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13 July 2017, Gateway House

Remarks from Delhi Dialogue 9

This speech was delivered by Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House, at the Delhi Dialogue 9, for the session on Regional Geopolitics: Great Power Politics in Asia -Pacific in Delhi on 4 July

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The following remarks were delivered at the Delhi Dialogue 9, for the session on Regional Geopolitics: Great Power Politics in Asia -Pacific in Delhi on 4 July.

  • Regional geopolitics is shaped by global patterns of inter-state relations and geo-economics, for the Asia–Pacific region does not exist in a vacuum. Global patterns are changing fast.
  • Against the backdrop of considerable change since 2008 (global financial crisis) and especially since 2012 (eruption of South China Sea as a key issue), the past year – from mid-2016 to mid-2017 – has generated much instability and uncertainty. It heralds transition to a new phase in regional geopolitics with two key features: i) polarization between those who can live with a China-dominated region and those who are inclined to push back; and ii) growing realisation that mere lip service to respect international law and its violation in actual practice would bring more tensions and turbulence.
  • The note entitled ‘Description of the panel’ states: “ASEAN as a regional multilateral organisation would be a principal agent shaping the outcome of the power struggles in the larger Asia-Pacific.” This assertion is somewhat questionable on two grounds: first, ASEAN is an object, not a subject, in the unfolding great power rivalry, meaning that it may not shape, but it will be shaped by, the policies of bigger powers; second, the lack of unity and coherence in ASEAN should not be ignored as it impacts negatively on the principle of its ‘centrality.’ This is no longer as acceptable as it used to be.
  • My assessment is that the regional political-strategic scene is moulded today by the changing equations among four powers – U.S., China, India and Japan – sitting at the top table and, to a lesser degree, by other members of the East Asia Summit that include the ten members of ASEAN.
  • The U.S. which ensured stability and security in the region, is now a cause of uncertainty and instability, for its new administration is yet to craft a clear and coherent policy towards the region. It no longer seems to be committed to Obama’s ‘pivot’/’rebalancing’ strategy, but what the next policy, as its replacement is, remains unclear. Greater attention has been paid so far to the North Korean issue than the South China Sea question and China’s generally assertive behavior in the region. Will this continue or change in the future?
  • S.-China ties, after a poor start, are now traversing through a positive phase. How long it will last before America’s ‘deep state’ discovers and acts on its traditional misgivings and apprehensions about the rising power? Will Washington view China as a G-2 partner or an aspiring regional hegemon that aims to be the Number 1 power in the world?
  • S.-Japan relations are back to nearly normal now. U.S.-India strategic partnership too looks in a healthy state following the Trump-Modi summit, but a measured dose of skepticism is justified: how many of the renewed commitments will actually get translated into practice?
  • In this light, ASEAN is a grouping torn by a strategic dilemma. It is a divided house on the SCS issue, policy towards China, and an acceptable regional security architecture.
  • Debate on ASEAN ‘centrality’: is it a mantra, a reality or goal?
  • Economic factors are relevant too when the U.S. dealt a grievous blow to TPP; current feeble efforts to resuscitate TPP minus U.S. are uncertain of success, and the pulls and pressures regarding negotiations for RCEP are set to delay its launch. Only the very brave can assert that it will be concluded by end 2017.
  • Our advice is that like-minded powers in the region, which care for their independence, sovereignty, equality and commitment to the rule of law, need to coordinate their policies more robustly. In varying degrees, they are: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Others should indicate where they stand. Together, they can make a real difference and help in attaining a regional power balance that alone will be a bulwark for stability, peace and progress.
  • Whether the U.S. will stand in support of like-minded countries or stand aside is and will remain the crucial question in the immediate future.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House and a former ambassador with extensive diplomatic experience in East Asia.

These remarks were delivered at the Delhi Dialogue 9, for the session on Regional Geopolitics: Great Power Politics in Asia -Pacific in Delhi on 4 July.

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