China should accept India and Japan playing a bigger role in Asian security

Yuriko Koike says from elections to gas deals, recent events may well shape the region's future

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 2:04am

A week, it is said, is a long time in politics. But events in Asia last week may define the region for decades to come.

Thailand, one of Asia's most prosperous countries, seems determined to render itself a basket case. A military coup, imposed following the Thai constitutional court's ouster of an elected government, can lead only to an artificial peace which may give way to a more dangerous storm.

To Thailand's east, Vietnam is the latest Asian country to feel pinched by China's policy of creating facts on the ground, or in this case at sea, to enhance its sovereignty claims on disputed territory. Vietnam's government reacted vigorously to China's placement of a huge, exploratory oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Ordinary Vietnamese reacted even more vigorously, by rioting and targeting Chinese industrial investments for attack.

China's unilateral behaviour has exposed a strain of virulent anti-Chinese sentiment bubbling beneath the surface in many Asian countries. Renewed protests over China's mining investments in Myanmar confirmed this trend, one that China's leaders seem either to dismiss as trivial, or to regard as somehow unrelated to their bullying. Indeed, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faces widespread public antipathy in Ukraine, China's leaders appear to believe that popular protests against them can only be the product of an American plot.

Yet, despite their shared contempt for expressions of the popular will, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin struggled, during Putin's two-day visit to Shanghai, to agree on a new gas deal that the Kremlin desperately needs. Putin had viewed China as his backup option should the West seek to isolate Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Putin's idea was that he could pivot Russia's economy into a partnership with China.

But Xi baulked, signing the gas agreement only after Putin offered a steep discount. Xi's self-confidence reflected not only the Chinese leadership's contempt for Putin's mismanagement of the Russian economy, but also the fact that China's energy worries have lessened considerably of late.

China's hard bargaining with Russia has exposed the limits of the two countries' bilateral cooperation, which has important geostrategic consequences for Asia and the world. China, it now seems, is happy to see Putin poke his finger in the West's eye and challenge America's global leadership. But it is not willing to underwrite with hard cash Russian pretensions to world power status.

But the most epochal events took place in two of Asia's great democracies: India and Japan. Narendra Modi's landslide victory in India's general election was not only a huge personal triumph for the son of a tea seller, but may well mark a decisive break with India's traditional inward-looking policies. Modi is determined to reform India's economy and lead the country into the front rank of world powers.

Here, Modi will find no stauncher ally than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was among the first Asian leaders to embrace him in his bid to lead India. Given that both countries have almost perfectly aligned regional security interests, there should be plenty of scope for the two to act in tandem to improve regional security and mutual prosperity.

In the past week, Abe created for himself more political space to act as a strategic partner, not only to India, but also to Japan's other allies, particularly the US. Quietly, a panel appointed by Abe's government offered a reinterpretation of a key element of Article 9 of Japan's constitution. For the first time since the Pacific war's end in 1945, Japan's Self-Defence Forces would be able to participate in "collective self-defence" - meaning Japan could come to the aid of its allies should they come under attack.

Of course, China and others in Asia have tried to muddy this change with the alarmist charge of a return to Japanese militarism. But the new interpretation augurs just the opposite: it embeds Japan's military within an alliance system that has been, and will remain, the backbone of Asia's prevailing structure of peace.

Modi's victory and Abe's increased ability to stand by Japan's allies can help to forge deeper bilateral ties and, if understood by China, foster a greater strategic equilibrium in the region. It is now possible for Asia's greatest powers - China, India, Japan, and the US - to form something akin to the concert system that gave Europe a century of almost complete peace in the 19th century.

Of course, such a system would require China to set aside its goal of regional hegemony. Clear-sighted Chinese must already see that such dominance is impossible. Now is the moment for China to anchor its rise within a stable and mutually acceptable Asian regional order. Indeed, for China, this may be the ultimate tipping point in its modernisation.

Yuriko Koike, Japan's former defence minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of the Liberal Democrat Party and is a member of the national Diet. Copyright: Project Syndicate