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Asian Security: Impact of the North East Asia Strategic Quadrilateral

Paper No. 5639                                       Dated 30-Jan-2014

By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Asian security and stability is nowhere more impacted than by the power- play and balance of power in North East Asian strategic quadrilateral comprising Russia, Japan, China and the United States and this is a strategic reality that has prevailed ever since 1945 when the United States and Russia emerged as superpowers.

The North East Asia Strategic Quadrilateral comprises Russia, Japan and China as the resident powers in North East Asia and the United States as the non-resident power but perceiving North East Asia as strategically crucial for American Homeland security and for its balance of power politics to ensure its continued global predominance.

The power play and the ensuing balance of power in North East Asia is not only confined to this strategic quadrant of Asia but spills over all the way to South East Asia and South Asia or more succinctly put impacts the entire Indo Pacific Asia. It also impacts the entire Asian Heartland.

North East Asia in the last decade stood strategically neglected by both the United States and Russia as the two most dominant powers. United States stood strategically distracted by its military imbroglios in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia’s strategic resurgence had not extended to North East Asia mainly because of its strategic compulsions visa-a-vis the so-called Russia-China strategic nexus which failed to add or complement Russia’s strategic weight and postures.

This strategic vacuum in North East Asia facilitated an exponential military rise of China without any checkmating by the United States and Russia as the two dominant powers which could have done so.

The onus of facilitating the emergence of the ‘China Threat’ which now envelops Indo Pacific Asia lies squarely on the shoulders of the United States as after 1991 disintegration of the Former Soviet Union it had emerged as the sole Superpower and global policeman. The United States had not only contributed handsomely to the economic rise of China fuelling its military rise but also endangered Asian security as a whole by molly-coddling China ignoring the imperatives of facilitating the rise of Japan and India as the other legitimate Asian powers.

North East Asia has been forcefully thrust in the global strategic consciousness as in the run-up to 2014 China has switched over from its much publicised and much trumpeted ‘peaceful rise of China’ to a robust and unabashed use of China’s ‘hard power’ accumulated in the last decade without any checkmating. Gone are the US think tanks treatises emphasising and glorifying the use of China’s ‘soft power’.

China after signalling the world in 2009 with its public display of its stupendous military might felt strong enough to indulge in its use of ‘hard power’ first in the South China Sea against Vietnam and the Philippines and now in the East China Sea against Japan. Both South China Sea and East China Sea conflict escalations by China have now emerged as global ‘flash-points’. Concurrently, China also started displaying its use of ‘hard power’ on the India-Tibet border encouraged by India’s timid strategic responses.

The ripostes to China’s military rise in North East Asia and its wider strategic impact, and so also its threatening contours, have emerged in the shape of the United States Strategic Pivot to Asia in2009 and Russia’s Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific in 2012. Both implicitly are targeted at checkmating China’s unrestrained military adventurism in Asia Pacific.

The strategic landscape in North East Asia today presents a complex and challenging picture as Russia, Japan and the United States are all engaged in reassessing their strategic postures and re-positioning themselves to cope with an overly overbearing China obsessed with a single-point fixation of emerging as a superpower and fashioning a new bi-polar global strategic structure of United States and China which regrettably United States also endorsed spasmodically.

North East Asia in 2014 is visibly in a state of strategic churning resulting from the attempts of Russia, Japan and United States for recreation of a new balance of power to cope with China’s switch-over to employment of ‘hard power ‘strategies.

Russia though still avowing its strategic relationship with China has put China on notice by its declaration in 2012 of the Russian Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific. The implications stand examined by me in a number of my Papers in 2013. Strategic literature covering North East Asia have started highlighting the Chinese threat to Russian sovereignty where China is said to have subtly but mutely encouraged Russia’s Far East provincial administration to secede from Russia. Also highlighted in this direction is the Chinese demographic invasion of Russia’s Far East Regions by illegal migration with the end-aim of complete Sinification of Russia’s Far East Region.

Seemingly in response to the above developments Russia has embarked on a military build-up in its Far East Regions, expansion and modernisation of the Russian Navy Fleet based in Vladivostok and holding large-scale integrated military exercises in proximity of its borders with China.

In terms of regional power-play with corresponding effects on global power-play, Russia made a significant political and strategic reach-out to Japan as the contending power of China in not only in North East Asia but also in Asia as a whole. This was manifested in the unprecedented Russia-Japan 2+2 Meet in Tokyo last year between the Russian Foreign and Defence Ministers with their Japanese counterparts to discuss strategic and military cooperation.

Japan in recent times has been subjected to intense military brinkmanship, coercion and provocation actions by China using the East China Sea islands territorial disputes as an excuse. The overall underlying reason of China is to effect a strategic diminution of Japan and lower its image as a serious peer competitor of China in North East Asia and in Asia. Japan as it is over the years has been seriously concerned about China’s exponential military rise and its effect on Japanese security. Of particular military concern to Japan is the emergence of a powerful Chinese Navy threatening Japan’s maritime lifelines.

Japan’s response to its perceived China Threat has been three- fold. Militarily Japan is currently engaged in a substantial military build-up especially of its Navy and Air Force. Redeployment of Japan’s Armed Forces to a Southern alignment has been put into operation. Japan’s national security structures have been reinforced and new mechanisms for more integrated functioning have been ordered.

In terms of political and strategic reachout in North East Asia, the significant move by Japan to Russia stands recounted above. The signalling to China of this reachout to Russia by Japan would not be lost on China.

External to the region, what is also visible is Japan’s political and strategic reachout to the maritime nations of Asia’s littoral located astride the sea-lanes emanating to and from Japan. Particular reference needs to be made to the continuing reinforcement of the Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership.

Significant for North East Asia strategic power-play is that while Japan continues to swear that its security alliance with the United States is the cornerstone of Japan’s security, what is becoming more visible is Japan’s thrust of creation of an independent self-reliant Japanese defence capability. This presumably arises from Japan’s concerns on the credibility of American support in the event of a Japanese show-down with China.

United States is forecasted as being able to continue with its military global predominance well into the better part of this century. However what has significantly happened are two major developments which affect the credibility of the United States to stand up to the militarily debilitating effects on Asian security of China’s bid to achieve superpower status. The first is that of the United States strategic appeasement of China which in Asian capitals appears as American kow-towing to China. The second development is that China is progressively reducing the differentials in its strategic and military might with the military predominance of the United States thereby robbing America of its deterrent power against China even if the United States had the political will to face-off China.

United States Strategic Pivot to Asia is a hostage to the US Congressional moods and its credibility therefore in Asian capitals is that much reduced. 

In the strategic quadrilateral of North East Asia, the foregoing analysis would have by now suggested that China is the ‘villain of the piece’ and that Russia, Japan and the United States are currently involved in reassessing and repositioning of their strategic formulations and policies to cope with the China Threat arising from its switch to use of ‘hard power’ strategies to achieve strategic superstardom.

Finally, in terms of strategic losses and gains to the powers that comprise the North East Strategic Quadrilateral’s ensuing power-play it appears that China and the United States would be the major losers.  China is headed towards emerging as the prime loser because its switch to ‘hard power’ strategies against its Asian neighbours is resulting in an Asian nation’s polarisation against China. China today stands strategically alone notwithstanding the United States ‘China Hedging Strategy’.

The United States is the second major strategic loser in that it’s continued ‘China Hedging Strategy’ which simply amounts to ‘China Appeasement’ typecasts it in Asian capitals as a strategically diminished superpower and incapable of providing the required countervailing power against China going ‘strategically berserk’ in Asia.

In whatever pattern the North East Strategic Quadrilateral power-play emerges in the years to come, what is certain is that the resultant strategic pattern will significantly impact Asian security as a whole. Two impacts are already in evidence, namely, the Asian strategic polarisation against China following the South China Sea conflict escalation by China and the reinforcing of the Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership.

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