This month, 70 years ago, the United States of America detonated nuclear weapons in two Japanese cities—Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and the Second World War came to an end. On August 15, 1945, the Japanese Emperor announced the cessation of hostilities and a few days later, on September 2, Japan signed the formal surrender document.
In the Asia-Pacific, comprising of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, the end of the Second World War heralded a power-shift by catalysing the decline of European colonialism and ushering in the Cold War. The erstwhile Soviet Union and the US competed for and sought to contain each other’s influence in the region. While the Cold War remained ‘cold’ in Europe, it generated hostilities in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia. After the end of the Cold War, the Asia-Pacific is now witnessing another power-shift with the rise of China.
For the past three decades, China’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) averaged close to 10%. With approximately $10.3 trillion GDP in 2014, China is the second largest economy in the world; its life expectancy, which was around 44 years in 1961, today hovers around 75 years. The Chinese military expenditure has also witnessed double-digit percentage increases in the past two decades.
It is pertinent to note that the rise of China is happening along with the simultaneous rise of other countries in Asia-Pacific. In the past few decades, this region registered impressive economic growth. The GDP of East Asia and the Pacific, which was $154 billion in 1961, stood at a whopping $21 trillion in 2014. Most of the East Asian countries and those in Southeast Asia fall under the categories of countries with very high (Singapore, Korea, Japan and Brunei) and high (Malaysia, Thailand and China) human development indicators (HDI). While it is true that South Asia and continental Southeast Asia have a lot of catching up to do, others in the Asia-Pacific region have made significant socio-economic gains.
Contrary to the belief that increased economic interdependence will result in peaceful regional order, there are growing security concerns in Southeast Asia and East Asia, as territorial and maritime disputes involving China threaten peace and prosperity in the region. Sadly, the decline of the Western influence in the Asia-Pacific and the rise of an Asian power have not resulted in strengthening of ‘Asian solidarity’. Instead, we are witnessing the rise of ‘Asian anxiety’.
It is not mandatory that the rise of new powers in international politics should always result in unease. The stupendous economic rise of Japan in the post-War period did not generate apprehension in the region. A pacifist constitution, non-aggressive foreign policy posture, and willingness to invest in other countries ensured that Japan’s rise was welcomed rather than feared. Similarly, India’s relatively modest rise has been well received in Southeast Asia.
On the other hand, China’s ability to translate economic growth into enhanced military capabilities coupled with its territorial assertions in the Himalayas, South China Sea and East China Sea have caused nervousness among the countries in the region. This disquiet is compounded by the fact that the power-shift is happening in the context of an incomplete nation-building process. It is true that in the Asia-Pacific many post-colonial states that came into existence after the Second World War did not disintegrate into two or more units with a few exceptions such as Bangladesh (which was carved out of Pakistan in 1971) and East Timor (which was annexed by Indonesia in 1976 and was granted independence) in 2002. However, from Xinjiang and Tibet in China through Northeast India and Myanmar to Southern Thailand there is an arc of ethnic unrest. If we add the tenuous coexistence between the Chinese Malaysians and the Malay majority in Malaysia, and between indigenous ethnic groups and the descendants of ethnic Indians in Fiji, this arc of ethnic instability extends further into the Pacific.
The absence of a robust region-wide security organisation to address instability and modulate the consequences of power-shifts is acutely felt in the Asia-Pacific region. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is struggling to take-off. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made impressive gains in regional economic integration. However, ASEAN and its associated frameworks such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) Forum are yet to emerge as a platform that can address regional security issues. The US is promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which will push the locus of regional economic integration to the Pacific. On the other hand, China has been trying to promote “new regional security architecture” through the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) with an intent to create a continental regional framework.
An important reason for the emergence of these multiple frameworks has been the lack of congruence in the normative frameworks. Most of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region are still struggling to meet the ideals enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Freedom House, only 38% of the Asia-Pacific population is experiencing the benefits of a free society. This is not surprising, as the arc of the Asia-Pacific continental landmass extending from Myanmar to China is largely governed by semi-democratic and authoritarian regimes.
It is in this context of political fragility that one should view the nuclearisation of the Asia-Pacific. It is the only region in the world that has experienced the devastation caused by the nuclear warfare and yet, today, there are more nuclear powers in this region than in any other continent. Russia, China, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. The presence of the US nuclear forces adds to the number and North Korea has also joined the ranks of these
countries recently. There are many others in the Asia-Pacific that have the necessary infrastructure and expertise to build nuclear weapons. The probability of non-state actors gaining access to these weapons of mass destruction, though remote, is a scary proposition.
Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, the Asia-Pacific region continues to be vulnerable to conflict with the presence of many hotspots such as territorial and maritime conflicts, ethnic tensions, fragile political transitions, nuclear proliferation and power-shifts. The 70th anniversary of the War should, therefore, not be about victors and the vanquished; but it should become an occasion to reflect on possible pathways to usher in genuine peace in the Asia-Pacific.
The author works as a consultant at the ICRIER, New Delhi.
Views are personal