Burden Of History In An Asian Century – Analysis


Many writers have referred to Elie Kretty – one of the captains of Napoleon Bonaparte during his military adventure to Egypt (1798-1801). Kretty in his book – Souvenir Historiques, have quoted Napoleon that says – “Europe is too small; great reputations can only be made in the orient.” And the oriental countries from Japan and South Korea to China and India with their massive economic success have confirmed Napoleon – in making such reputations in modern history.

The first such oriental reputation had begun with Japan’s victory over the Great Russian Empire on May 1905. During that time, the country of the Rising Sun under the command of Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō destroyed almost all Russian naval power that was led by Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky in the Battle of Tsushima strait between Southern Japan and Korean peninsula.

In the Battle of Tsushima Admiral Rozhestvensky had reached by steaming over some 29,000 kilometers with 11 battle ships, 8 cruisers and 9 destroyers manned by more than 10,000 armed personnel and sailors. The historic battle in Tsushima to some historians and European statesmen has remained the greatest and most important naval battle since the Battle of Trafalgar – a war fought one hundred years ago that ultimately wiped out the greatest threat to British security for 200 years and proved the invincibility of British navy over Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet.

According to Pankaj Mishra “. . . for the first time since the middle ages, a non – European country had vanquished a European power in a major war” and people from Turkey to China were stirred at the news. Mishra has further mentioned the imagination caught by the Japanese victory that the newly born child in India were named after Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō and even the great Indian litterateur Rabindranath Tagore who later won Nobel Prize “led his students in an impromptu victory march” in a school run by him. A flurry of excitement was also felt by from the great people like Gandhi, Mao, Sun Yat -sen and Kemel Ataturk.

But it is Europe that made greater reputations. Within a period of 20 years, Europe went to Great Wars two times – the wars known as the First and Second World War. But after World War II – Western Europe abandoned all its centuries’ long animosities and returned to the longest and greatest period of peace in human history. The unprecedented achievement they attained was the success in building trusts in their relations and build institutions to expand and ensure trusts among them. After the end of Cold War it was extended up to its Eastern flank. They have challenges, they may have found themselves at the cross roads over some of the challenges, but militarily they are not threat to each others. They do not float fear among them. Wars among them are now unthinkable and indubitably, it is their greatest contribution to humanity.

In Europe, with regional bodies they constituted – they are working fine and have succeeded in managing their problems with each others in an inspiring way. The institutions they have created have worked as most effective shock absorber among and between them. But Europe ended wars but unfortunately Asia carried the war inheritance.

1. Colliding Course in East Asia and Asian Century

Ironically, the countries that have built enormous power to control the global economy and characterize it as an Asian Century, are living under the burden of history. They are yet to create some bilateral or multilateral forums to discuss on issues that are churning their relations since the beginning of the last Century and manage them amicably. For their inheritance to unpleasant history – they lacked trusts, do have no strong institutions to manage them and hoist flag of hopes and courage in their relations. They are managing their relations under the forces of globalization – but fear and distrusts have ruled them.

Take note of China and Japan. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party head Shinzo Abe – who after winning a land slide victory over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has clearly outlined the major priorities of his incoming government as follows: first to recover the health of national economy, second: strengthen relations with United States and upgrade Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to a national military so that it can operate beyond its border under the rules of engagement.

It is a matter to note that constitutionally Japan cannot engage in any wars beyond its territory and posses offensive weapons. Abe has hinted that his government is willing to amend the Article 9 of its constitution that renounces war as a means of resolving international conflicts.

According to international media sources Abe’s strategic announcement is intended to provide its military more assertive role that is visible in its waters and discourage China from extending its reach into waters that Japan claims its own. Obviously Japan has one of the most advanced and effective military in the world – together, it wants to play some larger strategic roles as an alliance of U.S. and NATO forces.

And third priority of the Abe government will be to try to improve its relations with China, but with two geo-political considerations one: rebuilding and re-strengthening the alliance with the United States. And the other: the unfailingly strong national determination to protect its territory including the ownership over Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands.

According to Asahi Shimbun – Japan’s most reputed daily newspaper, Abe in a speech last month said “Let us assume Japanese and U.S. naval ships are defending the Senkaku Islands and the U.S. ships come under attack. Whether or not the Self-Defense Forces can come to the help of the U.S. military will depend on whether the right of collective self-defense can be exercised. If it did not help, that would mean the end of the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

Some days before Abe made this statement, Japan’s defense minister Satoshi Morimoto had expressed his country’s willingness to revise his country’s security alliance with the United States and build more spaces for Japan in addressing the growing threat from China especially to the islands that were at the center of a territorial dispute. Japan’s defense white paper – Defense of Japan 2012 has given list of intensified Chinese naval and aerial activities surrounding Japanese territorial waters.

The US Strategic Defense Guidance 2012, announced earlier this year by President Barrack Obama and Japan’s Defense Whitepaper have endorsed each other’s position on strategic import of China’s military rise and its impact on their security in variety of ways mainly in East Asia and in Asia- Pacific. Both countries, in unequivocal terms, have spelt out their strategic policy in expanding their networks of cooperation to ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests.

Obviously Asia is big enough to make great history but much bigger are its challenges – when compared with any other continent. They may any day cause biggest danger to human society. In no other region such divisions – within the countries, among the countries and among the major global powers on Asian security, exists. It does have no any common political and defense framework to look after their common cause. Asia in all areas of major concerns – cultural, political, economic and strategic, is weak and have exhibited that it will remain weak for long.

2. Dreaming of War and Working on War

It seems when Asia sleeps it dreams war and when it awakes it works on war – war among countries and wars among peoples is Asia’s lovely game. Relations among Asian countries are more complicated than in any other region – whether it is East Asia, South Asia or Middle East.

South Asia has been a typical example of this. According to American National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) recent report released on December 10 : Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds “South Asia faces a series of internal and external shocks in the next 15-20 years” and is likely to trigger broader instability in the region and the Asian continent as whole.

South Asia – where the potential course of conflict is rising and going intense, if goes to war in future – most probably involving China or India and Pakistan, they are most likely to involve multiple forms of warfare including the use of nuclear weapons, the NIC in its report appallingly anticipates.

It has also shockingly disclosed that among the 15 countries that are at high risks of state failures – three are in South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The report concludes that the situation will not improve until 2030.

The report further claims that although the pressures exerted by China and United States, have persuaded both India and Pakistan to “increase their strategic dialogue and to begin open trade flows”, Pakistan’s envy over India’s rapid economic growth has further fueled distrust and suspicions and that has motivated Pakistan to continue its nuclear modernization programs.

South Asian neighborhood “has always had a profound influence on internal developments in all the countries”- that somehow has been the source of major sense of insecurity in the region- contributing to shored up military expenditures , it stated.

In way in finding some kind of deterrence and balance against India’s conventional military advantages – “If a Mumbai – style terrorist attack from Pakistan backed Islamic militants is repeated with many casualties followed by ‘Pakistani fingerprints’ would put a weakened Indian government under tremendous pressure to respond with force, with the attendant risk of nuclear miscalculation”, the report has made a clear warning.

To a large extent, post U.S. led NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 is likely to make conflicting Indo-Pak strategic competition over Kabul desperately dangerous and “hedging strategies of other Afghanistan’s neighbors will “make it difficult to develop a strong regional security frame work.”

Identifying the region’s most tricky aspects of bilateral and multilateral relations the report asserts that water may become a more significant source of contention than energy or minerals out to 2030 at both the intrastate and interstate levels. Obviously South Asia – that mainly belongs to the world’s major belt of water stress with its ever increasing population pressures, has attained limited capacity in managing with its mounting water stresses.

While China, for long, has played a pivotal role in almost all regional strategic profile of South Asia – from sharing of water resources to nuclear weapons and India for obvious reasons, on the other hand, has developed a threat perception vis-à-vis China – for its role mainly in supporting Pakistan and gaining critical strategic advantages over the region.

On this background, the report has further suggested that a crisis-prone global economy has been bringing rapid and vast geo- strategic changes in and around South Asia. And this when coupled with a governance gap in the countries of the region – potential for increased conflict, wider scope of regional instability, impact of new technologies, and the ability of the United States and China to manage their relationship and the nature and intensity of their relations with India, will by and large define the stability of the global system.

3. A Rising and a Riskier Asia

What China achieved in eliminating poverty and bringing prosperity for its people within a period of three decades is unparallel in human history. However, what China’s leadership and its state controlled media display at times says that the enormous economic and military power it enjoyed – is yet to be translated into level of confidence and trust in its behavior with other major regional and global power.

As quoted by Joseph S. Nye Jr. in the New York Times President Hu Jintao in the beginning of this year said “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.” Hu further said “the international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.”

Similar is the case with India. In a book – South Asia’s Weak States (OUP, 2011), T.V. Paul, an Indian Scholar working in Canada has identified four types of weak states in the region: “failed states, very weak states, weak states and strong weak states”. According to Paul while Afghanistan comes close to failed states category, Nepal falls under the second grouping. Rests of the countries except India come close to the ‘weak states’ type and the most powerful country of the region and an acclaimed economic giant of the 21st Century world – India typifies itself as a “strong weak state” of South Asia.

This way, including India all South Asian states on varied degree are weak states and have often failed to meet the core need of their national security, face the threats to their internal security effectively and build minimum institutional capacity to tackle the complexity of multidimensional security challenges they face.

When even the major global powers like China and India – right at the vanguard of an Asian Century, exhibit dire inefficiency in building institutions in enhancing trust with countries in their neighborhood and fail in taking effective actions against the situations that threaten their security, ensure stability and sustain economic growth, the buzz word of Asian Century may end into an odd joke of history.

What drives politicians is still a great puzzle in Asia. It seems they are yet to learn that – history can always be corrected but the geography is always to be respected and realized with greatest faith, trust and hope.

Refraining from nurturing its enthusiasm in advancing its strategic edge over India in other South Asian countries and assuring its neighbors against its territorial ambition in East and South East Asian waters, China can build a great moral political force that becomes fair to the size of its economy and its sustenance.

Similarly if India succeeds in maintaining internal peace and stability – effectively and boldly in addressing the concerns of its small neighbors in South Asia; undoubtedly, with the great reserve of moral strengths it generates – India confidently can lead the Asian century.

However Herculean task it may be until India and China including countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Pakistan gain ability in structuring an institutional framework to consult each-other in all areas of bilateral and multilateral relations, their massive geo-political edge and economic clout cannot be realized at the regional and global level.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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