[Viewpoint] For now, the game is on!

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[Viewpoint] For now, the game is on!

Asia-Pacific, as the name suggests, refers to a large part of the earth, whereby countries and continents surround the vast Pacific Ocean. More than being merely a geographical entity, this region has many strategic, economic and political connotations to it. Groupings like ASEAN, ASEAN+3, EAS and APEC provide the various contexts in which the politics, economics and security of the region is defined. The importance of this region can be gauged from the fact that the countries in the Asia-Pacific region account for over 40 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of the world’s GDP and about 45 percent of global trade. And these numbers are rapidly growing.

Owing to its extreme geopolitical, economic and security significance, the Asia-Pacific remained at the center of a power struggle between major powers during much of 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. For instance, the formation of ASEAN had the tacit motive of resisting the increasing Chinese domination, apart from its stated objective of promoting economic cooperation.

Thanks to their bitter bilateral history, China and Japan have rarely come to terms with each other since World War II. Their ties have even nosedived since 2010, when the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese vessel for allegedly fishing in Japanese waters, provoking a diplomatic crisis. The Japan-South Korea combination has been another bulwark against the rising Chinese dragon. China sees them as fostering the interests of Washington in the region, which already has considerable military presence in both Japan and South Korea; not to mention the nuclear umbrella which the U.S. provides to both these non-nuclear weapon states.

With the turn of the 21st century, the global balance of power seems to be shifting from Europe and North America towards Asia, especially China. In recent years, China has increased its cooperation with ASEAN. Its burgeoning energy demand and dependence on sea lanes for trade has compelled Beijing to treat these neighbors more gently. Yet, conscious of its newly achieved economic and military might, Beijing tends to bully to weak ones time and again; be it Vietnam, Taiwan or Myanmar. This “Big Brother” tactic deployed by China has made its neighbors leery and keen to ally with the U.S. and India so as to neutralize what they perceive as excessive Chinese interference.

On the other hand, worried by its fading influence and the simultaneous rise of China in the region, the U.S. has once again shifted its focus towards the 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. No formal invitation has been made to China, the second biggest economy in the region and the world, to join this strategic economic alliance. Instead, in his speech in Australia last month, 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.” Added to this, the new security arrangements made with Australia, including stationing of 2,500 additional U.S. Marines in Northern Territory, is proof enough that all this exercise is a part of Washington’s containment strategy, aimed at Beijing.

India is yet another indispensable player in the region. Trade and investment aside, Indian businesses are actively pursuing mineral, especially oil, exploration in the region. China perceives Indian companies’ presence in the disputed South China Sea as a part of the same U.S.-led “containment strategy” aimed at it. 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. 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 changing of the guard in North Korea. With pro-China 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 the Kuril Islands will hold the key to ascertain which way Moscow’s unpredictable diplomacy leans. For now, the game is on!

*The author is a freelance political analyst based in India.

by Sameer Jafri

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