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Wednesday, February 20, 2019, 07:08 (GMT+7)
The changing geopolitics of East Asia and its implications for regional security

The geopolitics on a global scale is experiencing unprecedented changes under the impacts made by the strategic competition between major powers. The East Asia, which remains the world’s most dynamic region and faces intertwined differences and risks of conflict, is at the forefront of the competition between America, China, Russia, the EU, India, and Japan that has been making huge changes in the regional security.

The East Asia - the centrepiece of the competition between the three new world orders

The East Asia is the place where the world’s greatest powers, namely America, China, Russia, Japan and the EU have been present and fiercely competing with one another and will form the 4th cycle of the world’s economy. America, China and Russia pursue three naturally different trends in building the world orders. US President Donald Trump determines to establish a new world order in which America will perform the role of “the world’s judge” in stead of “global police” and decide all international conventions under the conditions set by Washington. Meanwhile, China hopes to create a new world order with the Beijing Consensus via many strategic plans, the centrepiece of which is “Belt and Road” and “Made in China 2025”. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin pursues a new world order in which all nations no matter how strong or weak, rich or poor they are must be respected and treated equally. Unlike his predecessors, US President Donald Trump believes that China is now taking the lead in economic development while Russia possesses the most powerful military in the world. Therefore, the US National Security Strategy during the Trump presidency considers China and Russia as the “comprehensive rivals”.

The East Sea: the centrepiece of the geopolitical competition between America and China

The comprehensive strategic competition between America and China is centred on the “Made in China 2025” and the “Belt and Road”. Those two strategic plans play a core role in enabling China to control 80% of the market share in terms of hi-tech goods in the foreseeable future. Therefore, US politicians from the Republican Party and the Democratic Party all believe that the two strategic plans by China represent the mainstay of the new world order Beijing is pursuing. To that end, China has formulated strategies to develop it into a maritime power on the basis of a postulate of the geopolitical theory in the UK in the 19th century: “Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself”. Since 2009, China has sought to control the East Sea. Typically, since 2013, Beijing has made huge investments in illegally upgrading and building artificial islands in the East Sea - the starting point of the “maritime silk road” in the “Belt and Road” Initiative. After 5 years only, China has completed the construction of artificial islands and is consolidating its outposts in the East Sea, building its artificial islands into “permanent aircraft carriers” in a bid to control the maritime passage of strategic importance to the annual global trade of 5.3 trillion USD passing through the East Sea.

To counter China’s ambition in the East Sea, the US National Defence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019 signed by President Donald Trump on May 15th 2018 set out many measures to deal with China’s illegal militarization in this sea. Moreover, America has urged its allies to enhance their military presence in the East Sea. Accordingly, some of its allies, particularly the UK and France have made plans for cooperating with America in preventing China’s illegal militarization in the East Sea. Notably, a “diamond quadrangle”, including America, India, Japan, and Australia, has been shaped in order to realize the Indo-Pacific Strategy by the U.S. and contain China’s ambition in its “Belt and Road” strategic plan.

To reduce the pressure from America, China has agreed to negotiate with Southeast Asian countries about the Code of Conduct (COC) for the East Sea, which had always been delayed by Beijing (the first negotiation on the COC will take place in Myanmar in the first quarter of 2019). However, China is seeking to include many improper points in the COC, such as prohibiting countries outside the East Sea from joining military exercises in this sea, preventing foreign companies from oil exploration and exploitation in the East Sea. As ASEAN member states will certainly oppose those conditions, negotiations for the COC will be very difficult.

It is also necessary to add that China’s militarization in the East Sea recently has partly overshadowed the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the islands called Diaoyudao by China and named Senkaku by Japan. However, Japan is worried about China’s ambition to occupy both Senkaku and the East Sea, which would directly threaten Japan’s national security and particularly its economic security as its energy transportation and shipping lines mainly pass through the East Sea. Therefore, in 2018, Japan increased its national defence budget to modernize its military, particularly its navy to neutralize security challenges from China.

Dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands

Against quick changes in the world and the East Asia, Russia and Japan both hope to completely settle the dispute over the Kuril Islands which still remain under Russia administration. In 2016, during the visit by President Vladimir Putin to Japan, leaders of the two countries agreed to initiate the consultations on a mechanism for common economic operations on the Kuril Islands as well as to accelerate negotiations on the basis of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. According to the statement, once the two sides sign a Peace Treaty, the Soviet Union would hand over the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan. Signing the Peace Treaty first and handing over the islands later or vice versa is the main problem between the two sides now.

According to President Vladimir Putin, Russia and Japan will sign a Peace Treaty without any prerequisite. Only when it is signed, will the two sides talk about Japan’s request for the handover of the 2 islands in the Kuril archipelago. However, Moscow is still worried that after being handed over to Tokyo, those islands could become the US military bases threatening Russia’s security in the Far East. To resolve that doubt, Japanese Prime Minister ever pledged that the US troops stationed in Japan would not pose any risk to Russia. Nevertheless, Russia was taught a bitter lesson on America’s promise not to expand the NATO if the Soviet Union agreed with the removal of Berlin wall and the German reunification, but afterwards, the NATO not only had more new members but also brought its military bases closer to Russia’s border.

Unprecedented geopolitical changes on the Korean Peninsula

In 2018, the world witnessed the unprecedented changes on the Korean Peninsula related to the relations between North Korea and South Korea and the pledge of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a lasting peace by America and North Korea. The historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump opened up a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. In 2019, negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang will continue to take place and could achieve new progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and maintaining a durable peace. Delivering the New Year’s message, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged that the peace process on the Korean Peninsula would never be reversed. Meanwhile in his New Year address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stated that he would be prepared to attend the second meeting with US President Donald Trump. 

Russia, the EU and India adjust their strategy towards the East Asia

As the Asia in general and the East Asia in particular are rising as the centrepiece of geopolitical competition in the world, Russia, India and the EU have all adjusted their strategy towards the East Asia. Russia held the Eastern Economic Forum which was seen as “Russia’s Davos Economic Forum” to develop the Far East. In 2018, the relations between Russia and the ASEAN were developed into strategic partnership. Russia maintains good relations with both North Korea and South Korea. India changed the Look East Policy into the Act East Policy in a bid to promote economic, political, and security cooperation with East Asian countries. In 2018, the EU implemented the strategy to connect Europe and Asia as a counterbalance to China’s “Belt and Road”.

The strategic competition between major powers has been completely changing the complexion of the East Asia. Unlike the Europe with long-established multilateral security institutions, such as the NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Asia in general and East Asia in particular have not established a common security framework yet. Besides, while traditional allies and new partners should have been gathered to deal with China as a rival of the US, President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and declare trade war with key allies of the US, namely Japan and South Korea, which made the US allies feel isolated by Washington.  

Recently, US President Donald Trump has suddenly decided to withdraw the US troops from Syria, abandoning the US allies to the fight against terrorism, raising doubts among the US allies in the East Asia. Against that backdrop, the ASEAN is emerging as the centre of a common security and cooperation structure which is being shaped in the East Asia. Therefore, it is believed that the annual ASEAN Summit, the East Asia Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) will significantly contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the region while the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) will provide opportunities for major powers to meet one another and seek for a common voice in order to settle differences, prevent conflicts, strengthen cooperation, and neutralize destabilizing factors for the sake of a peaceful and prosperous East Asia.

Sr. Col. Le The Mau

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