Articles

Reading Between the Lines in Asia

In Diplomacy on June 30, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Asia represents perhaps the best current example of a region in which rising powers are competing with each other as well as the existing powers for increased influence and power in a convoluted web of diplomacy. This behavior is not at all unfamiliar to those who have studied diplomatic history, but for those uninitiated in the twists and turns of competitive peacetime diplomacy in an anarchic world system it might seem that the countries involved were trying to make things as confusing (and thus unstable) as possible. Further, the dots of individual policies might seem so diffuse and without clear direction as to be impossible to connect. Yet connections may be inferred; it is these first threads of linkage between behavior and possible outcome that underpin the development of long-range strategic policy. While strategy always relies upon prediction and speculation, these are not applied without basis, at least by responsible practitioners.

Witness the developments of the last few days in East and Central Asia. The Economist reports that China has agreed to supply Pakistan with two additional nuclear reactors for its existing Chasma facility. (The Economist, The Power of Nightmares, 24 Jun 2010) With Pakistan being a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and already possessing nuclear weapons, as well as having an extensive history of proliferation and significant links to radical Islam, this is obviously of concern, particularly to India, Pakistan’s major regional rival. India, also a nuclear-armed power outside the NPT, is now engaged in preliminary discussions with both Japan and South Korea to expand its nuclear facilities, according to the Wall Street Journal. (The Wall Street Journal, Japan and India Launch Talks on Civilian Nuclear Pact, 29 Jun 2010) While there are legitimate energy needs to be met by nuclear power in both countries, these moves come too close together and raise too many questions to be simple coincidence.

China’s willingness to assist Pakistan is nothing new – it has provided arms in the past, as well as nuclear technology and even a nuclear warhead design. China views Pakistan as a useful client state that helps to balance India (China’s biggest regional rival in South Asia) and, indirectly, the United States (China’s biggest global rival). China is not particularly concerned about nuclear proliferation among Middle Eastern states or even Islamic radicals, as it appears to operate on the Machiavellian assumption that there are other powers that will suffer more from these developments, perhaps allowing China room to maneuver diplomatically.

Japan’s possession of peaceful nuclear technology has long been considered not only safe from domestic weaponization (opposition to nuclear weapons is understandably high among the Japanese people), but also from proliferation beyond its borders. Japan has had a strict policy of refusing to export nuclear technology to non-signatories to the NPT; the discussions with India vigorously cast aside that policy. Not only is India not a member of the NPT, but it has produced and tested nuclear weapons outside of it. Why has Japan suddenly altered its position, and why is it choosing to help India?

Part of the answer is mundane: the Indian market for energy is lucrative and growing, and the Japanese see opportunity. The willingness of South Korea to assist the Indians has only increased the market pressures on Japan to relax its nuclear policies. This alone, however, seems rather weak as the sole explanation for such a radical ideological shift.

The strategic calculus involved is somewhat complex, but when considered it provides a stronger rationale for Japan’s rather sudden change of heart. Both Japan and South Korea are very concerned by China’s rise. Neither is capable of containing China on their own; China’s population is too big and its economy and military too large for either to confront directly. The United States has taken a very weak position on China’s growing power, accepting it in no small part due to the huge amount of U.S. debt that China buys; Japan and South Korea rightly fear that the U.S. may not be willing (or in fact able) to act assertively to protect their interests when they come into conflict with those of the Chinese. Thus both recognize that they must seek to protect their own interests and balance China by cultivating additional strategic alliances: India is the obvious choice for such a relationship.

India and China are major rivals in Southeast Asia, economically and diplomatically. While China’s industrialization and economic development is more advanced than India’s, India has made considerable strides and looks poised to continue, particularly in the information technology field. In current policy as much as reputation, India’s democratic government is considered less threatening than totalitarian China’s, affording India some advantage in dealing with other governments. Both compete for influence in such economically and strategically important countries as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. China’s aggressive attempts to penetrate these markets are increasingly seen as economic imperialism, while the region’s policymakers are all too aware that China’s military could easily dominate the region if the U.S. Navy’s presence were reduced.

China’s naval build-up has been going on for some time, but India too has been attempting to increase its naval power, most notably by developing a useful aircraft carrier force, the centerpiece of a blue-water navy capable of conventional power projection ever since the Second World War. While there is no joy at the prospect of India eventually becoming a regional hegemon or any sort of major armed conflict breaking out in the region, the idea of India rising to meet the primary challenge of the moment – a hegemonic China – is likely to be quietly welcomed in capitals from Tokyo and Seoul to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The nuclear deals with Pakistan and India are all part of the ongoing diplomatic maneuvering. Selective nuclear proliferation has long been used as a tool to bind alliances together more tightly, and to offset the rising power of rivals both directly and indirectly. China is trying to maintain its advantage over India, Japan and South Korea; Japan and South Korea are trying to balance China; Pakistan and India are seeking advantage in their own more localized rivalry, and are happy for the possibilities offered by the broader regional situation. Nuclear technology is one of the few things that the more developed powers can offer those nations whose assistance they seek; as noted, Pakistan and India both have burgeoning energy needs, and China, Japan, and South Korea otherwise have little to offer in this regard. The secondary possibilities – in this case, weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists or technology into the hands of other states that seek nuclear capabilities outside the region – are too vague and too remote to receive significant value in the calculation.

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