To calm waters, halt exploration activities — Riaz Mohammad Khan
SEPT 14 — Since the end of the Cold War two decades ago, conflicts have continued to afflict the world, but without the danger of a conflagration involving major powers.
Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq have experienced long wars and violence but did not pose threat of a wider conflict that could disrupt global peace.
In fact, the world has witnessed varying degrees of co-operation among major powers in respect to these situations and a rare consensus and unity in fighting terrorism and extremism.
The tensions brewing in the Asia-Pacific could, however, prove to be different. This is the only region of the world where tensions, if unchecked, can sour relations between major powers, in particular the United States and China.
Militarily, the US remains the only true global power, even though the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq has revealed the limitation of use of military force.
China is an ascendant power but largely in the economic sense. Its economic growth has been an important catalyst for the emerging multi-polar global dispensation.
In its foreign relations, China’s over-arching priority remains economic and trade co-operation, which is also at the heart of the co-operation-and-competition paradigm that has increasingly defined relations among major powers in the post-Cold War world.
This pattern is now under stress in the Asia-Pacific with the rising tensions over the South China Sea and East China Sea islands and maritime economic zones.
All parties to the disputed islands are increasingly assertive in their claims and the escalation in rhetoric has raked up old fears and prejudices. In this ominous scenario, China is deeply suspicious of the perceived US empathy with rival claimants.
A crisis is in the making that poses a test for diplomacy and good sense, especially on the part of the countries of the region. No regional country, including China, stands to gain through military confrontation and hostilities. At stake is the enormous economic growth of the region that has brought unprecedented prosperity to its people and, by that token, the opportunity to reorder global economy on a more equitable and fair basis.
There are obvious powerful imperatives that weigh in favour of restraint and staving off a conflict situation: Huge regional economic interests, critically important cooperation between major powers in the international arena especially at the United Nations Security Council and, indeed, the transformed world which is phenomenally interdependent.
For its part, China has shown remarkable foresight in handling the Hong Kong and Taiwan issues and pragmatism in managing its affairs in the region and with other major powers including the US.
These factors would come into play if the situation starts reaching a point of conflict.
However, the Asia-Pacific situation can be accident prone. What is a possible way forward?
First and foremost, calming down the situation will demand that all regional parties eschew escalation and provocations or attempts to change ground realities by force and ensure freedom of navigation to keep the shipping lanes open for international commerce.
Secondly, the countries of the region will need to look for innovative approaches that insulate the issues of sovereignty and, instead, focus on mutually beneficial cooperative arrangements for exploitation of resources in the disputed areas. Until then, a moratorium on such activities may be a desirable course.
It is unlikely that leveraging US support or using forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will pressure China to soften its position that, as in the case of other major powers in similar circumstances, insists on bilateral negotiations instead of resort to multilateral forums or third-party intercession.
It is time for quiet but robust diplomacy. Herein is an important role cut out for those members of ASEAN who are not direct parties to the disputes and who enjoy close relations with China.
They must exert themselves to prevent the situation taking an ugly turn. If over-concern appears to be misplaced, there is no room for complacency either. — Today
* Riaz Mohammad Khan is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan. He is a panellist on the topic “US-China relations: Co-operation or collision?”, at the 3rd Singapore Global Dialogue. Organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the dialogue will be held on September 20 and 21 at the Shangri-La Hotel.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.