The more the international strategic scenario changes, the less any presumption about change holds up.
Consider the giant in the hall, China, and perceptions about its rise buzz and flit incessantly. And so it was at the 25th Asia-Pacific Roundtable organised by ISIS Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur over the week.
In opening the conference involving non-government security specialists, independent analysts and government officials in a private capacity, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin talked about “equiproximity” in maintaining balanced relations between the US and China.
The concept is not new, having been practised by others like Nepal between China and India, and Russia between the US and China. The point, however, is that equiproximity is seen as more positive than equidistance for all concerned.
From Muhyiddin’s keynote speech on, it was China at centre stage for much of the day and beyond in the three-day conference.
Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic magazine and Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security said the US navy is likely to shrink besides being diverted to West Asia and the Mediterranean. European navies are also downsizing when some major Asian nations are raising their defence expenditures.
He said the South China Sea could become as important as the Persian Gulf from the vast oil shipments transiting through it. He expected China to establish a series of major merchant ports in the region as part of a commercial empire, rivalled by India for influence.
Prof Susan Shirk, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, combines academic work with policy experience as former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the region. She credited China’s current foreign policy for being sophisticated and effective, showing more concern for its international reputation than any other country in the region.
Always sceptical about the notion of an aggressive China in the future, she observed that Beijing has tried to avoid any possible conflict with the US and to prevent the formation of Cold War-type blocs in the region. She also noted that China’s political leadership has become increasingly weak, from Mao to Deng, Jiang, Hu and beyond.
Shirk questioned the strength of China’s internal workings: how strong is the Politburo Standing Committee’s control over the military, particularly when Beijing’s foreign policy formation has become somewhat ill-defined? Add to that the fact that China still has no National Security Council.
For Chu Shulong and Feng Feng of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, China seeks military modernisation in its development strategy with no intention of being a military superpower. Its rise, focused on economics, strives for excellence in science and technology with no interest in exporting ideology.
To Aileen Baviera of the University of the Philippines, size is important – and China is big. Thus, perceptions of China’s rise also define the size and position of the one perceiving it.
Prof Sun Zhe, director of the Centre for US-China Relations at Tsinghua, found many positive-sum opportunities between the US and China over a wide range of issues. This meant they both need a long-term vision for their relationship and a means to co-manage challenges that arise.
Sun noted the irony of the two countries being the only ones in the world trying to improve mutual relations while preparing for mutual war. He also observed that for decades the Chinese looked to the US as a development role model, until the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2008 US financial crisis.
Prof Harry Harding of the University of Virginia saw the world’s most important bilateral relationship as a mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation. As each of these contained further possibilities, he tried to deconstruct them in some 25 minutes, without necessarily resolving the questions.
And so it was also for Prof Yoshihide Soeya of Keio University. But he did come round to conceding that much of East Asia’s future revolved around the quality of the US-China relationship.
Another open-ended question concerns the path of North Korea. Who indeed can know anything about it aside from its being something of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, sealed within a cocoon?
The short answer is that nobody really knows. The scary part is that this includes leaders in Pyongyang.
Other sessions included one on WikiLeaks and its political-security impact, as well as a luncheon talk on the International Committee of the Red Cross by its East Asian operations head Alain Aeschlimann. But the security-strategic angle kept returning, as through a full session on the question of a naval arms race in Asia.
The question has been on the minds of analysts for years, and on the lips of pundits for decades. It remains a question largely because it has never been answered properly.
Well, is there an arms race or not? Those like Kaplan impressed by impressions felt there was, but others were more cautious.
Defence budgets of some of the more prosperous countries have expanded, but with a lack of aggressive intent. Whatever the verdict, Asean can do more for the region with a larger presence by way of its vigorous moderation.
And so the code words for Asean action continue to grow: after being in the “driving seat” it became “centrality”, and after “resilience” it is now “connectivity”. As long as Asean acts to moderate temperatures and tempers, whatever term works, goes.
A separate session on Thailand revealed Asean’s larger concerns might be internal. Besides Bangkok’s dispute with Cambodia over some land, Thailand’s impending election is another great imponderable coming to a head.
Whatever happens after election night, a deeply polarised society will continue to suffer setbacks but its economy will keep humming. That some countries can only aspire to that sums up the improbable prospect of a predictable region.