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Clashing Titans: Military Strategy and Insecurity Among Asian Great Powers
03 November 2012

While Asia is widely expected to be at the centre of global politics in the 21st century, the rise of Asia as a powerhouse - in economic, politico-strategic and military terms - has created ripples around the world. The region that was on the periphery has become a crucial determinant in shaping the new century. Thus, there is a slow transition of power taking place, from Trans-Atlantic to Asia and the West is still coming to grips with this new reality.

At the same time, whether Asia's future is characterised by conflict or cooperation will obviously have an impact on both global futures and India's security. Though there has been a continuing debate on this issue, most previous works are either theoretical or focused on political relations. While both these approaches are important, they ignore an equally important issue: military strategies of the major powers of the region and how they might interact to produce stability or conflict in the region.

Previous works on military strategies of the great powers in this region have also been lacking because they have focused on one or two countries, which is grossly misleading because it simplifies the complexities of the region. Second, even the individual country studies available are primarily done in the west and from a western perspective. Therefore, an Indian perspective on the subject has been lacking.

In an effort to bridge these gaps in the understanding, Observer Research Foundation has brought out a new study, titled Clashing Titans: Military Strategy and Insecurity Among Asian Great Powers. This publication is authored by Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow in the Securities Studies. The book has has attempted to study the military strategies of the four major Asian powers - China, the United States, Japan and Russia - seeking to fill this gap, from an Asian and specifically an Indian perspective.

The timing of the transition of power taking place, from Trans-Atlantic to Asia and the West, has been particularly significant - the West is still caught in the global financial crisis whereas most of the Asian countries (not hit badly in the first place) have come out of the crisis by and large untouched. This has had telling effect on the manner in which the Asian countries are conducting business (economic and strategic) with the rest of the world. This has had its effect also on the military modernisation that has kept pace with the economic growth of Asia. Rebalancing the world economy in tune with the new reality will also dictate rebalancing and recalibration of the regional and global power dynamics, of which military matters is a significant input.

The U.S. has continued to be the sole superpower since the end of the Cold War. However, rise of new power centres such as China, Russia, Japan and India, there is strong expectation that the U.S. pre-eminence will decrease over a period of time. The question is whether the period of transition, as the U.S. power declines and other powers rise, will result in a period of tension or not, will partially depend on its military strategy. As Henry Kissinger noted, the simultaneous rise of three major powers in Asia - China, Japan, and India - resembles a situation when the European balance of power was being shaped in the 19th century, with each power looking at the other with a sense of wariness and competition, but cooperate occasionally.

There is also the question of the shifting balance of power and how the US and the West in general adapts to the new phenomena, particularly as it deals with global and regional crises. This is evident in the Iran and the North Korean problems where the U.S. has not been able to act effectively. The U.S. engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq have put a lot of strain on American power projection capacities. This along with the global financial crisis has hit America's image as the unipolar power.

On the other hand, rise of China as a major military and economic power along with its global aspirations for a superpower status has remained a subject for major debates not only in the U.S. and Japan, but also in Russia and India. China has been making systematic progress in its military modernisation, evolving from concepts like "Local Wars under Modern Hightech Conditions" in 2002 to "Local Wars under Modern Informationalized Conditions" in 2004 to "Local Wars under the Conditions of Informationalization" in 2006 and fighting an informationised war today.

Meanwhile, there is also the worry that China's military modernisation is more ambitious than what is dictated by its immediate security concerns - an indication of its larger global objectives. The Chinese test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in January 2007 or the recent test flight of J-20 appears to demonstrate these larger ambitions too. The capabilities have increased not only in quantity terms, which itself is significant, but there has augmentation of capabilities in terms of quality, as in precision, penetration and accuracy, which have an element of coerciveness in-built in them. The growth pattern and trends of the Chinese military are worrisome for other Asian powers, and is something on which New Delhi needs to keep a close watch.

Whether one would characterise Russia as a great power or not, it remains an important pillar in the emerging global security architecture. Russia's Science & Technology and military might along with its renewed confidence based on its energy and other natural resources call for a fresh look at what Russia is doing in the military-security sphere. Russia today is faced with a strange situation - a mix of strength and vulnerabilities - leading to both paranoia and an assertiveness bordering aggressiveness in its foreign and security policies. This was particularly evident in the 2003 Russian defence White Paper that stated that Russia may consider preventive strikes in case of dire threats to its national security. It illustrated both the weakness of its conventional military might, and (may be therefore) the continuing potency of its strategic nuclear forces.

Last of the riddles in the emerging Asian strategic framework is Japan. Japan has been an economic powerhouse but they have been unable to convert their economic might into politico-strategic might. Japan has also been characterised as the next rising power for a long time but they have never managed to evolve into significant geopolitical factor, essentially constrained by its pacifist military posturing. This is changing and Japan is beginning to take on greater security responsibilities. The rise of a more independent and assertive Japan in the backdrop of an increasingly securitised Asia is a reality. How countries such as China and Russia will look upon and respond to this new reality will be important. These are developments that will have implications not just at the regional but global levels as well and therefore policy makers in Asia need to ensure not only that the rise of China is peaceful but also that Japan's more complex geopolitical rise will contribute to stability.

According to the book, what shapes the Asian strategic framework will depend on a number of parameters, ranging from economic might, politico-strategic weight to military muscle. However, military capabilities and strategies can create suspicion and mutual distrust. Asia's history combined with unresolved border and territorial issues has added to the lack of understanding and mutual trust in the region.

Added to these vexed issues, there is the parallel rise of three major Asian powers - India, China and Japan - and how each of the power looks at the others has serious implications. The military strategy of a country is an important indicator of its intentions and objectives, which can add to or reduce the insecurities and suspicion in a particular region. Understanding Asian militaries and their strategies is not easy; there may be several parameters that one may need to look into. In this context, it is pertinent to examine a number of indicators including the defence spending, military capabilities acquired and the broad strategies adopted by each of the major Asian powers individually as also through alliances and partnerships.

Military strategies and modernisation can have implications in many different areas - determining foreign policy to energy security options and crystallising new alliances and partnerships. The security dilemma in Asia, resulting from increased securitisation of issues and heightened focus on hard power, could foment new bilateral and multilateral partnerships while also possibly strengthening old partnerships and allied relationships.

The book 'Clashing Titans' says the role of external powers could also become louder as smaller powers and less powerful countries would want to strengthen themselves by adopting a hedging strategy as a way of facing stronger powers. While these measures would provide temporary cushion in the near term, the long-term implications in terms of perpetuating the sense of rivalry and insecurity in the region are significant.