Asia’s Pivot to Asia
America isn't the only one looking to reshuffle alliances.
Much has been made of the intensifying strategic competition between the United States and China, with Beijing working to edge America out of its Asian neighborhood even as Washington doubles down on its regional partnerships and presence. Less attention has been paid to regional dynamics underneath the umbrella of a U.S.-China relationship that mixes nascent rivalry with cautious engagement. In fact, Asia is undergoing a wider set of geopolitical realignments that could reset conventional expectations about the region’s strategic future.
Russia is tilting towards China and away from the West, as demonstrated by several recent energy-supply deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing U.S. and European sanctions have led President Vladimir Putin to pivot eastwards in hopes of building an anti-Western alliance with Beijing. Chinese and Russian armed forces are stepping up joint exercises. Both countries’ leaders are ideologically united in ruthless defense of one-party rule at home and against Western leadership in international institutions.
Yet Putin holds a weak hand in this high-stakes game of geostrategic poker: a rising China’s power threatens to overwhelm that of a declining Russia, with Beijing increasingly holding the trump card in commercial negotiations and in joint clubs like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Nonetheless, Putin’s own strategic choices have dashed hopes in Japan and elsewhere that Russia might be a partner in constraining China’s regional ascendancy.
Meanwhile, Japan is actively shaping a regional future that depends less exclusively on its U.S. alliance and more on strategic and economic partnerships with like-minded nations in South and Southeast Asia. With a close eye on improving its position within the Asian balance of power, Japan is investing heavily in a nascent alliance with India that could unite the gateway powers of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Tokyo is also intensifying military, diplomatic, and economic cooperation with pivotal Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar.
History issues have driven a wedge between South Korea and Japan in yet another consequential strategic realignment. In part to shore up their political standing at home, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye have made common cause against the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over Japan’s record in the Pacific War, fueling tension in relations between America’s two most important Asian allies.
Although the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul urgently requires repair, frictions have also grown between North Korea and its Chinese patron — weakening the long-standing axis between Beijing and Pyongyang. The execution by Kim Jong-un of his uncle and deputy Jang Sung-taek, considered China’s leading ally within Pyongyang’s corridors of power, put the point on a deeper cooling in relations (note to future challengers to the Kim dynasty: his praetorian guard also reportedly executed Jang’s entire extended family). China’s President Xi met with South Korean President Park before meeting North Korea’s Kim, a first for a Chinese leader in peninsular diplomacy. The North’s engagement with Japan over the return of abductees has led to warmer ties between Pyongyang and Tokyo, causing concern in Seoul.
India has traditionally enjoyed a close defense and diplomatic relationship with Moscow. Yet in another strategic shift, Indian officials today look with growing concern at President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of President Xi, and accelerated Russian provision of energy supplies and sensitive military technologies to India’s Chinese rival. The new Sino-Russian entente is putting pressure on the old Russia-India alliance, which in recent years has centered mainly on Russian arms sales to India’s fast-modernizing military. Reflecting these new currents, President Putin wants to ramp up weapons sales to India’s arch-enemy Pakistan – a country China is also cultivating as the Western drawdown from Afghanistan leaves a vacuum of power in the region.
Strikingly, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also more openly enhancing defense and economic cooperation with Israel. This is remarkable given that India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, has traditionally supported the Arab line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has a close civilizational relationship with Iran, which has vowed to bring about Israel’s destruction. Modi recently met with his Israeli counterpart for the first such encounter in a decade; India’s foreign minister is a long-time friend of Israel, and Home Minister Rajnath Singh made his first overseas trip there. According to Bloomberg, India has purchased more Israeli arms in the past six months alone than in the previous three years. The countries are jointly developing a long-range missile and sharing best practices on counter-terrorism.
Finally, Myanmar is engaged in its own pivot of sorts, opening itself up to close economic, diplomatic, and potentially even military ties with India, Japan, and the United States. This comes after many years in which the country’s closest ally and biggest investor was China. The future of the reform process in Myanmar is uncertain; most of the early gains from rolling back political dictatorship and economic autarky have been harvested, but many hard choices remain to be made on the path to genuine democracy and an economy operating under the rule of law. Nonetheless, Myanmar is another pivotal state that is actively realigning its external relationships in the midst of Asia’s ongoing strategic flux.
Where these transformations will end remains to be seen. Asia is not coalescing into rigid, Cold War-style blocs centered on the United States and China. Rather, regional states operating underneath the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing are creating new realities – not only to hedge against Sino-American conflict, but also to guard against the “new model of great power relations” that President Xi has so often called for, and which would relegate every other nation to an inferior status. The United States must resist the gravitational pull of this “G-2” dynamic and support its Asian friends in shaping a regional strategic environment that sustains peace and prosperity.
A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
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