Opinion and Editorial

Dawning of the Asian age

Dr N. Janardhan (Geopolitics)
Filed on December 29, 2011

After centuries of colonialism and global domination by the West, Asia is on the cusp of re-emerging not only as a dominant economic power, but also as a potential political force.

However, just as Asia became a source of attraction for the West at the peak of its economic prowess, history is repeating itself.

While it appeared that the United States – which withdrew from Iraq and will soon leave Afghanistan, despite both remaining unstable – had realised its mistake of meddling in other’s affairs and concentrate on setting its house in order, it is now targetting Asia to realise its own, not Asia’s, objectives.

In an article titled ‘America’s Pacific Century’ in the October 2011 issue of the ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that Washington should be “smart” about investing its resources in the right places in order to protect its interests and leadership. While Washington focused on Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, it needs to concentrate on Asia-Pacific during the next decade because the future of politics will be decided here, she stressed.

A month later in Indonesia, Barack Obama became the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit. Thereafter, he announced setting up of a new military base in Darwin, Australia, which serves to reiterate that the United States is not just an Atlantic, but also a Pacific, power.

Washington’s focus on Asia kills several birds in one stone – it provides a platform to guard against its ‘declining power’ image; allows for continuing its security guarantor role of some key growth engines, which entails economic benefits; and presents an opportunity to shape an ‘Asian Century’ while accrue strategic benefits in the process.

Asia – with multiple power centres, fault lines, rivalries and conflicts – serves as a perfect setting for Washington to play its politics and fulfill its interests. Though Washington has not publicly stated so, the principal target in its new game is China, which is also a rapidly rising military power embroiled in disputes with other Asian countries over some of the region’s waterways. Since China’s ascendancy challenge Washington’s Asian and global influence in the future, the US deems it fit to deal with it from close quarters.

While the US is entitled to pursue its strategic interests, doesn’t Asia need to assess if such ‘meddling’ is beneficial or detrimental in the long run? Isn’t Asia, which has displaced the West as the fulcrum of the global economy, capable of charting its own course in the political realm too? Will the US, whose defence budget is expected to “shrink by at least $350bn during the next decade,” continue to be a credible force?

There is no doubt that Asia is in a state of flux in every aspect of its development, which is natural during any transition. But, just as it sends conflicting signals about its abilities, it is also true that there is something in the depths of Asian ‘madness’ that helped it succeed amid the failures elsewhere.

True, Asia is yet to find its own model of conflict resolution, but as it moves on, it ought to avoid falling into a trap of external mediation. The presence of external forces is more likely to intensify intra-Asian rivalries than check them. A useful historical tip towards evolving such a scenario is the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi in March-April 1947. It was the first attempt to bring together leaders of various independence movements to assert Asian unity.

Renewed Asian unity must be seen as the natural extension of a new world that has transformed from a ‘multi-polar’ to ‘bipolar’ to ‘unipolar’ to ‘powerless’ in one century. Some argue that multiple powers in Asia, without external counterbalances, is a recipe for disaster. This could be countered by pointing out that historical experiences and the realisation that military misadventures could hamper their socio-economic overhaul plans – which are key to the governments’ power and legitimacy – would discourage them from any imperialistic or unjustified unilateral forays.

In any case, it is better to have a unipolar, bipolar or multipolar system arising out of Asian requirements and requisites, rather than be conditioned by alarmist external forces. An external “midwife” to help Asia deliver to its potential is unwarranted.

Asia is both the largest producer and consumer of oil. This economic reality needs to be quickly extended to other strategic areas. And, to achieve this, Asia must evolve an Asian, not a Western, Asia.

Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst, and author of “Boom amid Gloom – The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf” (Ithaca 2001)

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