Emerging Regional Architectures in Asia

This is a presentation I made during the 11th Russia, India and China (RIC) Trilateral Conference held from 15-16 November 2011 at Beijing, China. The RIC is a Track-II initiative that involves the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and the China Institute of International Studies, Beijing.

The presentation titled, “Emerging Regional Architectures in Asia-Pacific and the Greater South Asia” is presented here in a slightly modified version and divided into five parts:

A. Regional Architecture

B. New Regional Architectures Emerging in Asia

C. What are the Fundamental Bases of an Effective Regional Architecture?

D. Domestic Political Systems and Regional Architectures

E. Conclusion


A. Regional Architecture

Regional architectures are difficult to create. Yet once created, they are also difficult to modify and enlarge. A significant major event or mover is needed to get the architecture in place and this applies to both economic and security groupings. Perhaps, it is easier to simply to start a new organization. There certainly is no shortage of new ideas such as for example, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s idea for an Asia-Pacific Community in 2008 and the latest creation, the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership announced at Honolulu, Hawaii, in early November 2011.

Economic organizations tend to achieve more than security organizations do. Where security-driven organizations have been effective these have usually been primarily bilateral agreements bound in a single overarching framework by a single power; such is the case with US defence pacts with Japan, South Korea, Australia and a host of Southeast Asian nations.  In this context, I wouldn’t say that North Korean provocations are necessarily a failure of extant security mechanisms. If it’s a failure, it’s a failure all around, including China and the US. Similarly, the ARF has been unable to tackle the South China Sea disputes precisely because it is an unwieldy organization with two major powers in it.

B. New Regional Architectures Emerging in Asia

Security Architectures

In the security realm, India and China are thoroughly packed together and also with the US. In Honolulu in October 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the phrase “Indo-Pacific” which is to say neither Asia-Pacific nor Greater South Asia as used in the title of this presentation (suggested by the Chinese side) are quite relevant. Indeed, it would appear that there is a movement from the G-2 idea to a G-3. It remains difficult to say that this is a consequence only of Chinese assertiveness on the South China Seas dispute, but as far as India is concerned, it certainly is a natural progression – economic and politically – to include the Western Pacific within the range of India’s security interests. In fact, one should not be surprised if before long there will be talk of a possible architecture led by the India and the US, as problematic as this may be even for Indian policymakers at different levels or at the present (geo)political juncture.

Meanwhile, there is also talk of RIC-SCO coordination can facilitate a common strategy to help Afghanistan. Russia, India and China already in SCO. So will the SCO be the preferred medium for this cooperation or will the RIC have a different approach? And what if Russia cannot, should not or does not want to involve itself in Afghanistan for historical reasons (there is apparently a Duma legislation to this effect). Can China and India then cooperate under the RIC framework? What then of Pakistan? Is this what the Chinese side refers to when it states the “need to address some tensions”?

A Mao-era poster on sale in Beijing

Economic Architectures

While the ASEAN+3 economic framework is fairly successful, it is still not the best possible outcome for the region. The most efficient grouping would be an ASEAN+6 framework – which China from all accounts has blocked. Will therefore, an expanded East Asia Community ever take off when India and China continue to perceive each other as potential competitors?

Then, there is talk of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral FTA comprising 10 countries including the U.S. and Japan that if successful next year, will be the world’s largest economic bloc bigger than the European Union. The TPP conspicuously leaves out China in a sort of economic bandwagoning against the latter.

Meanwhile, RIC-SAARC cooperation is unlikely to take off if India remains cut off from Central Asia both because of the boundary dispute with China and because of Pakistan. In this context, Pakistan’s backtracking from giving India MFN status does not help.

A final consideration needs to be put forward – is it time to reconsider regional economic groupings based on nation-states and move towards regional groupings bases on sub-national units as China has done with BCIM and GMS and India is trying to do with the BCIM initiative? Here, Southern Asia – the preferred term in India instead of Greater South Asia – covering the Central Asian states, Tibet, Xinjiang, Kashmir, Nepal, Bhutan and Northeast India is an economic bloc worth considering even if economic might is in India and China proper.

C. What are the Fundamental Bases of an Effective Regional Architecture?

The Chinese side indicated that China would not be worried about the TPP as long as the new grouping is open and inclusive and its mechanisms are transparent. In June 2008, during a visit to Beijing, the Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee used almost the same words calling for “[a]n open and inclusive architecture, which is flexible enough to accommodate the great diversity which exists in Asia”. The EAM also opposed “sub-regional security arrangements that are narrow and ultimately ineffective.” Let us therefore, consider what each of these terms mean.

 1. inclusiveness.

a) can Asia do without a US role in its regional institutions?

– if the ‘outside’ great powers must be represented, how should they be represented?

b) How do we define Asia-Pacific, Greater South Asia?

– do we include Central Asia and West Asia in Greater South Asia?

– will the Trans-Pacific Partnership remain limited or expand still further?

– what shape will an effective East Asia Community take?

– how much purchase will the term “Indo-Pacific” gain?

2. function and scope. How do we want any new architecture to function?

– on the lines of the present European Union?

– or like the United Nations?

– or something else altogether?

 – will every issue be brought for consideration and for solutions?

– or will it be limited to specific issues such as say, security, trade, energy, and the environment?

— India and China take their dumping cases for resolution to the WTO not to an existing Asian body, for example, as a preliminary step.

– will any new regional architecture in Asia tackle problems head on

– by means of collective action, including by means of pre-emption?

or will it be a forum only for confidence-building rather than actively seeking to consider or solve crises?

 3. form.

will the new architecture bring together all the existing supra-regional and regional bodies?

– or will one of the existing supra-regional bodies expand into a pan-Asian security system

– or will an entirely new and different entity take shape?

These questions are fundamentally also tied to the foreign policy inclinations and domestic political considerations of Russia, China and India. It is therefore inevitable that we must consider the question of the political ideology and the nature of the political system in each of the three countries.

11th Russia-India-China Trilateral, Beijing, China

D. Domestic Political Systems and Regional Architectures

Are mutual interests alone sufficient to bring together three disparate countries, like Russia, India and China? Indeed, what are these mutual interests? Do the three countries have several mutual interests, or a few important ones such as ensuring that the US does not dominate the world unchallenged? Does ideological affinity or the lack thereof shape those interests and therefore, also play a role in the long term?

I still haven’t figured out how we can call for democracy in the international order without similar endeavours at home. How, will a democratic Asian architecture function when at home each nation practices non-democracy or ‘democracy with Asian characteristics,’ call it what you will?

Or are we happy with “democracy” in the international order of the kind that does just enough to get us 3 countries our privileges

I would therefore, disagree with the proposition that Indian merely brings the IBSA input into the RIC or that there is an essential connection between IBSA and BRICS. Far from it. India is perhaps uncertainly at the moment, but inevitably going to be relying on the plank of its democratic political system as a way of outreach to the world and especially to developing countries in the Third World. The Indian MEA’s annual reports for example, clearly call the IBSA a grouping of democratic nations. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also talked – in his more ambitious, first term, I grant – about an “arc of freedom and prosperity” – no light statement.

If anything a grouping without a shared domestic democratic ideal is likely to be one which sees domination by one or the other power and a hierarchy being established. A recipe for further conflict not peace and stability. We certainly don’t want a multi-polar Asian region imitating the Cold War era.

E. Conclusion

Two major conclusions can be drawn:

One, the rise of multilateralism is still dependant on major powers directing the show. In Asia, the US still drives innovations in regional architecture whether as prime mover or as motive. The Chinese speakers often referred to the need to “adapt to the latest trend of the whole world” but the latest trend is not only China’s rise but also America’s persistence, its return to Asia. The US continues to provide security guarantees in the region whether we like it or not. That is also a trend that we have to adapt to and it cannot necessarily be interpreted as third party or external interference in the region. Further, bilateral equations continue to affect Asian multilateralism in particular. Distrust in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship ensures that Asian regional organizations will be unable to fulfill their potential.

Two, with respect to the RIC countries, the domestic political orientation of each country contributes fundamentally to its perceptions and views of the objectives and functions of regional organizations. And I would argue that despite this being the 11th round of RIC talks, the three countries have no fundamental or sustainable agreement on key issues of global and regional import.  This does not mean that the RIC countries cannot ensure functional cooperation. I’d argue the opportunities are certainly available. Afghanistan is possibly one major opportunity that is opening up, in the run-up to and following the US withdrawal of troops in 2014. Opportunities can also be created in evolving an energy security architecture and in science and technology, research and development cooperation. The fact that these opportunities fall by the way side or are only discussed and not seriously pursued is reflective of the inherent contradictions of the RIC grouping.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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