SPEAKING FREELY Asian conflict 'ayes' have it wrong
By Namrata Goswami
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The trend analysis for 2014 coming out these days from think tanks in Washington as well as from much of the Western hemisphere forewarns us living in the eastern hemisphere that conflict in Asia is a real possibility.
The signs are rather voluminous, they say: increasing competition for resources between China, Japan, India, and the countries of Southeast Asia; the tumultuous bilateral relationship between
China and Japan; India and Pakistan; territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas; border disputes between China and India and rivalry in the Indian Ocean, could spiral out of control, leading to a regional conflict.
The conflict "ayes"" have data on their side. The India-China border was rather active last year, with Chinese troops crossing over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on India's western sector and pitching tent for nearly 20 days on Indian territory before the issue was peacefully managed. Both China and India have modernized their military, are continuing to buy more equipment, and have increased their troop presence across the border.
I have spoken and written about this with concern in many forums, weighing on the side of caution, and hoping that both countries establish more robust border management mechanisms and desist from provocative actions. China's announcement of an air defense identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea in November raised hackles and I argued that such moves by China only emboldens the "China threat" camp and disturbs the peace.
Japan's own actions of buying disputed islands and the visits of its prime ministers - the latest by Shinzo Abe in December - to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals from World War II are buried, always rub China the wrong way.
Vietnam and the Philippines have meanwhile expressed anxiety at what they see as a growing assertive Chinese foreign policy bent on projecting its power in the high seas.
Chinese aspirations for a blue-water navy only aggravate these concerns. Another sphere of strategic competition is the Indian Ocean region and the Malacca Strait through which most of the trade in Asia flows.
West Asia is also rife with conflict between Israel and Palestine, coupled with unstable conditions in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria. The threat of terrorism from countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda are still active, is high. Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka continue to face severe crises of national integration of minority communities and electoral conflict over their democratic transitions.
All of these serve us a recipe for impending conflict in Asia, and 2014 might just be that year. Likely theaters of conflict are West Asia, East Asia and South Asia, which suffer from both internal and external turmoil. Military modernization by China and India, and the presence of nuclear weapons in Asia only darken the atmosphere so much more. The worry is that bickering politicians within India, Pakistan's overtly strong military, and China's authoritarian regime simply may not have the skills to avoid regional conflict, by which I mean all-out war.
While this kind of analysis has a certain ring of truth to it, and is a likely scenario, it does not capture a deeper reality of Asia; that of a continent on the curve of hope. Asians are starting to enjoy better living standards, better healthcare, better job opportunities, better purchasing power parity and dreams of a better future. None of the conflicts are the primary indicators of where people in Asia want to be or where they want to go.
For Asians, the two things that matter most now are: economy and prosperity, and by that I mean mental and physical wellbeing; a life that offers the basic human needs. Of course, there is rampant inequality, and poverty levels in some of the Asian states are high, but people are coming out in large numbers empowered by the latest communication technologies to speak about the ills in their societies and are willing to act to bring about a change.
Protests in Tunisia and Egypt against long-standing authoritarian regimes are these visible changes, while the massive undercurrents of anger against corrupt practices in China and India have seen the new regime in China prioritize fighting corruption within China as its primary goal and the new political party, the Aam Admi Party (Common Man Party), in India winning elections in a strategic state like Delhi on the political platform of bringing about better governance. This is unlike earlier political trends in India - of waging elections in the name of caste, class and ethnicity. These are new phenomenon of people's power which none of the threat analyses could predict.
If we check the economic curve of Asia last year, China recorded a 7.6% growth rate, whereas India recorded 4.8% in the second quarter of 2013 while it was 4.4% in the first quarter. While much lower than earlier growth rates of 8% to 9% for China and 6 to 7% for India, the scene is not bad. Southeast Asia registered a growth rate of 5.8% in 2013 despite the typhoon that hit the Philippines and political unrest in Thailand. Central Asia is making steady progress in its development curve, with investments in mining, tourism, oil and other natural resources.
So, despite the territorial disputes mixed into the picture of somewhat slow economic growth, military modernization, inequalities, and worrisome trends towards regional hegemony on the part of China, I boldly argue that a hot conflict is not going to happen in Asia - for the simple reason that while governments are bickering and there are serious differences over foreign policy, one thing is common amongst the people of Asia: the desire for peaceful development.
Everywhere you go, people's aspirations focus on better education and housing, better entertainment, better travel, better tourism, better music, you name it ... and given that Asia collectively is young - despite perhaps an aging Japan and a future aging China - there is energy, dynamism and creative technology. People in the age group of 20 to 45 are traveling, migrating from one state to another, starting new businesses by being entrepreneurial, and are taking agency into their own hands.
Hence, while a Western tourist at a first glimpse of the chaotic streets of Delhi or the smog in Beijing may see chaos, I see dynamism, energy, work ethics, aspirations, hopes, and an unwillingness to give in to war. That is why there is growing support for regional mechanisms for more freer travel, visa on arrival schemes, free-trade zones, and the like.
Artists across Asia are traveling, young people are protesting for a better life, businesses are getting more consumer-satisfaction oriented, etc. The buzzword is to be resourceful, to get something more out of life. Therefore, despite the tired narratives of the Western discourse of potential conflict, territorial wars in Asia, people in Asia are on the march: to make their lives better and integrate with the world better ... and hence, while we should be rightly concerned with factors that may give rise to tension and therefore find ways to mitigate, it is rather important that we do not exaggerate the conflicting trends and their likely impacts either.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and a former Senior Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), Washington, D.C.