Shangri-La Dialogue: Viewing Asia's flashpoints and disputes through a different lens

Asia is united by geography and history, but in recent centuries it is the region's diversity that has played a greater role in shaping its strategic landscape.

Colonial division and Cold War insecurities have made it a region of inwardly focused developmental states, with unresolved territorial tensions inflaming national rivalries. Nowhere are the stakes higher in reconciling competing national strategic doctrines than Asia.

As defence ministers from around the world gather in Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, they should focus not just on debating these tensions but in actively resolving them.

Can Asia converge towards a common strategic culture that maintains lasting stability?

At the outset, it is important to update the framing of Asia as a region inevitably beset by irreconcilable rivalries. The past three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union offer a valuable counter-narrative.

Nearly one dozen major conflict fault lines exist in Asia from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the Korea peninsula to the South China Sea and Kashmir. But none has escalated to match the fatalistic expectations many defence analysts assumed. This is a sign of pragmatism and an emerging strategic maturity.

Furthermore, coming out of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, Asian governments have been shrewdly sharing lessons in macroeconomic management, trade liberalisation and good governance. By the time of the 2008 global financial crisis, Asians already exchanged greater volumes of trade with one another than with the West, insulating them considerably from the demand shock of falling Western growth.

GEOPOLITICAL FAULT LINES V GEOECONOMIC BONDS

And in the decade since, the East Asian Community, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and other measures have all contributed to a mutually beneficial increase in regional self-sufficiency in capital, technology and resources. In economic terms, Asia has overturned 500 years of fragmentation in a mere 20 years.

All of this has meant that while most of the world's geopolitical fault lines remain in Asia, geoeconomic complementarity has prevailed.

This strongly implies that a 20th-century view of the Asian strategic landscape increasingly lacks the nuance necessary to understand its 21st-century realities.

Western international relations theory, with its rigid views of hierarchy, hegemony and power transitions, is a poor guide to explaining and forecasting how Asia may evolve.

The current efforts at reconciliation between rivals such as China and Japan, and China and India, suggest that Asians are as likely to bury the hatchet as resort to arms. And even in the event where they do resort to force - in the South China Sea, for example - the result will not be another era of Western colonial occupation but a settlement that gives rise to a new equilibrium among Asians.

For example, even where power balancing appears to unfold in Asia with the emergence of coordination among Quad nations (the United States, Japan, Australia and India) in response to China, it would be unwise to extrapolate that conflict escalation would follow the path of European-style alliance formations.

The Asian tendency would rather be to sit on the sidelines and await the outcome, engaging in multi-alignment with all sides rather than locking in one course of action. 1914 Europe is therefore not the best template for 21st-century Asia.

That said, there are four overlapping arms races unfolding in Asia today that inform all leaders' calculations: A military arms race for supremacy, deterrence and self-sufficiency; an infrastructure arms race to build, profit from and control new trade corridors; an economic arms race to attract capital and supply chains to stimulate future growth; and a technological arms race over artificial intelligence, 5G and other platforms that enable leverage in the other domains.

There are both cooperative and conflictual elements to all four of these arms races that are shaping how Asia's regional strategic culture unfolds.

WHAT SHAPES STRATEGIC CULTURE?

Strategic culture generally refers to the preferences that emerge from a nation's own history and thought. What behaviours - such as the willingness to use force and the ways in which it is used - can we expect of a state in the light of its anxieties and priorities?

In the case of China, its formative military and diplomatic experiences shape its strategic culture as much as its self-perception as the Middle Kingdom. The Great Wall serves as lasting evidence of its fear of nomadic invasions. The Tang Dynasty's defeat by the Abbasid-Tibetan coalition at the Battle of Talas in 751 reminds China not to over-stretch and invite counter-coalitions. Centuries of internecine conflict with the kingdoms of Vietnam and Korea warn China about the perils of protracted conflict and occupation.

 
 
 
 

Much as a system of states arises from both conflict and cooperation, from friction and fusion, so too does a regional strategic culture arise from repetitive interactions and learning, assertions and adjustments.

Centuries of shared experience have laid the foundation for a nascent Asian strategic culture.

For example, the ancient Silk Road that privileged commercial and cultural exchange over military rivalries animates today's resurrection of trade networks despite unresolved border disputes. Consider how India has boycotted China's BRI summits over its projects in Pakistan but is the second largest shareholder in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the largest recipient of its loans.

This background is essential to understanding why and how China has responded to pushback to the BRI. As countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar have axed projects and renegotiated debts, China has rolled with the punches rather than forcing the issue.

Similarly, as the Quad countries cooperate to boost the naval capacity of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines to increase their own patrols of the South China Sea, China may well accept a more fluid status quo rather than fight a three (or more) front war in the name of hegemony over the sea's full expanse.

All of these precedents are contributors to a common Asian strategic outlook on the world even as Asian rivalries persist.

The current efforts at reconciliation between rivals such as China and Japan, and China and India, suggest that Asians are as likely to bury the hatchet as resort to arms. And even in the event where they do resort to force - in the South China Sea, for example - the result will not be another era of Western colonial occupation but a settlement that gives rise to a new equilibrium among Asians.

Whether the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula or China's seizure of islands in the South China Sea, Asians are capable of bringing an end (fairly or unfairly) to historical disputes, removing the need for Western stabilisers by means short of World War III.

If democratic peace is a foundation of Western strategic culture, then perhaps technocratic peace is an appropriate analogue for Asia.

In these ways, Asian powers are demonstrating a certain voluntary reconciliation of national priorities and establishing new patterns of behaviour that constitute an Asian strategic culture.

The test of whether they succeed is not whether they form European-style supranational organisations or create a common army. None of things will ever happen in Asia. Asia does not need to act as one civilisation when it is many.

Pursuing mutually beneficial integration while incrementally progressing on resolving geopolitical disputes to maintain overall regional stability is enough to prove that Asians can manage their own affairs without Western tutelage.

The more Asians invest in such regional thinking and accommodation, the more an Asian strategic culture will move from aspiration to reality.

Dr Parag Khanna is managing partner of FutureMap Pte Ltd and author of the new book The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict And Culture In The 21st Century.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2019, with the headline 'Viewing Asia's flashpoints and disputes through a different lens'. Print Edition | Subscribe