Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 09:09 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 09:09 | SYDNEY

Back to bipolarity? (part 2)


Michael Wesley


This post is part of the A new bipolarity debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

2 April 2012 16:16

This post is part of the A new bipolarity debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In part 1 of this series, Michael describes one side of the new bipolar divide, the 'Atlantic community', which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa.

On the other side of the new bipolar divide is Asia, a collection of countries driven by a set of preoccupations completely different from those of the Atlantic community. This is a region – it cannot be described as a community in any meaningful sense – undergoing rapid change in power relativities.

Over the past decade, Asia has evolved from a region in which no state was large and rich enough to contemplate dominance to a region in which one state, China, is large enough, and rapidly amassing wealth and power sufficient to make its dominance imaginable among its neighbours. As a consequence, there are few pretensions towards a non-competitive, post-modern pattern of international relations in Asia. As the Atlantic community steadily disinvests in its armed forces, Asia's states are engaged in a prolonged and determined arms build-up.

Asian institutions have always been less ambitious than Atlantic institutions, in that their adherence to Westphalian norms of non-interference and consensus has been uncompromising. Despite the proliferation of regional institutions in Asia, none have been permitted to address the region's multiplying points of stress and tension among its jostling powers. In a region in which power competition is rising, institutions are becoming even less relevant.

While Asian elites may at times mouth support for norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, few would admit that it is an operative expectation in their part of the world. The prospect of an international coalition intervening to prevent a massacre in, say, Burma, are vanishingly small.

In Asia there is a pragmatic approach to internal governance; as long as the regime is effective in maintaining a stable country, regime type makes little difference. Witness the disgust of many regional leaders when Thailand's constitutional crisis disrupted the December 2008 East Asia Summit meeting. Their consternation was not directed towards the prospects of democracy in Thailand, but towards the ineptness of the then government in dealing with the protests. Even those Asian states that many outside Asia look to as future champions of democracy – such as India and Indonesia – have been silent on regime type in other countries.

Colonial and Cold War ties are meaningless in Asia. Vietnam rarely looks to France for anything other than assistance in restoring grand colonial architecture, and its burgeoning strategic relationship with the US shows how weakly Cold War memories influence current policy. Consequently, there are no natural and accepted leaders in Asia. Each of its powerful states would arouse suspicion and resistance were it to propose leading a coalition of countries; in this situation, collective action is often most effective when proposed by smaller countries.

The focus of Asian states is on pressing contemporary issues in their region. The overarching strategic picture is dominated by responses to China's rising power, as the second-tier states surrounding it build closer ties with the US.

Meanwhile China is working assiduously at countering any ability or willingness to contain it. Simmering disputes in the East and South China Seas are, on the one hand, problems needing immediate management, and on the other, confrontations that will shape the future of the region's maritime trading order. The Arab uprisings seem very far away, while the issue of Iran's aspirations sees non-proliferation concerns tempered by pragmatic considerations on access to and the price of West Asian energy.

Don't touch that dial – part 3 of 'Back to Bipolarity' will be along soon.

Photo by Flickr user Old Sarge.