In Asia’s future, flexibility first

In the week since Prime Minister Abe called for an organization of democracies that would implicitly encircle China, his proposal has been met with deafening silence from the capitals of the countries that would be involved, illustrating just how out of touch with new realities the prime minister’s foreign policy thinking is.

As I’ve argued before, the future of Asia is flexibility: each power in the region will work to expand its options, constantly hedging (even with allies) and looking to secure interests by whatever means necessary. In the four countries that would Abe would like to include in his community — India, Australia, Japan, and the US — there are manifold signs that these governments are interested in expanding their options and thus are less than willing to be bound to an organization like that proposed by Mr. Abe.

In Australia, for example, a recent poll by the Lowy Institute recorded declining support for the ANZUS treaty, driven perhaps by fears of entrapment in the wake of the Iraq war. It is difficult to conceive of hostility between the US and Australia, but perhaps the ANZUS treaty should be included in any discussion of the end of alliances, as Australians begin to question whether the alliance with the US still serves their interests.

India, meanwhile, has long distrusted its neighbors and fears encirclement and international ostracism. While American commentators tend to view the pending US-India civilian nuclear agreement as the doorway to a strategic partnership in Asia, this editorial in the Times of India argues that the agreement could result in India’s playing a more active role in the regional balance of power. That would facilitate greater cooperation between the US and India, as well as India and Japan, but it would be opportunistic cooperation, dependent on the vicissitudes of the regional balance — hardly the great alliance of democracies envisioned by Mr. Abe.

And the US? Washington has given no signs that it is on board with Mr. Abe’s scheme, and the to do over Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte’s criticism of the planned Taiwanese referendum on UN membership suggests that stability, as ever, remains Washington’s primary interest in Asia.

Even the feared partnership between China and Russia is exaggerated, as argued by the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer. While I disagree with Bremmer’s conclusion that “China is well on its way to becoming a status-quo power” — unless “well on its way” means decades — his assessment that Russia’s and China’s strategic interests over the long term are at odds is spot on.

China, in particular, knows that its interests demand cooperation with the region’s powers, which makes it, if not a status quo power, than at least a pragmatic power. Hence the Sino-Japanese defense summit, in which the Chinese and Japanese defense ministers concluded final agreements on exchanging port visits for warships and setting up a Sino-Japanese hot line.

Even if existing alliances persist, it is unlikely that new exclusionary organizations and partnerships will be established within the region. The US hub-and-spoke alliance system, established in the early years of the cold war, will not be transformed into the kind of organization envisioned by Mr. Abe.

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