Biden in Asia
As he travels through north-east Asia this week, Vice President Joe Biden has a big problem. He needs to affirm American commitment to defend its longstanding military allies Japan and South Korea against China's growing assertiveness, without invoking Beijing's wrath. Although the visit was scheduled earlier, China's recent imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone over disputed maritime spaces in the East China Sea (and the consequent tensions in Northeast Asia) figures at the top of Biden's conversations in Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul
Contrary to some perspectives in New Delhi that military alliances are no longer relevant, the Asian strategic landscape in the coming decades will be defined primarily by the future of American alliances that are coming under great stress from the rapid rise of China.
Continental countries like India tend to avoid alliances with more powerful nations, except in extreme circumstances. Non-aligned India, for example, constructed a de facto alliance with the Soviet Union in 1971 to cope with the Sino–American entente. Earlier in 1962, when confronted with Chinese aggression, former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought massive military assistance from the United States.
Alliances are as old as international relations. Their nature and purpose are discussed in great detail in ancient Indian tracts like the Panchatantra, Hitopadesa, and Artha Shastra. Short of a credible collective security system or world government, alliances will endure as an important feature of world politics. Nations seek alliances with a great power to secure themselves against perceived threats from their neighbours. The all-weather partnership between Pakistan and China, for example, is nothing but an alliance aimed at balancing India's power.
As China converts its wealth, gained from three decades of rapid economic growth, into military power, it is shaking America's Asian alliances to their core. America's bilateral alliances with Japan and Korea, constructed to deal with the Soviet threat in the aftermath of World War II, are finding it rather difficult to deal with the challenges posed by a rising China.
The US pivot to Asia was indeed a response to the growing Chinese military power and the urgent need to reinforce the credibility of US alliances in Asia. At the same time, Obama sought to convince Beijing that his policy is not aimed at containing China. He also underlined America's desire to build a cooperative relationship with China. The two objectives, however, are not entirely compatible.
Strong American cooperation with China will reinforce the regional concerns about the credibility of US alliances with China's Asian neighbours. If the US deepens its security commitments to China's neighbours, Beijing's mistrust of Washington can only rise. America, then, is finding it hard to reconcile its competing objectives in Asia.
Meanwhile, many in Asia are voicing doubts about the sustainability of the US pivot amidst America's relative economic decline and the cuts in its defence spending. Others fear that an increasingly distracted US may not have the political resolve to stand up against Chinese power in Asia. The US, on the other hand, has difficulties of its own. While it wants to strengthen its Asian alliances, Washington's stakes in a good relationship with Beijing are real. America does not want its allies to drag the US into an unwanted conflict with China.
Shared threat perception is the glue that binds alliances. As China rises, the US and its Asian allies are finding frequent divergence on how to assess and deal with Beijing's actions. Consider, for example, the American and Japanese response to China's ADIZ. Although both have opposed the ADIZ, Washington has asked its airlines to submit flight plans to authorities in Beijing, while Tokyo told the Japanese airlines to refuse.
China is making the best of American ambivalence and the dissonance in US alliances. Its aggressive actions towards neighbours have been carefully kept below the threshold of American tolerance. Beijing is also tempting Washington with the talk of "a new type of great power relationship" — a formula for power-sharing with America on Chinese terms.
For his part, Biden may at best fix some band aids on the Asian order cracking under Chinese pressure. But sustaining the geopolitical status quo in the region will become increasingly harder. Meanwhile, non-aligned India will be drawn, whether it likes it or not, into the multiple realignments as Asia copes with the rise of China.
This post was originally published at The Indian Express