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Message from Shangri-La dialogue: in a world of flux,South Asia is on its own

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
June 7, 2012 3:20:15 am

Message from Shangri-La dialogue: in a world of flux,South Asia is on its own

Asia is in a state of strategic flux. That was the single most important message coming out of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD 2012) in Singapore,organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Seeking to provide an element of stability to this flux,and inject a measure of certainty to an uncertain world,the United States offered some hard numbers. The US will tilt the present 50:50 balance in its deployment of defence capability between the Atlantic and the Pacific to a new 60:40 distribution in favour of the Indo-Pacific,the US defence secretary,Leon Panetta,told SLD 2012. It is a credible plan since it may not impose too much of a fiscal burden. Indeed,Panetta said the US would have a “smaller,… leaner… but… agile and flexible” force. When the French defence minister,Jean-Yves Le Drian,echoed similar sentiments about Europe remaining engaged in Asia,he was asked if he had the money to do so! He was honest enough to admit that funds would be a problem.

Fiscally constrained US and Europe are just about maintaining their strategic engagement with Asia. The US “pivot” to Asia is real and will be funded. But its success depends quite a bit on the fiscal commitment of friendly Asian powers. Will “allies” like Japan,South Korea,Australia,Thailand and the Philippines commit enough resources to bolster the American engagement? Will “partners” like India. Indonesia,Malaysia,Singapore,Vietnam and New Zealand offer fiscal backstopping? Will China cooperate and not use its billions to impose a fiscally unsustainable arms race on the US?

Asia’s strategic landscape will be shaped by how much money both regional and global powers would be willing to invest in the region’s defence capabilities. Pivot or no pivot,it is the “strength of the treasury”,as Kautilya articulated so clearly in his Arthashastra,that will determine the strength of the various armies in Asia.

SLD 2012 met in the shadow of the ongoing global fiscal crisis. Defence ministers of countries that had a healthy fisc spoke with greater clarity. Most others waffled. Interestingly,last year,China’s defence minister arrived at SLD 2011 with a swagger,exuding confidence,and spoke with authority. The weakening of China’s economy in these past few months and the internal political flux in Beijing meant that this year he skipped the event. Some commentators saw the absence of Chinese defence minister,Liang Guanglie,as a sign of China’s unwillingness to be cornered in public on its disputes with its Asian neighbours in the South China Sea. However,it is more likely,as was,in fact,stated by Chinese authorities,that domestic political and economic factors kept the defence minister at home.

While India’s defence minister,A.K. Antony,affirmed its commitment to “open seas” and spoke of the need for a “balance between the rights of states and the freedoms of the larger global community”,welcoming a stronger US presence in the region and committing India to increased engagement with its Asian neighbours,even his speech was viewed against the backdrop of India’s weaker economic performance rather than the hope of a stronger defence engagement with the region.

In short,while SLD 2012 met against the visible backdrop of the new US “pivot” to Asia and the tension in the South China Sea,the real but not so visible context was,on the one hand,the fiscal stress constraining the US and Europe and,on the other,the state of flux in the global strategic environment. There is as much confusion in an important strategic theatre like the Middle East as there is in East Asia. No one quite knows how the West can and will disengage from Afghanistan or how China will de-escalate tension in the South China Sea.

When a fiscal crisis gripping a distant Greece begins to cast doubts on the future of Europe’s engagement with Asia,it should be clear that along with globalisation and interdependence has come greater uncertainty in the strategic environment.

The current global economic slowdown and financial crisis is the first such event in the era of globalisation and growing multipolarity. The world’s big powers have,however,not developed new institutions to deal with this new environment. The G-20 was essentially an economic grouping and has not been able to widen its agenda to deal with strategic challenges. In the face of the inability of G-20 and the United Nations Security Council,with its outdated membership structure and its archaic veto system,major powers have tended to return to more familiar groups like the G-7 or form new ones like BRICS.

Both G-7 and BRICS are sub-groups of G-20. Some think that the “G-Zero” vacuum created by the inadequacies of the UNSC and the G-20 will be filled by “smart powers” and “fast powers” . There is even some nostalgia for the certainties of the bygone bipolar world and so some dream of a “G-2” — a condominium between the US and China.

Whatever certainties the future may unfold,the present is a world of flux and uncertainty. SLD 2012 showed clearly just how tentative so many nations are about the unfolding future. The outcome of the US presidential elections and the change of guard in Beijing,the resolution of Europe’s debt crisis,the evolution of democratic tendencies across Asia,the economic future of BRICS,so on and so forth. In all this,how flashpoints and hotspots like Iran and the Gulf,Northeast Asia and the South China Sea are handled will determine how the chips up in the air will fall.

Interestingly,at SLD 2012,few outside South Asia were bothered about this region. In a world of flux,South Asia has to take care of itself — both on the economic and strategic front. When the region’s leaders realise that this is an opportunity rather than a problem,change will come.

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies,and honorary senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,

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