Power shifts towards Asian endgame.
Ever play that old board game Diplomacy? It was a favourite of President John F.Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger has said he liked it, too, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
It ranges over a map of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa before World War I. The players represent the powers of the time: Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. The aim is domination, partly by ganging up with other powers.
This week in Sydney, one of Washington’s toughest and most unrepentant neocons, Paul Wolfowitz, harked back to the same era when discussing the strategic outlook in Asia. The contemporary rise of China had striking and disturbing parallels to the rise of the kaiser’s Germany a century ago.
Many analysts had been saying that China’s economy – and the growth on which its domestic stability rests – is too enmeshed with that of the United States for it to let strategic rivalry with the present dominant power turn to conflict.
But Wolfowitz pointed to the famous prediction in 1910, by the British author Norman Angell in his bestseller The Great Illusion, that the mutual dependency of modern industrial economies made war between them unthinkable. A ruinous war took place anyway.
It’s not just neocons thinking like this. The Democrat administration in Washington and the Labor government in Canberra are both preparing for the worst with China, while hoping the current economic blessings continue: China keeps buying Australian resources and US Treasury bonds.
Alliance building is not proving easy in the real-life version of Diplomacy here in Asia, however. A case in point is the intense American focus on building up strategic ties with India since the former president, George Bush, tacitly blessed its nuclear weapons capability on his visit to New Delhi in March 2006.
As the Washington-based analyst Sourabh Gupta has just noted (in an essay posted on the Australian National University’s East Asia Forum website), the Indians are backing away from a too-eager American embrace.
The Pentagon had been hoping to build up “interoperability” with the Indian armed forces, to the point where India would become the Japan of the Indian Ocean, without the restraints of the Japanese constitution. Joint operations of “common interest” could move from humanitarian and disaster relief to enforcing antiproliferation sanctions, to “coalition of the willing” interventions and maritime patrols into the Pacific.
“US-India joint exercises, particularly, were seen as the glue that would furnish an operational ‘jointness’ on the ground, which would permeate into a correspondent strategic purpose at the highest political level,” Gupta writes. ”To this end, joint exercise upon joint exercise – on mountain, forest, snow, sand and sea – were conducted, such that New Delhi became Washington’s most active exercise partner over the past decade.” Out of this, it was hoped, would grow strategic alignment.
“But expectations have not been borne out – New Delhi appearing neither willing to confront Beijing in any security format other than one which is strictly bilateral [Sino-Indian], nor countenance the degree of interoperability in bilateral defence planning preferred by Washington,” Gupta says.
“Indeed, at the point at which defence interoperability assumes the trappings of quasi-informal military alignment, the tendency in New Delhi has been to reflexively shrink from such engagement.”
New Delhi has not taken up an offer to post a liaison officer at the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, and it warns its servicemen against unsupervised contact with American delegations. It is wary of US hydrographic surveys of nearby waters (though not as hostile as the Chinese) and has opted to stay with key Russian-built defence equipment.
Partly in response to Chinese protests, it has scaled back inclusion of south-east Asian and Australian warships in the annual “Malabar” naval exercises in its Indian Ocean approaches. “To the extent, further, that such ties are viewed in New Delhi as being somewhat superfluous to security requirements in its immediate maritime neighbourhood, US-Indian defence co-operation that assumes the characteristics of a quasi-informal military alignment will remain aspirational, at best – if at all – well into the future,” Gupta says.
If Beijing sent warships to protect its oil and gas drilling and pipeline interests off Burma, or had its submarines patrolling the Bay of Bengal, that might change, but “such eventuality appears hypothetical at this time”, he says.
On a visit to New Delhi this year, John Lee, an international relations specialist at Sydney’s Centre for Independent Studies, found Indians inclined to think just growing a huge economy and looking after their own defence was doing enough as a counterweight to China.
But there are Indian analysts who think India is intrinsically aligned with the West, and that a profoundly important US-India strategic partnership will evolve. The strategic analyst and journalist C.Raja Mohan even argues India will become a “Western” power rather than an Asian one.
While China has quickly become India’s biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade passing $US60 billion ($57 billion) last year, the critical sources of technology and investment remain Europe, the US, Japan and South Korea. That could change if Indian and Chinese firms undercut the older industrial powers in each other’s market. China-India trade could then exceed the importance of trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic flows.
Canberra is meanwhile showing the keenness so far lacking in the Indians. Since annual ministerial talks last November, US and Australian officials have been looking at ways US forces can make more use of our defence facilities and bases to extend a more visible US presence across south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean.
But stationing US forces here for the first time since World War II, as recently suggested by the US Naval War College professor Toshi Yoshihara, is getting panned. It would be sending all the wrong signals, responds ANU strategic studies specialist Ron Huisken.
“If Washington conveys the impression that it is circling the wagons and building a fallback perimeter beyond the reach of projected Chinese military power,” Huisken warns, “it will set off reassessments by allies and friends within the perimeter that will prove very difficult to contain.”
There is a market here for an updated board game.