Developing Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific

Can East Asian nations help develop an Indo-Pacific security architecture?

Contesting International Society in East Asia, edited by Barry Buzan and Yongjin Zhang, provides an account of how remnants of colonial thought and the distinct civilizational inheritances of East Asian countries have influenced their way of life and social institutions. Their ability to forge an international society is at the center of debate in the book.

The emergence of the Indo-Pacific region as a geopolitical construct has its origin in India. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first mooted the idea in a speech to Indian parliamentarians in 2007. It took over a decade for it to officially enter the lexicon of Asian security affairs. The construct also had the support of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as is evident from the organization’s 2015 declaration signed in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. However, to move beyond the vocabulary and develop any real partnership, one must understand the historical experiences, societal beliefs and their influence on regional institutions that create space for such developments to take place.

Historically, the East Asian region has hierarchical societal structures that pervades its public and private life. As described by Feng Zhang, a fellow at the Australian National University, in the book, the region had two kinds of societies, fanshu and diguo. Fanshu was based on the rigid hierarchical structures, in which China’s imperial suzerainty was recognized by its neighbors, while diguo was based on the concept of peace and kinship among equals that also included the element of confrontation and rivalry maintained within. Both the societies had China at the center.

The arrangement was almost like Mandala system described in Arthashastra, the ancient Indian book on statecraft written by Kautilya in the 3rd century BC. The Mandala system was centered around the conqueror king, his immediate neighbor as a potential enemy, a neutral king and a chain of friend’s friends and enemy’s friends. They were arranged in a form of circles and dealings with each of them were based on a six-fold policy of peace, war, alliance, reconciliation and double stand (peace with one and war with the other).

The inter-state relationships that existed between Southeast and Northeast Asian countries with China itself and among each other were based on the framework provided by fanshu and diguo frameworks. As an intrinsic part of these frameworks, institutions like Heqin and the provision for mutually agreed treaties would then set the stage for trade, diplomacy and war between other East Asian states and China.

The development of various diplomatic and bureaucratic institutions in East Asia was also heavily drawn from Chinese society. However, this construct changed with the emergence of the Western nation-states as colonial powers in the region. Shogo Suzuki, in his chapter titled “Imagining ‘Asia’: Japan and ‘Asian’ international society in modern history,” explains the transformation of 19th-century Japan as it became the first Asian nation to reform its social and bureaucratic institutions along European standards. The country underwent a total overhaul of its social and political institutions during Meiji Restoration period (1868-1912) in its pursuit to become a civilized nation-state on par with European countries.

This sort of transition is further explained by David Kang in his chapter titled, “An East Asian international society today? The cultural dimension,” to highlight the transition of the East Asian states from a historical society of unequals subordinate to a Sino-centric system to a modern society of equals based on Westphalian norms. The reversal of this hierarchical relationship of unequals into demand for equality in relationship was evident in the rise of nationalism in 20th-century Vietnam, which was fueled by American and French invasions.

Although East Asian countries were successful in adopting the Westphalian concept of the nation-state, their collective history and the civilizational footprints continued to reside in their psyche. As discussed by Mark Beeson and Shaun Breslin in their chapter titled, “Regional and global forces in East Asia’s economic engagement with international society,” this phenomenon was bound to happen where economic development was led by the state and preceded the necessary political or societal change. Also, the space for them became limited. The dominant role of development state can be seen in the case of 19th-century Japan, when economic restoration drive undertaken by Okubo Toshimichi was highly centralized and rigid, in an effort to raise Japan’s standard on par with the US and European countries.

The two world wars and the power politics that took place during the Cold War also gave lessons to the leaders in the region. Yuen Khong, in his chapter “East Asia and the strategic ‘deep rules’ of international/regional society,” underlines the deep rules of engagement involving primary institutions (war, the balance of power, great power leadership and diplomacy) that exists among East Asian countries.

According to Khong, East Asian nations used a combination of these primary institutions to maintain their prominence in the Asian security matrix. The war-like scenario due to China’s coercive tactics in the South China Sea and along Taiwan Strait; security arrangements such as Five Power Defense Arrangement among Malaysia, the UK, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand; agreements such as ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Peace; and regional forums such as East Asian Summit, Asian Regional Forum (ARF), are some examples of use by primary institutions by East Asian nations to maintain their relevance in the global security landscape, while carving a regional security architecture of their own.

It is through this, as Evenly Goh explains in the chapter titled, “East Asia as regional international society: the problem of great power management,” that East Asian nations became successful in tying down the US as the only security guarantor in the region. They were also successful in great power management through the creation of secondary inter-governmental organizations (SIGO) — such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, East Asia Summit, Six-Party Talks, etc. — as the driver of the overall relationship within the regional society.

Rosemary Foot in her chapter, “Social boundaries in flux: secondary regional organizations as a reflection of regional international society,” argues that the interaction among the primary regional institutions (sovereignty, nationalism, great power management and economic development) is carried forward through these SIGOs in the region. It is through the contestation of this primary institution in various forums and meetings that the decision on the norms, ideas and effectiveness of the regional organizations are taken.

However, with the emergence of China, as a regional power with its aggressive military actions across the Asian region, especially in South Asia and the South China Sea, the original construct of the Asia Pacific around the East Asian region has been changed. Now, there are multiple centers of power in the Indo-Pacific region that can collaborate and forge alliances and stimulate alignments.

One such development can be referred to as the emergence of quadrilateral dialogue involving Japan, India, Australia and the United States. It is natural that with the expansion of the geostrategic space that there will be a strain on the existing regional structures and also on the hierarchical societies that exist within them. For any tangible results of this emerging geopolitical entity, stakeholders like India, the US and European nations such as France need to understand these underlying historical structures and their norms.

The book edited by Barry Buzan and Yongjin Zhang covers some of the essential aspects of the East Asian region that are fundamental to the development of any future regional security architecture.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Debasis Dash