Changing power dynamics: Asia-Pacific of the 21st Century

“India’s crucial balancing role in a prospective US-China duopoly of the Asia-Pacific regional order would serve to enhance its presence and augur a meaningful role to its power”, said Dr. Lawrence S Prabhakar, Associate Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Madras Christian College, Chennai. An authority on maritime security issues in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific Region, nuclear politics, grand strategy, defence and strategic issues, Dr. Lawrence spoke at the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) on ‘Great power transitions, power shifts in the Asia-Pacific, India’s foreign and security policy, position and posture’. The event held on Septemeber27, at CPPR office, was attended by Mr.Hormis Tharakan,(former chief of RAW and former DGP of Kerala), Professor K. C. Abraham, (Professor of Political Science (Retd.), Department of Economics, Sacred Heart College and Academic Director, CPPR) Mr. K. V. Thomas, (Senior Fellow, CPPR) and other experts from the field of international relations. The discussion revolved around India’s need to effectively balance the growing influence of the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region in the wake of a ‘sea-change’ triggered by interdependence, competition and balance.

Dr. Lawrence identified the Asia-Pacific as representing the “continental geopolitics of a transregional expanse with its heartland and maritime littoral contexts that represents the overwhelming proportion of maritime trade, commerce, shipping, naval expansion and a whole host of littoral complexities.” The Asia-Pacific region is the centre of gravity of the post-globalization period. The speaker observed that China, Japan, South Korea and India are the four key economic engines, making the region the fulcrum of economic growth and development. Apart from economic expansion, the Asia-Pacific region is also home to new regionalism, such as ASEAN, and military expenditure. The game changer in the Asia-Pacific region is the conglomeration of the South East Asian states that focus on the Asia-Pacific to counter the growing influence of China.

China attempts to exert control over systems of the international order in covert, non-military and non-conventional ways by engaging in alternative offensives such as cyber warfare, space warfare and weather modification warfare. Additionally, through initiatives such as 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and Silk Road Economic Belt, conjointly called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aimed at connectivity and infrastructure building, China also attempts to incapacitate the economically weaker states in the Asia-Pacific belt. Touted as the biggest international platform modelled after the US Marshall Plan, China has succeeded in garnering collaboration from most of the countries in the region.

In the light of the above, Dr. Lawrence pointed out that China and the US perceive each other as vital to their national interest, reducing the scope and possibility of a kinetic war even as they are caught in a power struggle. While balancing the US, China perceives the continued presence of the US in the Asia-Pacific region as critical to sustaining the regional balance. The speaker outlined two possibilities that could result with the exit of the US from the region: Japan could use its nuclear option; while Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could work towards reunification of the Korean peninsula resulting in an alliance that strives to balance the rising Chinese threat in the region. The US considers the Chinese presence vital in the region to maintain a comparative advantage.

With regard to India’s foreign and security policies, Dr. Lawrence remarked that India does not engage in an intent declaration of comprehensive national power as it always strives to maintain a certain degree of strategic ambiguity in its foreign policy, uncharacteristic of great power behaviour of the international system.

However, India as a millennial civilizational state with its strategic thought based on territorial integrity, economic growth and development, autonomy in strategic domain and quest for technical capabilities and power. The speaker identified democratic governance and economic resilience as India’s greatest strengths. India maintains bilateral strategic relations based on a certain amount of strategic autonomy with the regional states. In addition, India is increasing its naval footprint in region through diplomatic and benign functions and therefore has credible potential to tilt the balance in the region. Furthermore, the six default conditions that continues to persist in India’s grand strategic thought:  normative, intellectual, power, institutional, reactive and operational-praxis were also identified.

The speaker underlined India’s need for greater interdependence, convergence and balancing in the context of regional power shifts and power transition in the Asia-Pacific, as India could be a normative leader with a stabilising impact if it capitalises on its economic strength and strategic capacity.

The presentation generated discussion on areas such as India’s strategic advantage in signing the 2+2 agreement, the implications of Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)and India’s Strategic Trade Authorization 1 status (STA 1). The 2+2 dialogue presents India with a disadvantage, choking the long held strategic autonomy. Similarly, the STA-1 status accorded to India is more symbolic than based on strategic calculations.

The moderator, Professor K C Abraham, summed up the session by noting that India’s foreign policy would change in the current global order and that India has a moral voice to affect changes. To conclude, he recognised that before projection of great power in the region, it is imperative that India focuses on addressing its internal issues.

About the speaker

Dr. Lawrence S Prabhakar is the author of the books Growth of Naval Power in the Indian Ocean Region: Dynamics and Transformation (New Delhi: National Maritime Foundation, 2016), The Maritime Balance of Power in the Asia-Pacific: Maritime Doctrines and Nuclear Weapons At Sea (Singapore: World Scientific Publications, August 2006) and Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean Region: Critical Issues of Debate (New Delhi: Tata-McGraw Hill 2008).

He is a Consultant and Doctoral Program Advisor for the research programmes of the Naval War College, INS Mandovi, Goa,Co-supervisor, PhD programme at China Studies Centre, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of TechnologyMadras and consultant on several projects by the Net Assessment Directorate, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India. He is associated with many prestigious institutions around the world working in the field of international relations, security, nuclear politics, and strategic studies

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