Monday, July 22, 2013

The 'alternative' discourse on Asia's rise

The dominant Western strategic discourse today is about the rise of Asia. This Asian growth story is however not without its challenges, according to this discourse. Maritime disputes, nuclear proliferation, China-India rivalry in the Indian Ocean, China-Japan-Vietnam rivalry, and other examples of discord, are being increasingly interpreted as existential threats to the international system. Why? Because like Europe in the past, Asian rivalries for power and influence is bound to be conflict-prone. This aspect is so over-emphasized that one worries if it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in an Asian War.

A close look at this dominant strategic discourse reveals a few points as most insistent over others. First, Asia is an emerging economic powerhouse and will host some of the richest countries in the world by 2030. Second, this economic rise will quickly result in rapid military modernizations. Third, Asian military modernization will lead to conflict especially over territorial issues. Fourth, these conflicts will get even more entrenched as China aims to become the hegemon in Asia.

Consequently, it is a sound strategic idea to form countervailing alliances, especially strategic partnerships between China's neighbors and the United States which encompasses military alliances, in order to keep China contained.

All these points have significant relevance for the United States "Asia policy" today. Yet, this discourse makes Asia uncomfortable. Why so?

First, Asian countries believe that military partnerships and strategic alignments against China would only make China more aggressive in its desire to break out of that circle of containment. Asian countries are therefore cautious about the implicit implications of encircling China by strategic alliances. Secondly, the economic rise of Asia, so celebrated in the West, is viewed with restraint by Asians living in Asia. Most point to devastating poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and social inequality that continue to plague almost all the countries in the region, including China and India. Thirdly, the discourse on rising competition and eventual Asian war forewarns the people of Asia given their experiences of wars between Asian states not so long ago, coupled with their experiences of 19th and early 20th centuries Western colonial conquests. Those memories continue to linger, through stories handed down by earlier generations, popular culture and academic writings.

Hence, there are two discourses in the world today. A dominant Western one views Asia as a vehicle of economic growth and military competition, resulting in plausible military conflict. The alternative discourse is the Asian "cautionary" discourse about Asia's rise, where talk of wars and military interventions of any kind is treated with extreme caution.

It is true that Asian countries neighboring China, including India, are concerned about China's recent territorial aggression in the South and East China Seas, and India's border. However, none of them would want to live through an Asian military conflict over territorial differences. Hence, there is a growing determination to create the regional institutional mechanisms to avert the negative impacts of China's rise and instead showcase the positive aspects: a country rising from tremendous hardships internally to become one of Asia's own success story. It is rather important that this alternative Asian discourse has some echo amongst those thinking strategically about the world's future in Western capitals.

Dr Namrata Goswami is a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington, D.C. and Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Courtesy Joyo News

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