The Asia-Pacific: a return to tradition?

A brief thought: living and working in the UK, in the Atlantic and European world, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of our defence forecasts play down interstate conflict and major war. The growth of the EU, a tightly linked zone of collective economic self-interest, modest defence budgets and a desire to break the historical cycle of war and revolution, as well as the fact that the US since world war 2 did much of the defence spending for it, has made armed conflict between European states almost inconceivable.

Thus it is smaller scale, sub-state (or extra-state) forces that attract attention and worry: narcotics, crime, terrorism, separatism, pollution. Intellectually, this is fortified by the rise of the ‘human security’ field of study, with its vision of security going beyond classical military conflict and turning policy towards a whole range of other things, such as preventable diseases. As evidence for the overspill of ‘human security’ into defence, the dubious descriptor ‘post-modern’ has now become a military term in the UK.

In turn, the belief that we should de-throne major power war as the core of defence is based partly on a judgment that narrowly militarised notions of defence are unhelpful. Strong military states are tempted to view problems narrowly and militarily because of their capabilities. If your most cherished tool is a hammer, so the saying goes, everything looks like a nail.

Of course, anti-military notions of security also have their drawbacks. If your hammer is very small and you don’t believe nails can exist, you won’t know a nail when you see one.

There is something quite Eurocentric about the vision of a world that has moved on. Clearly significant changes have taken place in Europe, but how far can we universalise? Even within Europe, we should be cautious not to over-extrapolate from the western states. The further east one travels, roughly, the less ridiculous the notion of state threats becomes. The assured belief that  interstate hostilities are obsolete or that force has lost its utility or that major powers lack the political will probably doesn’t fly as well in the Caucuses or particularly in Georgia right now.

If you read about grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific, and indeed on the Asian continent, you also see a different picture. Large-scale naval investment, competing claims over territory, a jealous overwatch over chokepoints like the Straits of Malacca, the formation of rival military ‘understandings’, joint military exercises to display strength, balancing diplomacy, the desire for far-flung bases and listening posts, and familiar sounding nightmare scenarios (such as a Taiwanese declaration of independence), and the desire for the symbols of prestige, such as nuclear weapons or a seat on the P5.

Clearly there are other things going on as well, and the sabre rattling and competition probably won’t look exactly like it might have in the 19th 0r 20th centuries. Nevertheless, if interstate conflict (or indeed the state itself) is supposed to be an increasingly obsolete relic of an outmoded nationalism or imperial ambition, the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, China, India, Pakistan and Japan have not got the memo. They are preparing, in fact, for a return to tradition, of Great Power confrontation and hard geopolitics. Even growing economic interdependence has not prevented preparation for this future. If the next century is an Asian century (or perhaps more accurately, an Asia-Pacific century with America as a critical player), then we might see the old world die hard.

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