Tuesday, 10 June 2014


1.         Though there is no unanimity on the countries included in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), this term is generally held to indicate the East Asian landmass, the South East Asian countries, the Australian Continent, and the Pacific Ocean and its numerous islands. Geographically, the Indian sub-continent’s position in Asia is such that it does not have the Pacific Region in its immediate vicinity, but is located on its periphery. It thus, may not be technically considered part of the APR. [1] However, owing to its historical trade and cultural links,[2] and its continuing substantial economic and maritime connections with the other nations of this region,[3] the Indian sub-continent is strategically considered an important part of the APR.[4] India’s location astride the shipping routes passing through the Indian Ocean makes it an important player over the entire region, and it certainly shares common security concerns and challenges with the APR. During my tenure as the Vice Chief of the Indian Army, I represented India at the Pacific Armies Chiefs’ Conference,[5] and recollect sharing some of these challenges.
The APR is economically the fastest growing region in the world and counts for more than one-third of the global population and more than half of the global foreign reserve. It also contains natural resources, which are of increasing importance in a consumption-economy driven world order. The region encompasses some very rich nations like Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, along with growing economies like Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. Just north of Japan and South Korea lies oil- and gas-rich Russia, which has a dispute with Japan over the Kurile Islands.[6] The entire seaward shipping movement east to the Pacific Ocean can be controlled by the three island chains, whilst towards the Indian Ocean region (IOR), movement can be choked at the Straits of Malacca, Sundae, and Lombok. China is now an industrial power-house and the largest trading partner for most countries. Its rapid military modernization, in response to which other nations of the region are also increasing their military expenditure, is a cause of concern. The US, however, appears to be the most dominant power in the Asia-Pacific theatre in the foreseeable future.

Review of Security Challenges in the APR

2.         The Asia-Pacific Region continues to be engulfed in conventional issues of conflict and is also exposed to various non-conventional threats and challenges.[7] The region has nuclear powered states like India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, which are not yet recognised as part of the nuclear order of the NPT. Then, there are conflicts about the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea and several territorial disputes including those in the Indian Sub-continent. The non-traditional threats of piracy, terrorism, climate change, energy security and resource scarcity, further undermine regional peace and stability. Additionally, both the composition and manifestation of security challenges are determined by the international power politics being played in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Historic Causes of Conflicts

3.         Many Asian nations carry a historic burden of the past with bitter memories of disputes. In East Asia, memories of the Japanese colonisation of Korea and the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930's and 40's continue to crop up periodically, and cause intense unease between these nations. The tensions in the Korean peninsula and the sensitive issue of Taiwanese independence too, have roots going back to the past. These and other important hot-spots in the Asia Pacific are discussed in the succeeding paragraphs. However, issues in South Asia such as India’s unresolved borders with China and Pakistan, are not being examined here since these are geographically outside the APR.

4.         South and East China Sea:  Disputed claims over groups of islands, atolls, reefs in the South China Sea remain a dangerous source of potential conflict. Although China maintains that all these islands are part of its Hainan province, this claim is seriously disputed on the one hand by Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and on the other hand by Indonesia and Brunei. After the 1974 clash between China and Vietnam, the Paracel Islands[8] are under Chinese control. The Spratly Islands[9] have been occupied by various rival claimants, with Vietnam in occupation of the largest numbers. Additionally, in the East China Sea, there are periodic tensions between Japan and China over rival claims to drill for the hydrocarbons around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu[10] Island group. Controversies have erupted in the region of late, because of the decision of the Japanese Government to nationalize the islands. While both China and Taiwan made strong protests, China also sent ships and surveillance crafts to reassert its claims to waters surrounding the islands. The recent statement by the US Defence Secretary at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Conference, that “China should have respect for its neighbours”, [11] while discussing the status of disputed islands provoked a strong reaction from China.[12] Although currently, these disputes appear dormant, there is an ever present danger of inadvertent trespass or incident at sea flaring up into a conflict.[13] In April this year, there were reports of Japan sending soldiers and radar to its westernmost outpost, the 30 sq km (11 sq mile) Yonaguni island, just 150 kilometres from the Senkaku/ Diaoyu disputed islands, which Japanese Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, said is part of the effort ‘to strengthen surveillance over the southwestern region’.[14]

5.         Taiwan: The issue of Taiwanese independence, although, termed an internal problem, continues to be a potential flashpoint with international implications. China considers reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, as an unfinished civil war issue. The US is committed to a peaceful resolution of the status of Taiwan, and deploys maritime forces whenever there is a perceived threat or tension in the Taiwan straits.[15]

6.         North Korea: Technically, a state of war has continued to exist between North Korea, the USA and South Korea, since the ceasefire of 1954 came into being. Today, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and significant missile capability under its despotic ruler, despite its poor economy. Its unpredictable family rule and political conduct, along with its high level of militarisation in the peninsula, spells danger not only to South Korea, but to Japan and to other countries in East Asia.[16]

7.         Maritime Security:[17] Freedom of navigation at sea and Security of SLOC is vital to the nations of Asia Pacific Region (APR) for trade, access to energy markets, raw materials and exports. In the case of China, 78% of oil, and in the case of Japan and South Korea, most of their energy needs are transported through SLOC passing through maritime choke-points of South China Sea (SCS), and the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok in the South East Asia. Access to the north-eastern APR can be controlled by the three Japanese controlled Straits of Osumi, Tsushima and Tsugaru. Two major  SLOCs are: SCS to the Indian Ocean and beyond to West Asia;  and East China Sea (ECS), Sea of Japan to Pacific Ocean, USA and Canada. The disputes in the SCS and ECS have the potential to escalate into conflict situations, and disrupt the sea-borne trade to a vast area beyond the region of the immediate conflict. Any unilateral action to convert the SCS into territorial waters will have serious ramifications on freedom of navigation at sea for the international community. Thus, it is in the common interest of the entire region to ensure both security and freedom of navigation in this region. In addition, the threats of sea piracy and maritime terror have to be jointly tackled.

8.     Non Traditional Security Threats: Terrorism is a threat to the security of the region. Regional countries have adopted some measures to prevent terrorism. However, anti-state elements still continue with occasional bomb attacks. Drug trafficking, proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), piracy, environmental degradation and resource scarcity including food and water, and climate change, are other challenges, which have serious consequences effecting the security environment of the region. These have to be addressed collectively by all the nations of the region. Major Powers of the region, i.e. US, China, Japan, India and ASEAN, must take the initiative to resolve these.

Towards Stability and Security - Future Trends And Implications
9.             Emerging Power-Play in the APR
         China-US Relations continue to be seen as the most important element shaping the power balance and security architecture of the APR. In the globalised world there is more inter-dependency, especially in economic terms. Clashes of interests amongst major powers, therefore affect the economies and the security interests of the wider region and the regional countries, which might be drawn in the competition. The Sino-US relations in the APR are both competitive and cooperative. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s description of this kind of relationship, is that with "no conflict and no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation".[18] The US, although facing difficulties in economic development and witnessing a consequent relative decline of its strength, is still the superpower of the world and the most dominant military power. It has substantial capability in force projection. On the other hand, China's economic rise and military modernization has been rapid, making her the biggest challenger in the region. Thus, while the US presence, along with its allies like Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore provide maritime security of the SLOC, the rebalancing of strategic posture undertaken by them has to be transparent and not seen by China as a containment policy of the US and its allies.

10.       China-Japan relationship: is another important factor for stability of the region and must be managed with balance rather than provocative nationalistic sentiments by the two. The emphasis should be on politico-economic engagement and strategic interests of the region.[19]

11.       Regional Cooperative Framework: It is felt that APR is too large and too diverse for an effective regional security system, and that there are distinct sub-regions within the region with their own security problems and differing standards of economic development. However, there are also cultural and civilisational similarities, common environmental problems, and inter-dependence for trade, commerce, water, and energy. There are also common issues of population migration, threat of terrorism, drug trafficking and poor water-management. These factors call for a regional framework which mandates mutual cooperation and restraints disagreements while dealing with each other.

It is possible to establish complementariness in the approach to intra-state security problems. The ASEAN, SCO, East Asia Summit (EAS), ANZUS, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Asia Pacific Rim Economic Cooperation (APEC) are good examples of regional grouping in this regard. Such multilateral institutions and groupings provide a mechanism in resolving contentious issue by bringing various stake-holders together. Thus, Declaration on Code of Conduct (CoC) of parties in South China Sea by ASEAN and China is expected to prevent conflicts in the SCS.

12. Bilateral Partnerships: The US strategic primacy in the region and its bilateral relations with Japan has ensured a measure of peace, stability and economic prosperity in the region. Its military presence in the region, such as in South Korea, has allowed East Asian countries, including China, to devote their energy to economic development, as no country felt threatened by Japan. It also enabled stability in the Korean peninsula, by keeping a despotic North Korea under restraint. Similarly the US bilateral ties with Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore have contributed to maritime security of the SLOC. However, due to its economic difficulties, the US now wants Japan and South Korea to share greater defence responsibility. In the broader context, the US strategic partnerships with China, India, Vietnam and Australia have helped to balance the strategic equations in the region.

13.       The Chinese are also practicing bilateralism, by development of close relations with its neighbours and the ASEAN countries individually; by capacity building in infrastructure projects; and through economic assistance and military cooperation. In the Indian subcontinent, it has developed close relations with India's neighbours and acquired maritime facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, to additionally secure its SLOC through the Indian Ocean. India is also forging strategic partnerships and economic relations through its Look East Policy with Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and Singapore. Similarly Japan, in addition to its traditional ties with the US, is also seeking new bilateral relations with countries like Vietnam and India. These new ‘bilateral partnerships’ would help improve the security architecture of the region by confidence building measures, economic and maritime cooperation and mutual assistance in times of need, along with the existing multilateral groupings. China and India, in particular need to put to constructive use their historical mutually beneficial cultural and trade relations, and remember that even till around 1750, both these countries together accounted for some 73% of the world’s total industrial production—without the attendant ills that routinely accompany today’s industrial economy.[20]


13.       To re-emphasize, the US is and will remain the predominant power in the short and medium term with its significant military presence across the region. Second, China’s rise and its implications for the Asia Pacific remain daunting, given the wide gap in perceptions about its security strategies and growth. However, despite the overwhelming disparity between the US military power compared with China and any other nation across the Asia-Pacific, it may be foreseen that the US ability to influence outcomes will continue to diminish relatively. Third, the larger trend of globalization will continue to erode the power of state and make non-state actors and agencies far more influential in local decision making. Fourth, multilateral arrangements, like the ASEAN, SCO, EAS, APF, to deal with the old and new threats will play a significant influence in resolving the old disputes and the new non-traditional threats. Fifth, a resurgent Russia, along with its powerful military will continue to attach great importance to its far Eastern policy in terms of energy exports, container trade and access to export markets for its goods. Sixth, a more assertive Japan and a growing maritime power like Australia would like to be counted in the emerging power balance in the region. Finally, India’s growing economy, its significant military and its strategic location dominating the Indian Ocean, impacts the SLOC (Sea Lanes of Communication) traversing through IOR.

14.       To sum up, the Asia Pacific Region is experiencing major security re-balancing. The unsettled disputes, potential security hot-spots and lack of trust have contributed to the rising defence expenditure in the region. However, a visionary leadership and the desire for a peaceful and stable environment for economic growth, will hopefully bring countries of the region together for continued discussion and dialogue, and preclude large-scale conflict or mutual rivalry. Since freedom of navigation through international waters is of paramount concern for all the nations, security of SLOCs is most important for sustainable trade and commerce. Thus, safety of choke-points and elimination of sea-piracy should be undertaken through joint and cooperative efforts by all the major economies of the region. Development of regional cooperative frameworks for conflict resolution, and for engaging common non-traditional threats, along with bilateral economic cooperation are steps in the right direction, and should be followed seriously by all states. Simultaneously, all the states of the APR must recognise that we live in a world of finite resources, and possession of oil and mineral-rich areas is not a long-term solution for energy or economy problems. This would require a sea-change in current mainstream policy, but it is vital to a climate of long-term peace and trust in the APR, as for all other parts of the globe. The US and China, as large and influential economies need to set an example in this context, and foster economic development that is egalitarian and equitable, and does not involve a never-ending search and mastery for resource-rich areas. Such an approach along with mutual recognition of each other’s interests and concerns, and an avoidance of overt strategic ambitions, are absolutely essential for the peace and prosperity of the APR.

Bibliography and References:

Trade, Commerce and Security Challenges in the Asia Pacific Region, Ed. Maj. Gen. Y. K .Gera, Proceedings of Seminar on National Security, USI of India, Nov 2012, New Delhi; Vij Books India Pvt. Ltd, 2013.

Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Dharampal, Collected Writings, Vol. I., Other India Press Goa, in association with Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas (SIDH), Mussoorie, 2000; First published by Impex India 1971

SYNERGY, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, New Delhi, Jan 2010.  


[1] The component countries included in this term often change as per context. Thus, Wikipedia’s list for Asia-Pacific, includes India along with other SAARC countries, while the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies specifically includes India. However, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) 2012  data, the list of countries in Asia Pacific by GDP does not do so. See:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_in_Asia-Pacific_by_GDP_(nominal)

China's Ambassador to India, Ambassador Wei Wei calls for reviving maritime and land silk roads, April 14, 2014-04-18

[3] Maj. Gen. B. K. Sharma (Retd.), ‘Asia Pacific – Future Security Challenges and Opportunities’, p. 136, in  Trade, Commerce and Security Challenges, in the Asia Pacific Region, ed. Maj Gen Y.K. Gera (Retd.) USI of India, Nov 2012, New Delhi

[5] Held at Singapore in September 1999
[6] The Kuril Islands also known as the Northern Territories dispute is a dispute between Japan and the Russian Federation and also some individuals of the Ainu people over sovereignty of the South Kuril Islands. The disputed islands, which were annexed by Soviet forces during the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation at the end of World War II, are currently under the Russian administration as South Kuril District of the Sakhalin Oblast  but are claimed by Japan, which refers to them as the Northern Territories or Southern Chishima , arguably being part of Hokkaidō Prefecture.
The San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan from 1951 states that Japan must give up all claims to the Kuril islands, but it also does not recognize the Soviet Union's sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. Furthermore, Japan currently claims that at least some of the disputed islands are not a part of the Kuril Islands, and thus are not covered by the treaty. Russia maintains that the Soviet Union's sovereignty over the islands was recognized following agreements at the end of the Second World War. However, Japan has disputed this claim.

[7]  Swaran Singh, ‘Deconstructing Future Security Trends', in Trade, Commerce and Security Challenges, in the Asia Pacific Region, USI of India, Nov 2012, New Delhi, pp. 79-83.

[8] The Paracel Islands, known in Chinese as the Xisha Islands literally "Western Sandy Islands") and as Hoàng Sa Archipelago in Vietnamese is a group of islands in the South China Sea whose sovereignty is disputed by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Vietnam. Divided into two main groups, the Paracel Islands comprise the Amphitrite group in the northeast and the Crescent group in the southwest located about 70 km (43 mi) from one another. Subject to a hot and humid climate with abundant rainfall and frequent typhoons, the archipelago is surrounded by productive fishing grounds along with potential oil and gas reserves.
The islands include over 30 islets, sandbanks and reefs over a maritime area of around 15,000 square kilometres (5,800 sq mi) with less than 8 square kilometres (3.1 sq mi) of land. The archipelago is approximately equidistant from the coastlines of Vietnam and China: 180 nautical miles (330 km; 210 mi) southeast of Hainan Island, and about one-third of the way between Central Vietnam to the northern Philippines. Chinese and Vietnamese forces both occupied parts of the Paracel Islands before 1974, when the Battle of the Paracel Islands occurred, after which the former took control of the entire group. All of the islands are currently part of China's Hainan Province, which in July 2012, established Sansha City to administer the three townships under its jurisdiction. There are no permanent human residents except military personnel and fishermen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paracel_Islands

[9] The Spratly Islands (Chinese name: Nansha islands, Vietnamese Name: Qun đo Trường Sa, Filipino Name: Kapuluan ng Kalayaan) are a disputed group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays, and islands in the South China Sea. They are one of three archipelagos of the South China Sea, which comprise more than 30,000 islands and reefs and which complicate governance and economics in that region of Southeast Asia. No native islanders inhabit the islands, which offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. Named after a British explorer, Richard Spratly (c.e.1806-1866) who sighted them in 1843, they contain less than 4 square kilometres (1.5 square miles) of land area spread over more than 425,000 square kilometres (164,000 square miles) of sea. Such small and remote islands, though with little economic value in themselves, are important in establishing international boundaries.
About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from the People's Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei has also claimed an exclusive economic zone in the south-eastern part of the Spratlys, encompassing just one area of small islands on Louisa Reef. This has led to escalating tensions between numerous countries over the disputed status of the islands. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spratly_Islands: accessed 8.04.2014

[10] The Senkaku Islands dispute concerns a territorial dispute over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan, the Diaoyu in China, and Tiaoyutai Islands in Taiwan. Aside from a 1945-1972 period of administration by the United States, the archipelago has been controlled by Japan since 1895. The People's Republic of China (PRC) disputed the proposed US handover of authority to Japan in 1971 and has asserted its claims to the islands since then. Taiwan (Republic of China) also claims the islands. The territory is close to key shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds, and there may be oil reserves in the area.
Japan argues that it surveyed the islands in the late 19th century and found them to be land belonging to no one; subsequently, China acquiesced to Japanese sovereignty until the 1970s. The PRC and the ROC argue that documentary evidence prior to the First Sino-Japanese War indicates Chinese possession and that the territory is accordingly a Japanese seizure that should be returned, as were the rest of Imperial Japan's conquests in 1945.
Although the United States does not have an official position on these competing sovereignty claims, the islands are included within the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, meaning that a defence of the islands by Japan would require the United States to come to Japan's aid.
In September 2012, the Japanese government purchased three of the disputed islands from their "private owner', prompting large-scale protests in China. As of early February 2013, the situation has been regarded as "the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarised conflict." On November 23, 2013, the PRC set up the "East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone" which includes the Senkaku Islands, and announced that it would require all aircraft entering the zone to file a flight plan and submit radio frequency or transponder information.

[11]US faces Chinese ire over disputed isles’, Saibal Dasgupta in Times of India, New Delhi, Wednesday, April 9, 2014

[13] 'India's Role in An Emergent Asian Region', Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash, SYNERGY, Centre For Joint Warfare Studies, New Delhi, Jan 2010, pp. 4-6.

[14] ‘Japan to arm remote island, risking more China tension’, Nobuhiro Kubo, Reuters, published in Mint Lounge, April 19, 2014, p. 12
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.                                             
[17] 'Maritime Challenges In The Asia Pacific', Vice Admiral A.K. Singh, Trade, Commerce and Security Challenges, in the Asia Pacific Region, USI of India Seminar, Nov 2012, New Delhi, pp. 53-54.
[19] Dr Elichi Kathera, 'The New Strategic Context', Ibid. pp 132-133
[20] Claude Alvares, p. x, ‘Making History’, in Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Dharampal, Collected Writings, Vol. I.

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