This edition of the IPCS Column, 'East Asia Compass', is the precis of a larger document titled 'East Asia in 2015', published under the IPCS Forecast 2015 series.
The future political landscape of Asia-Pacific would largely be decided, arguably, by happenings in the East Asian region. It is so because in East Asia, the interests of three important players of world politics - the US, China and Japan - come in direct contact with one another. In the last few years, these key players along with South Korea and North Korea have been trying to review and realign their foreign policies according to the ‘changing realities’ of the region. These ‘changing realities’ are not routine and they have potential to fundamentally change the nature of inter-State relations in East Asia as well as in the whole Asia-Pacific region.
US and China
The first and foremost bilateral equation that is going to be important for the region is between the US and China. The course of contest, cooperation, coexistence or containment between them is going to be played primarily in the East Asian region. In 2015, it would be interesting to see whether an ‘assertive China’ competes with the US’ ‘Asian pivot’ or whether both countries chart out a cooperative course for bilateral relations in the framework of the G-2, in spite of their several disagreements. In the past, the policies and behaviour of both have been to evaluate the extreme options and many more in-betweens.
However, in 2015, both of them would be pressed to take a clearer stand on their bilateral relations. There could be several possibilities between the two countries and it would be premature to say that any possible future is a given. Nothing is perordained and both the US and China are going to shape each other’s choices, preferences and postures, and more importantly, the process is going to be a non-linear and comlicated one.
China and Japan
The next important determinant for the East Asia region would be the trajectory of relations between China and Japan in 2015, the second and third biggest economies of the world. If they cooperate, they could create a huge positive thrust for the East Asian region and beyond. But if they opt for military containment or confrontation with each other, it would be a huge disaster for the region. From recent Chinese and Japanese behaviour, it seems that they are finding it uncomfortable to co-exist with each other as both look at regional politics in a zero-sum game model. In 2015, China and Japan need to make peace with the existing realities, and the recent meeting between Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping may have begun the process of mutual accommodation.
Japan, in the process, would have to re-think its quest to become a ‘normal’ State and its recent ultra-nationalist rhetoric over history, territoriality and other issues. Similarly, China also needs to re-adjust the course of its ‘peaceful rise’, which for a majority of neighbouring countries is not seen as ‘peaceful’ anymore. In 2015, if China does not review its behaviour, such as its stand on the disputes in the South China Sea, East China Sea and so on, it could propel many of the neighbouring countries to work overtly to counter-balance China.
In 2015, relations between North and South Korea would also be of significance. The Korean Peninsula is rightly identified as one of the flashpoints in East Asia and uneasy inter-Korea relations constitute the core of it. In the first two years of her rule, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been unable to begin a meaningful dialogue and exchanges with North Korea. However, if she is able to make it happen in 2015, it will be a welcome sign for regional politics.
For almost four to five years, North Korea has been going through a phase of succession, and after so much animosity, Kim Jong-un’s regime might realise that the same tactics may not work each time, which could lead to another phase of engagement with the international community. Inter-Korea relations are important because it brings in the US, China, Japan and even Russia into the process. The political game that would be played out between these big players, if the Korean Peninsula is weak and unstable, would undoubtedly destabilise the region and perhaps even the entire Asia-Pacific. Thus, a bilateral or multilateral mechanism to bring about a breakthrough in the inter-State impasse is required in 2015.
East Asia: A Strategy for India
For many decades, India has seemingly considered East Asia too far away geographically and has therefore lacked an integrated policy towards the region. India has been satisfied in maintaining bilateral relations with North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China separately and has tried to keep itself away from their bilateral rivalry in region. The Indian approach has been based on the consideration that India neither has interests nor the capacity to pursue them in the region. However, in the changing Asia-Pacific dynamics as well as with India’s growing economic and political stature, it has become unavoidable for India to articulate a coordinated policy for the East Asia region. India has not been able to keep itself aloof from the contest between China and the US or China and Japan. Similarly, it would insufficient to say that India would be able to maintain good relations with both Japan and South Korea without taking a stand on their bilateral disagreements.
India, which is an emerging power in the Asia-Pacific, must realise that the churning and transformation in East Asia is going to shape the politics of the Asia-Pacific in an important way. Thus, it is not only appropriate but also incumbent upon India to be a part of this process of changing regional politics. The new course of Indian foreign policy towards East Asia must be initiated in 2015 knowing well that the process would be difficult and time-consuming. It may bring both displeasure and support from various quarters, but a principled, consistent, transparent, and cooperative approach would ultimately be able to overcome it.