Asia-Pacific consequences of global disorder

Asia-Pacific consequences of global disorder

Philippines activists with placards of a Chinese soldier and Uncle Sam head towards the Chinese consulate during a protest in Manila over the South China Sea disputes. (Reuters photo)
Philippines activists with placards of a Chinese soldier and Uncle Sam head towards the Chinese consulate during a protest in Manila over the South China Sea disputes. (Reuters photo)

As the rules and institutions that were crafted after the Second World War increasingly unravel, tensions and fissures in the global system will become more salient.

We are already seeing the manifestations of global instability from American and Europe to the Middle East and Asia owing to the incongruence between set rules that do not match aspired roles. The global environment has never been all smooth and calm but in the five decades after 1945 it was more predictable when nation-states knew their place. Now many states are dissatisfied with their space and role, and a host of non-state players are clamouring for a place at the table. For the Asia-Pacific region, the implications of global disorder are far-reaching. Unless rules and institutions are refashioned to suit newer players in a more equitable redistribution of power and place in the global system, the likelihood of tension leading to confrontation and conflict will grow.

We can already see that the global trade and financial systems are no longer effective and workable. This means the status quo in the wake of the Second World War no longer holds. There are peoples, states and non-state players that want to change the status quo. For them that status quo is no longer acceptable. So disorder prevails as a result. Some revisionism has emerged; some people say the Chinese are revisionist and want to change the status quo in their own eyes, perhaps Russia as well. We are seeing a system that is degenerating increasingly into a kind of "self-help". When we have order and peace, there is collaboration, coordination, cooperation, and general observation of rules, norms and institutions. When it becomes unilateral, self-help and more disorderly outcomes prevail.

We can see examples in the rivalry between the United States and China, the tension between China and Japan, and the apparent realignment between China and Russia. The China-Japan mistrust, in particularly, runs deep across a gamut of issues centring on historical grievances from the past century. China also has problems with maritime Asean members, particularly the Philippines and to some extent Vietnam. US preoccupations have weakened its "pivot" and "rebalance" strategy. The US rebalance towards Asia was a big deal a few years ago, but it doesn't have the same credibility now.

One emerging theme is Asia is China's dominance in mainland Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand (CLMT) have a collective market of 150 million, a combined GDP in excess of half a trillion dollars. The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) which includes the southern Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, comprises a huge market of 350 million people with an overall GDP of more than a trillion dollars. Thus, mainland Southeast Asia is really China's backyard.

The South China Sea has a host of teething problems. China is alarmingly and dangerously making land out of the sea. China's land reclamation in the South China Sea is changing the status quo dramatically and bodes ill for regional stability. The Chinese have built facilities that include a 3-km runway that can accommodate advanced military aircraft. This will profoundly change the status quo. If it is not stopped, we are headed for a lot of tension and probably some kind of confrontation. The South China Sea is clearly a theatre of future conflict.

Unsurprisingly, Asean has been divided over China. Mainland Asean countries are more sympathetic and beholden to Beijing but maritime states tend to be more adversarial. The US is still preeminent in the maritime domain, but so far Washington has been non-confrontational vis-à-vis China. Japan is a maritime power with a lot of mainland interests, and may find standing up to China unavoidable. Other countries are in the mix from the European Union and South Korea to Australia and New Zealand but the main action is around the East China Sea and the South China Sea and the states around them.

While Asean has much going for it from a large combined market of 620 million and the world's fasting-expanding growth trajectory to a combined GDP of 2.5 trillion dollars, the interests of its mainland and maritime members are diverging. It will remain together but may seem increasingly adrift. The Asean Community will be more rhetorical than real; it will be more on paper and less in practice, but it is important to maintain that momentum of togetherness.

What does it mean for New Zealand, Asean and all of us? It means we will see a protracted global "Groundhog Era" which drags on perpetually. There is no final war as such, but there is an ongoing unruly, unwieldy environment with ongoing and exacerbating tensions. Reshaping the global order without war is our chief challenge.

How do we get order without war? We got order from the Second World War, which was an offshoot of the First World War. This is the existential challenge for all of us. The established rules and institutions need to be recalibrated. Why should the IMF always be headed by the French, the World Bank by an American, and the ADB a Japanese? No wonder the Chinese are proposing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which it can spearhead. China wants to have a larger role that current institutional arrangements do not allow.

More rules are needed where there have been none. The South China Sea has been working on a rules-based Code of Conduct for years, but the Chinese are unlikely to ever sign up to it. They will keep working on it and keep talking about it, but it won't be a reality. The Mekong River and its dams will be a big problem. One of our paramount dilemmas and questions is, "What do the Chinese want, and how do we handle China?" There has to be some accommodation of China -- accommodation without appeasement. The Japanese and Americans should join the AIIB and allow China to take the lead. The AIIB's development finance can be good for Asia's emerging economies. If we recognise and give some space to the Chinese, perhaps they will back off in other areas, such as the South China Sea. Perhaps China can be enticed to play by the rules if it is given more recognition and respect. The same goes with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is dominated by the US and excludes China. The TPP is divisive for Asia. It has only four of 10 Asean economies. Many Asian countries prefer the looser but still useful Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership for trade liberalisation.

The real economic integration we are likely to see will be in mainland Southeast Asia. Now it is possible to drive from Myanmar to Vietnam, and the rail development to follow will further boost connectivity on the ground. There are rail lines planned from Southern China through Laos to the Gulf of Thailand, through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. But mainland Southeast Asia is not without problems, including human and drug trafficking, transnational crime, and so on. But, the labour market is quite integrated. There are five million Myanmar, Cambodian and Lao workers in Thailand already. There is a lot of border trade; borders don't matter as much in mainland Southeast Asia. I see it reverting to what it used to be before the imperialists came. There are no structured borders and people now crisscross the land like they used to. Again, we are seeing glimpses of the past manifesting on the horizon.

And what does it mean for all of us? It means we have to help promote international efforts to reshape and recalibrate, revamp and reinvent rules and institutions so that the established players can move over and make space for new players without feeling threatened and insecure. If the older players and established states that benefitted from the earlier era don't make way, they will be forced to make way. We don't want to see that.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is on leave from Chulalongkorn University and is currently the Sir Howard Kippenberger Chair at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. This article is the second of a two-part series that is drawn from the Kippenberger Lecture 2015.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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