Russia’s role in parts of East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania needs to be reconfigured, as it has the potential to be a critical stakeholder, writes Pankaj Kumar Jha, Professor and Director of the Centre for Security Studies, O P Jindal Global University. This article was prepared for the Valdai Club’s 13th Asian Conference.
The industrial revolution of the 17th century ushered in a shift of the economic centre of gravity to Europe, and at the same time, the start of colonialism in Asia. The 21st century has facilitated the return of the economic centre of gravity to Asia; the onset of the 4th industrial revolution has also changed the template of globalisation. This entails globalisation with localisation and trickle-down effects in a sustainable and equitable manner.
Asia is divided into different regional constructs such as West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. At the political level, the continent has Kingdoms/Sheikhdoms in West Asia (the Middle East), single party rule in Vietnam, Laos and China, a dual-party structure in Malaysia, nascent democracies in the Philippines and Indonesia, while India stands out as the most vibrant democracy in Asia.
Regional security in these parts of the continent has been addressed by different regional formulations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), SAARC and ASEAN, as well as informal mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, which includes members from Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) as well as Russia and the US.
In maritime domain, mechanisms such as Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and RECAAP have been instrumental in addressing maritime security issues, but these institutions have their limitations. Within the Indian Ocean, IORA has been building consensus on six core areas – trade and investment facilitation; academic, science and technology co-operation; maritime safety and security; disaster risk management, tourism and cultural exchanges; and fisheries management.
In terms of international political clout, Asia has one Security Council member, China, while Japan and India both aspire to obtain permanent Security Council membership. The Concert of Asia and large informal mechanisms address core issues at multilateral levels, but of late, the impending territorial disputes, land and maritime borders have aggravated tensions in Asia. These include Iran-UAE, Afghanistan-Pakistan, India-China and China-Vietnam, the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as many other latent conflicts related to culture, history and traditions.
Asia has resolved some of the long-lasting conflicts such as Aceh in Indonesia and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, but unstable regimes and long-drawn conflicts linger in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Israel-Palestine, thereby jeopardising any stable peace which can help in reaping a development dividend.
Terrorism may remain a major challenge which would require an intense approach, but merely defining terrorism across regions in Asia, given sectarian and ethnic narratives regarding terrorism used by certain actors and nation, remains a major challenge. The weakened Islamic State, with its global following, and the weakness of collective countermeasures are a matter of concern for future. The fifth wave of terrorism is what concerns the people and the edifice of globalisation.
The role of regional organisations such as ASEAN has been appreciated but it has not yet been a very successful story. Furthermore, the lack of any regional security forum in Northeast Asia to address issues related to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The Arab initiative to introduce an Islamic Military Alliance and the GCC are seen discriminatory towards Iran and its allies. Amid such circumstances, Asian security would be a major issue which would necessitate a dialogue among the Asian nations.
The maritime disputes related to the islands of the South China Sea and East China Sea as well as piracy in the Indian Ocean choke points may be major challenges in the future. They threaten to impact freedom of navigation and the exploitation of seabed energy and mineral resources. The blue economy and the need for harnessing marine resources present a major challenge. Globalisation will have the World Ocean and the Arctic region as new destinations.
The globalisation of education, knowledge and skills may serve as a template for the future but for this, there is a need for rational narratives and honest discourses.
Asia – An Emerging Arena
The G-20 has seven Asian members and is one of the most influential financial and economic blocs. In the UN Security Council, five non-permanent members are from African and Asian states, while there are 53 Asian countries in the UN General Assembly, one fewer than Africa’s 54.
Asia has a very large continental population (59.7 percent of the global total, with its highest population density of 143 people per square km, according to UN Population Statistics. Labour is relatively inexpensive, leading to the shift of production from Europe and the West to Asia. This large population also acts as a market for manufactured goods.
Asia’s growth remained in recovery mode in 2022, although the region will continue to outperform the rest of the world. In addition to country- and region-specific factors, the IMF forecast reflects four concurrent global crosswinds: rising oil prices, monetary policies, and exchange rate divergence in the major economies, as well as shifting financial conditions and incremental growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the need for alternate and resilient supply chains. This would put three structures in motion – existing supply chains, alternate supply chains and promising supply chains with different time horizons for realisation.
The advent of new technologies such as AI, 5G, blockchain technologies, increasing automation and 3D printing are poised to completely overhaul the supply and demand equation.
The importance of the blue economy and the need to harness resources in a sustainable manner are becoming critical issues, given the fact that resource nationalism and the search for new kinds of resources in the field of energy production and distribution would shape new dynamics in Asia.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB), New Development Bank (NDB) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are poised to help in building transnational infrastructure networks across Asia. However, mobilising funds required for building infrastructure throughout the continent would be a Herculean task. While AIIB has been orchestrating infrastructure funding, it would be more in tune with Asian priorities to include access to ports, highways, and other related projects.
The Asian Highway project and Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) projects, which are part of Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project, were initiated in 1959. There has been encouraging recent progress, and with the completion of an Asian highway and Trans Railway network, labour mobility and trade would see a quantum jump. The Asian Highway project entails a 141,000 km standardized roadway network, criss-crossing 32 Asian countries with links to Europe. The project still requires more than US $ 18 billion for its completion.
In the services sector, Asian countries, particularly India, the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Vietnam, are the likely sources of services both in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) sectors. With increasing literacy levels, the services sector is likely to grow in the near future. The market for the Asian services sector would predominantly remain limited to the European nations and the US. Given the domestic debate in the US and select countries in Europe, outsourcing the services sector would face challenges also. Data security and established norms for e-commerce security would be the other two challenges.
The emergence of alternate financial and trading structures would also place stress on norms of free and fair trade.
Increasing conflicts between US and China as well as Russia and the West would have an impact on the recovery process, but these conflicts have also exposed the limitations of military structures and international institutions. In such a scenario, dialogue is the only way out.
Importantly, the assurance of the US security to many of its allies is dwindling, including in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. One of the signals is Japan’s move to increase its defence budget to 2 percent of its GDP.
Russia’s role in parts of East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania needs to be reconfigured, as it has the potential to be a critical stakeholder.
Trade has even become a strategic good. Resources and markets have become a complex source of bargaining.
Interestingly, the major proponents of democracy themselves are involved in subverting democracy through social media and agencies which build perceptions and narratives.
Asia believes in ‘dialogue among civilisations’ rather than a ‘clash among civilisations’.