A trouble free north east Asia
In seven days time Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe will meet to discuss trilateral relations and the rapidly advancing Korean peace process. The meeting which is only the seventh of its kind in history, aims at the expansion of contemporary economic inter-connectivity as well as an unspoken putting to bed of historic wounds and recent mistrust.
Thus far, all sides have expressed optimism regarding the meeting and furthermore, this positive attitude demonstrates how Asian leaders are working actively to end historic hostilities on their own terms, in spite of the fact that major western powers, namely the US continues to exploit historic tensions throughout Asia.
There exists every possibility that in the near future, North Korea’s head of state Kim Jong-un could also be included in such a format. However, the fact that South Korea is already assuming a position of speaking not just for Seoul but for de-facto pan-Korean interests, is symptomatic of the fact that in one shape or form, Korea is on a much more rapid road to political unity than many previously thought possible.
The events in Korea have had a very tangible knock-on effect where even the leader of the Taiwan regime is now willing to meet President Xi for what she calls the sake of “peace”. Realistically, while Chinese reunification in respect of Taiwan will likely be a longer and more fraught process than that on the Korean peninsula, not least because of Taiwan’s economic independence, the two most fraught political divides in north east Asia are being slowly pacified through a process of dialogue that has been doubtlessly shaped by the objective attraction of pooling the economic strengths centred around Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei and even Pyongyang, which contrary to western propaganda is experiencing its own 21st century economic and infrastructural boom.
These developments will be to the long term benefit of peace in the region, while they demonstrate that China’s win-win model for development and international cooperation as defined in Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is being embraced beyond the circle of traditional Chinese partners, there are of course matters of concern.
As a result of the emergent win-win attitude, the United States will find that it is less able to easily exploit Sino-Japanese, Beijing-Taipei and Pyongyang-Seoul tensions to its own strategic advantage. This has already become apparent as the old schisms between both Seoul and Beijing and the even older Seoul-Tokyo schism have largely abated in practical terms in spite of the odd disagreements about the interpretation of history.
Fear, loathing and win-win in the South China Sea
For its part, the US has already foreseen these developments and is showing signs of reacting by pivoting its divide and rule strategy for Asia from the increasingly stable and wealthy states and regimes of north-east Asia to south and south east Asia. While the comparative parity in wealth between the nations of north east Asia combined with their increased willingness to cooperate with one another is easing tensions and making schisms harder to exploit, in the south east Asia, there are still opportunities for the US to provocatively meddle.
The area where the US is having a notably easier time (vis-a-vis north east Asia) in respect of meddling in Asian affairs and with China’s plans for economically harmonising the wider Asian space is in the South China Sea. This is why it is crucial for all ASEAN claimants to the Sea to adopt a win-win model which prioritises pan-ASEAN and Sino-ASEAN cooperation above both active South China Sea disputes and historic distrusts.
In this respect, The Philippines under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte has pioneered a win-win model for joint economic exploitation of South China Sea resources with Beijing. While Vietnam is increasingly isolated in ASEAN in respect of preferring a policy of confrontation over the South China Sea, the leadership in Hanoi looks to be gradually easing into a crucial win-win mentality as demonstrated both in recent positive bilateral meetings between Vietnam and China and between Vietnam and The Philippines. The fact that China has recently overtaken the US as a destination for Vietnamese exports has also helped to foster the gradual Beijing-Hanoi reconciliation.
India as the odd man out
Because of this, while the US is certainly going to try and continue to exploit ASEAN-Chinese disputes in the South China Sea, the area where the US can most easily exploit Asian political schisms is in south Asia. This is particularly true in respect of the US fanning the flames of India’s ‘neo-Asian cold war’ with China.
Thus far the extremist Hindutva government of Narendra Modi has been all too willing to oblige the US in pursuing a Sinophobic foreign policy. However, harsh economic realities could in time push India closer to a process of necessary reconciliation (however awkward) with China. This is the case for the following reasons:
1. As India’s trade surplus with the US expands, Modi may soon discover what America’s long time allies including Japan, Canada, the EU and South Korea have discovered. Namely, no matter how close one is with the US, under Trump, tariff walls remain a reality for any country that enjoys any kind of notable trade surplus with the US.
2. While India and Japan have been courting one another in recent years, Modi would be mistaken to think that even under a right of centre leader like Premier Abe, that Japan is interested in India’s zero-sum mentality. Furthermore, in respect of the proposed ‘Quad’ alliance between India, Japan, Australia and the US, Indo-Australian relations have not moved at the kind of pace necessary to turn the hypothetical ‘Quad’ into a workable reality.
3. As ASEAN nations grow ever more reliant on good ties with China, India will find that its role of aping the US tactic of exploiting Sino-ASEAN tensions will ultimately bear few geopolitical fruits for New Delhi. If the US itself is finding that it is becoming a less important trading partner to ASEAN than China and if at the same time countries like Vietnam adopt a Duterte style relationship with China while countries like Myanmar embrace Chinese authored peace processes to solve internal conflicts and those effecting both Myanmar and Bangladesh, India will find itself increasingly isolated as an Asia power for which conflict with China is not only a policy but a kind of metaphysical creed. To this end, the economic pivots of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Maldives and Nepal towards China makes the case of India’s perspective isolation regarding its Sinophobic policies in south Asia, all the more important.
While areas of disagreement can never fully evade, even in the best of relationships, the great powers of Asia and of north east Asia in particular are demonstrating that the age of western divide and rule are over and that increasingly Asia is becoming more unified on the basis of mutual respect, peace through prosperity and the win-win mentality.