Asia-Pacific: New Theatre of Power Play

Asia-Pacific: New Theatre of Power Play

The 19th Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Hawaiian island of Oahu will certainly throw up new challenges as well as opportunities. The global theatre of power play will shift to the region stretching from the land linking Indian subcontinent to the Pacific rim countries including the Americas with diverse economic potentials, political set ups and strategic ambitions. The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s speech at East-West Center in Hawaii, on 10 November 2011, on the eve of the APEC summit serves a prelude to the forthcoming US strategies in the region, which will most likely be received with caution by other countries like India, Russia and China, as there are prospects of clash of interests among the members of the grouping and among other players in the region.

Hilary Clinton defined in very clear terms delineated the rising US interests in the Asia-Pacific region. She called the Asia-Pacific as the ‘pivot point’ and “the world’s strategic and economic centre of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific.” She pointed out, “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in this region.” She further argued, the US has mostly come out of the burdens imposed on its exchequer by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The international security assistance force is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan within a few years. This leaves, as Clinton reasoned, the US enough leeway and resources to divert from these areas towards Asia-Pacific, which has not been drastically affected by ongoing global churning, caused by financial crises as clearly visible in Europe. The US will be interested to forge new partnership in this region towards strengthening its economy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership with having few members of the region such as Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore will likely be further strengthened by the joining of the US, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru. During a visit to Tokyo last year in November, President Obama clearly delineated the US approach towards this power hub, and emphasized that his role as ‘the US’ first Pacific President’ will be multi-vectored in coming months. He declared, “The fortunes of America and the Asia-Pacific have become more closely linked than ever.” The last year has witnessed whirlwind tour of the US diplomats and leaders to this region, with the visits of President Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta. This time as well Clinton’s visit will cover a wide array of countries with vast and diverse political set ups in the region such as Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia, the last one hosting East Asian summit later this month.

The contours of the emerging power play in Asia Pacific will be mainly threefold: trade, strategic alliances and clashes over the values governing nation states… Among the three, the urgent attention will be given to trade. As the global scenario witnessing scattering of old economic and power centres, with the shifting of economic base towards Asia Pacific, increasing attention will be given to this emerging region, which accounts for world’s 44 per cent of world trade, 40 per cent of global population and about 54 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product. The economic growth of the countries in the region has accounted for 70 per cent of global growth in the past decade. While the Euro zone and also the US are grappling with the financial crises, the Asia Pacific region has witnessed steady growth in all these years. Starting from China down to the countries of Australia, New Zealand, or other countries of southeast Asia like Singapore, and even the countries of South America such as Peru, and other countries of this region as well have not suffered as other parts of the globe particularly in Europe or the US. Hence, in the field of trade, the US objective will be to brace up its relations with the regional countries. This summit will likely witness the strengthening of Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the US in the lead. The US trade objectives may clash with that of China, which has recently raised its tirade against the trade policies of the US. The Chinese official daily Xinhua of 11 November 2001 while analyzing the positives and negatives of the APEC summit urged the US to withdraw its protectionist policies. It quoted Assistant Commerce Minister Yu Jianhua who said, “China hopes the meeting will further promote the liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region, push forward economic and technology cooperation, oppose trade protectionism.”  The US on the other hand has harped on the point that China must appreciate its currency Yuan in order to have fair trade. The emerging trade matrix will likely see increasing tussle between the US and China in the region.

Another important component of this emerging power play is forging or shaping of alliances. The region is full of diversities, with different powers having different strategic objectives. There are numerous fault lines among the players in the region. China has differences with India on issues of border as well as sea dealings. Few months back China sent an official protest to India in order to not to enter into negotiations with Vietnam to explore energy resources in South China Sea. Similarly, China has differences with other South China Sea littoral countries. India has also evinced a keen interest to play a significant role in the region. This month, Asia Young Leaders Summit is being held in New Delhi, where members from 30 countries of Asia-Pacific region will congregate. While India enjoys good relations with Russia, which in turn has good relations with China, it will be interesting to see how the emerging aspirations of the US will influence these alliances. The regional alliances like Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Ganga-Mekong Cooperation Project (GMC), Bangladesh India Myanmar Sri Lanka Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) will unlikely remain untouched by the emerging power engagements in this region. Hence, when Clinton during her speech talked about the US interests in the region that spans from ‘the Indian subcontinent to western shores of the Americas,’ it is rather the assertion of emerging US approach in the region. The US has currently about 50,000 troops stationed in Japan and South Korea. There are various contentious issues in the region, ranging from South China Sea to North Korea and many others. China’s insistence on its ‘pacific rise,’ and its policy of ‘harmony and reconciliation,’ will have to go through increasing contestation and rising or breaking or moulding of alliances in the region.

However, the sore point in the emerging matrix will be interrogation of values practiced by nation states. Clinton during her speech said, “We have made very clear our serious concerns about China’s record on human rights.” The whole Asia Pacific region has sheltered different kinds of regimes, with having different kinds of political set ups, which will come under increasing questioning by the US and its allies in coming days. The countries like China, the second largest economy in the world, which has expressed its policy of ‘peaceful rise’ will likely take these statements and policies as unnecessary interference in their internal affairs, while the US will likely use this as a point for drumming support to strengthen and fulfill its objectives in the region. The point that needs emphasis is that the region that is so vast, so diverse, there will be bound to be subtleties in policies and diplomatic maneuvers to reshape the emerging contours of power balance in the region.

With the shifting of power centre from west to east, the coming years will also witness shifting of strategies and alliances. In this emerging matrix, besides the US, the other global players like Russia, India and China have to play greater roles towards maintaining the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.


Tags: APEC  Hawaii