Changing Geometrics of Asia-Pacific

Japanese farmers protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership at Hibiya Park in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Hajime Takashi, Jana Press)

Asia-Pacific has many strategic, economic and political facets to it. Countries in Asia-Pacific account for over 40 percent of the world's population, 55 percent of the world's GDP and about 45 percent of global trade. These numbers are rapidly growing. And the world's attention on the region has been steadily increasing.

Owing to its geopolitical, economic and security significance, Asia-Pacific was the setting for multiple power struggles during much of the 20th century. China, Japan and the United States have emerged as the major stakeholders in the region. This power struggle underpins the creation of major regional groupings, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In order to check against increasing Chinese domination, the smaller Southeast Asian states combined their strengths to form ASEAN and, through it, promote economic cooperation.

Thanks to their bitter bilateral history, since the Second World War China and Japan have rarely come to terms with each other ever. Their ties nosedived further in 2010 when the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese vessel for allegedly fishing in Japanese waters, provoking a diplomatic crisis in Sino-Japanese relations. The Japan-South Korea alliance has been another bulwark against the rising Chinese dragon. China sees them as fostering the interests of Washington in the region. The United States already has considerable military presence in both Japan and South Korea, not to mention the nuclear umbrella that the United States extends to these non-nuclear states.

The global balance of power seems to be shifting from Europe and North America towards Asia, especially China. In recent years, China has increased cooperation with ASEAN. Its burgeoning energy demand and dependence on sea lanes for trade has compelled Beijing to treat its ASEAN neighbors more gently. Yet, conscious of its newly achieved economic and military might, Beijing tends to bully its weak neighbors time and again, be it Vietnam, Taiwan or Myanmar. These "Big Brother" tactics deployed have made China's neighbors leery, pushing them to ally with the United States and India so as to neutralize what they perceive as excessive Chinese interference in the region.

Worried about its fading influence and the simultaneous rise of China in the region, the United States has once again shifted its focus towards Asia-Pacific. In its effort to rein in the Chinese threat and restore the balance of power, Washington has proposed to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which excludes China, by the end of 2012. In his speech in Australia last month, the U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned China by saying, "The United States welcomes China's rise so long as it plays by the global rules." The new security arrangements made with Australia, including the stationing of 2,500 additional U.S. Marines in Northern Territory, add to this containment strategy aimed at Beijing.

India is another indispensable player in the region. Trade and investment aside, Indian businesses are actively pursuing mineral exploration in the region, especially for oil. China perceives Indian companies' presence in the disputed South China Sea as part of the same U.S.-led containment strategy. If Obama's call to India to "engage east" instead of "look east" is anything to go by, it is clear that Washington sees New Delhi as a major ally in its effort to circumscribe the Chinese juggernaut. Corroborating this, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said recently, "The president very much welcomes India's "look east" approach. We believe that just as the United States, as a Pacific Ocean power, is going to be deeply engaged in the future of East Asia, so should India as an Indian Ocean power and as an Asian nation."

China's unease with an emerging India-Japan-U.S. triumvirate was well apparent when, on Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's maiden visit to New Delhi in December, the State-run China Daily reported, "Boosting ties with India is part of Japan's strategy of strengthening alliances with Asia-Pacific nations with an eye on China." It quoted Lu Yaodong, director of the Department of Japanese Diplomacy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying, "Japan's cooperation has been moving from bilateral to multilateral, trying to include the United States, Australia and India in its Arc of Freedom and Prosperity."

Looking forward, the future of the region remains unclear. Much will depend on how early and in what way the tension on the Korean Peninsula is defused in the aftermath of the change of guard in North Korea. With pro-China Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin almost imminent in March, Beijing can count on its northern neighbor Russia to some degree. Here, too, the resolution of Japan's dispute with Russia over Kuril Islands will hold the key to ascertain which way Moscow's unpredictable diplomacy leans.

Sameer Jafri is a freelance political analyst based in India. He writes on global, geopolitical, economic and environmental issues. He can be reached at