By Vijay Shankar*
We note, with some anxiety, an unmistakable parallel to the current situation in the Western Pacific with what obtained in the run-up to the 20th century. An impending face-off between a rising and revisionist China against a loose entente of status-quo powers led by a deflected US that has set itself the task to pivot into the region and rebalance the strategic situation. All this at a time of convulsions in West Asia and global uncertainty. For the pivot to flounder is to legitimise Chinese illegal actions.
Lessons of History
The world of empires of the 18th and 19th centuries were remarkably well connected, willing to strike compromises that did not upend the status-quo and in turn enjoyed slanted stability. Imperialism of the 19th century thrust political, financial, economic, scientific and religious institutions that we see as underpinning the world system to this day. But beneath this global order run widespread fault lines that can invariably be linked to the nature of the expansionist impulse.
In 1894, China and Japan went to war. The conflict was significant for it marked the first time that a host of imperial powers would become directly involved in a struggle between two sovereign nations far from their own shores. Regardless of how these powers felt about each other, they had strong mercantile interests based solely on open access to China. Victorious Japan sought exclusive hold over China’s Liaotung peninsula as part of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Russia, Germany and France all felt that conditions imposed by the Treaty placed in jeopardy their own commercial interests and consequently threatened war unless Japan backed down. In the event Japan surrendered its claim to Liaotung in return for a free hand in Korea and increased war reparations from China. Within two years, Great Britain, Germany and France sensing the weakness of The Qing Empire capitalised on the political and economic opportunities and took control of vast local regions. China thereafter rapidly began to fall apart; it suffered two more imperial wars: suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and war between Russia and Japan in 1904-05 over ambitions in Korea and Manchuria. Battles were fought on Chinese soil and in the waters of the East and South China Sea. Imperial competition and ‘cosy arrangements’ in the region, as James Joll has pointed out, provided one more enticement for the coming First World War.
The Tearing Tectonic
In coming to grips with that tumultuous period in East Asia a convergence of three geopolitical fault lines may be discerned beneath the larger rift that had been caused by the decay and degeneration of the Qing Empire. The end of empire generated in China political stresses which pulled apart the state almost in terms of a geological ‘Tearing Tectonic’. There were three fault lines: an emerging imperial power in the form of Japan, intervention of existing rival colonial powers sensing large commercial and magistracy interests and the decline of an existing centre of power in Russia simultaneously fractured to release energies that catalysed the speedy collapse of the ‘middle kingdom’.
A French political cartoon from 1898 published in Le Petit Journal – “En Chine Le gâteau des Rois et… des Empereurs” – is most illustrative of the situation. A pastry ‘Chine’ is being divided between Queen Victoria, the German Kaiser, Nicholas II of Russia, the French Marianne cosying-up to the Czar and a Samurai Japan. A powerless Qing official throws up his hands.
The Unmistakable Parallel
As we examine contemporary geopolitics of the East Asian region we note with some anxiety an unmistakable parallel to the situation that obtained in the run-up to the twentieth century with a switch in the main protagonists. The fault lines against a backdrop of a global rift of uncertainty are all discernible. A rising and revisionist China sensing opportunity for hegemony in the region confronted by a potential entente of status-quo powers, more than likely to include Japan, Australia and India; led by a deflected and hesitant US, all to the exclusion of a declining and sulking Russia. This at a time of great convulsions in West Asia when the strategic paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multipolar; the tyranny of a techno-economic combine in conflict with politics of the state; the anarchy of expectations; and polarization of peoples along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalisation. An uncertain geo-political brew, as the world had never seen before, has come to pass under the shadow of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The Strategic Pivot
The ‘strategic pivot’ or rebalancing, launched in 2009 by the Obama government, is premised on the recognition that a disproportionate share of political tensions and economic history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia-Pacific region. The key tenet of this strategic reorientation is the need to cultivate a stable and predictable political, economic, and security environment across a region spanning the Indian Ocean to the West Pacific. Unsaid is the central dynamic to build an entente to contain and balance the rise of China. The military component of the pivot cannot be overemphasised and remains the abiding driver of policy in the region. The strategic importance of the pivot derives from the increased collective concern about China’s military modernisation and its larger revisionist objectives.
Theoretically the Asia-Pacific pivot makes strategic sense. However, there is sloth in implementation influenced to some extent, by the situation in West Asia and the unfinished business of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet allowing these distractions to dilute the strategic priority of the Asia-Pacific could well run the hazard of accelerating a return to an ‘atavistic actuation’ that threatens global stability. As events have unfolded, sloth has granted China a fortuitous time-window to prepare for the impending encounter. It also explains China’s impious haste in the development of military infrastructure and artificial islands in the South and East China Seas, operationalising ‘Access Denial’ strategies, declaring proprietary sea lanes of communication and Air Defence Identification Zones and a cavalier attitude towards The Hague’s verdict on claims in these seas.
The absence of a direct challenge to China’s provocative moves on the East and South China Seas, despite the fact that fundamental principles of international order have been defied, is to allow the idea of the strategic pivot to flounder. This will provide space to China to progress with its own unhinged scheme of a ‘New Model on Great Power Relations’ that creates a de-facto G2 and works to the marginalising of other major stakeholders in regional security. Besides such a scheme legitimises China’s claims in the South and East China Seas and in a manners anoints it as the recognised regional hegemon and a ‘system shaper’; suggesting a return to a situation analogous to the pre-20th century context.
* Vijay Shankar
Former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India