A new report sees South-East Asia as the strategic venue of a possible great game' by two superpowers - again.
CHINA'S irrepressible rise amid US continued pre-eminence has been reverberating around the globe, spewing truckloads of issues for dissection and debate.
Among these issues is South-East Asia as a regional theatre for economic integration, diplomatic engagement or military entanglement. Despite declarations of the best intentions by all, the events that result may not always be desirable.
The New Geopolitics of Southeast Asia, released this month by the London School of Economics' (LSE) IDEAS, a centre for the study of international affairs, diplomacy and grand strategy, focuses on the region in this context. So what is one to make of China-US or US-China relations in this regional “theatre”?
Part of the first section, dramatically titled “The Clash,” and the Conclusion are by Malaysian banker Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, a doctoral student at the LSE back in 1978. Dr Munir is also the only South-East Asian among the three contributors in this section.
He begins by sketching the regional scenario as it develops: China's rise, followed by US scurrying to make up for a perceived lack of attention to East Asia after its preoccupation with West and South Asia. Washington's “relative neglect” is now embodied in its “pivot” strategy of moving 60% of its naval force to East Asia by 2020.
Interestingly, 2020 is also the target year for this region first Malaysia, then Asean as a whole, and then China to achieve peak economic performance. And there lies the rub: while East Asian planners emphasise economic development, US planners stress military force.
The economic dimension remains paramount in East Asian thinking in times of plenty and adversity. As Dr Munir notes, during the devastating 1997-98 financial crisis China stopped its planned devaluation of the renminbi as a lifeline to stricken regional economies, while the US was “conspicuous by its inaction”.
However, he also finds that US moves have not entirely neglected economics, such as Hillary Clinton's regional roadshow towards the end of 2010. Nonetheless, these efforts are still seen as belated, few and far between.
The larger issue is whether the US can accommodate China's rise with wisdom, maturity and equanimity. Prickly talk in Washington about branding China a “currency manipulator”, or a tendency to resort to military manoeuvres, is not encouraging.
Dr Munir recounts US strengths and weaknesses, but includes among the former a “military force without equal”. But having to spend half the entire world's military expenditure each year is more a weakness than a strength, particularly when the US is also the world's biggest debtor nation.
The only “strength” there resides in the US military-industrial complex, since the military sector is unproductive and can conceivably “profit” only through war and conquest. Recent developments however suggest that such gains tend to be temporary or illusory.
Meanwhile, the political strategy behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes some countries but excludes others, the latter being the newest Asean countries and notably China, is likely to weaken Asean. Such divisiveness in a supposedly economic entity is illogical, counter-intuitive and ultimately counter-productive.
But that is consistent with US refusal to adopt a more internationalist outlook on the conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Dr Munir says the US should, instead of simply repeating outdated mantras, consider the deep seabed the common heritage of mankind and form US policy on this basis.
That approach would engage China positively and win support and confidence among other countries. But in his own recent experience in Washington, senior senators and policy researchers were predictably uncreative in their approaches.
On the recent South China Sea spats between China and the Philippines and then Vietnam, Dr Munir refers tellingly to Washington's ambiguity in extending protection to security allies in the region. Where treaties or some formal understanding exist, what can the declared US “neutrality” mean or be taken to mean?
This ambiguity applies also to the East China Sea, where Japan's security treaty with the US is often assumed to cover outbreaks of conflict over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with China. Some US officials, like the US Congressional Research Service that informs policymakers, reject such disputed areas as distinctive national territory covered by categorical security guarantees.
Much of Dr Munir's contribution centres on issues arising from conflicting maritime claims, which represent the most likely flashpoint in today's South-East Asia, despite there being other important issues to consider. The key question is whether any country can conceive of a rising China in the context of today's realities, as distinct from ideological preconceptions and national prejudices.
Dr Munir finds the economic data showing that far from China swamping other countries by “its” exports, these are really mostly exports of its major investors based there. It is a China “at the centre of regional and international division of labour” and of regional and international economic integration.
Between 2009 and 2010, imports into Asean countries from the US declined sharply while imports from China rose even more sharply. It gives a whole new meaning to “import substitution” in South-East Asia, apart from everything else.
Complex situations framed with delicate issues require sensitive and nuanced responses. A hyperpower anxious to even the score in the region will only act like the proverbial bull in the china shop, upsetting everybody's applecarts to nobody's benefit.
The rapid pace of changes is undisputed.
Dr Munir says China's economy may become the world's biggest by 2030, but others like the IMF now put it earlier at 2016.
By BUNN NAGARA