off the Japanese coast just five months ago.

India and Japan, despite their messy domestic politics and endemic scandals, actually boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today. Since they unveiled a "strategic and global partnership" in 2006, their political and economic engagement has grown remarkably.

A free-trade agreement between the two countries came into force last year. Their 2008 security declaration was modelled on Japan's 2007 defence cooperation accord with Australia - the only other country with which Japan, a US military ally, has a security cooperation arrangement. The India-Japan security declaration, in turn, spawned a similar India- Australia accord in 2009.

Dr Singh's Tokyo visit will likely set the stage for building closer bilateral security cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans. At a time when India is reflecting on the lessons of its rout by the invading Chinese forces 50 years ago - the only foreign war Communist China has won - Japan has been concerned by a new war of attrition China has launched by sending patrol ships daily to the waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku island group that Beijing claims and calls Diaoyu.

This physical assertiveness, which coincidentally began around the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Chinese military attack on India, followed often violent anti-Japanese protests in China in September and a continuing informal boycott of Japanese goods that has led to a sharp fall in Japan's exports.

India and Japan are set to sign a formal agreement for the joint development of rare-earth minerals in India. This will mark the latest of several such international agreements since China used its monopoly on rare-earths production to cut off such exports to Japan and restrict sales to Western countries in 2010, prompting the US, the European Union and Japan to file a World Trade Organisation complaint alleging that Beijing was using that monopoly as a weapon. Thanks to the new agreements, production of these critical minerals is expanding at plants outside China, undercutting the Chinese monopoly.

With Asia troubled by growing security challenges, trilateral US-India-Japan security cooperation is also beginning to take shape. These three democratic powers recently held their third round of security consultations in New Delhi, after similar meetings earlier in Washington and Tokyo. These consultations are just one sign of their shift from emphasising shared values to seeking to trilaterally protect shared interests. Their trilateral cooperation could lead to trilateral coordination, with a potentially positive impact on Asian security and stability.

The nascent trilateral security cooperation may signal moves to form an entente among the three leading democracies of the Asia-Pacific, along the lines of the pre-World War I Franco-British-Russian "Triple Entente", which was designed to meet the challenge posed by the rise of an increasingly assertive Germany. The current steps, however, are still tentative, and meaningful trilateral security collaboration demands important shifts in the US, Japanese and Indian strategic policies, including a readiness to build military inter-operability trilaterally.

Such an entente's geopolitical utility, however, is likely to transcend its military value. A geopolitical entente, for example, can help strengthen maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region - the world's leading trade and energy seaway - and contribute to building a stable Asian power equilibrium.

A fast-rising Asia has become the defining fulcrum of global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now help to shape the international security and economic environment. Yet Asia, paradoxically, is bearing the greatest impact of such shifts, as underscored by the resurgence of Cold War-era territorial and maritime disputes. A constellation of powers linked by interlocking bilateral, trilateral, and possibly even quadrilateral strategic cooperation has thus become critical to help institute power stability in Asia and to ensure a peaceful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut (Harper, 2010) and Water: Asia's New Battlefield (Georgetown University Press, 2011).