Pivot Asia and regional fears

At the top of the US and Biden administration’s Asian agenda would be maintenance of strategic balance in the region

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan June 06, 2021
The writer is Dean Social Sciences at Garrison University Lahore and tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

The 21st century is declared as Asian Century, and the US has already pivoted towards Asia so that it doesn’t stay away from the multiple actions and events likely to take place in the region. One of the reasons the US has pivoted towards Asia is its desire to remain engaged in the region and also anchor regional stability by maintaining balance of power against the two other competitors and revisionist powers in the region — Russia and China.

No order can sustain itself without physical safeguard against aggression and if Russia and China are perceived to have any aggressive and expansionist designs then the US would like to challenge them and deter them by its military presence. America’s regional allies and partners would also be happy with such US policy as it is likely to guarantee their own safety and security.

At the top of the US and Biden administration’s Asian agenda would be the maintenance of strategic balance in the region. To achieve it, creating a strategic environment in the region in which the US can rely on soft power to achieve its strategic ends, will be an absolute essentiality. Simultaneously, the use of hard power will be kept as a potent threat sending a clear message to all contesting and competing for strategic influence and space in the region that the US will stand to defend the notion of its global democracy, international law and liberal values and the very order of liberal internationalism that represents them all.

High on the US agenda will be its responsibility to maintain peace in the region. It will continue to challenge all such states that will threaten peace in the region, states that will break international laws and states which with their actions will threaten the safety and security of the other nations. Such states will be declared ‘rouge’ and will continued to be sanctioned. In the global environment of interconnectedness and interdependence, such states will be deprived of the benefits of their participation in the shared global markets, global trade and the broader global economy — all this under the broader framework of the continued order of liberal internationalism.

The soft message that the US wants to bring to Asia is that the 21st century can be Asian Century not only because of the enormous economic growth that the region may experience during the period but also because of the likelihood of greater completion and the possibility of these competitions turning into conflicts and eventual war. Such a scenario can only be avoided if the regional system and the order that the system creates is based and run on values such as freedom, democratic transparency, cooperation, compromise and effectiveness.

In a likely environment of increased contest and competition Asia will no longer be able to harbour inter-state issues that have solutions in the pipeline but are still pending and remain unresolved. If these regional issues will continue to hang in the balance then they will create an environment more suitable for conflict than peace. In such an environment the very concept of which power can determine what will be extensively debated and challenged.

China and Russia are already of the opinion that all regional problems should be resolved regionally with the cooperation and participation of regional powers. Both powers have demonstrated that within the region they have the inherent right to determine — if need be, by using force what states in their regional sphere of influence can and cannot do. Even if mistakes are committed, they think it is the responsibility of the conflict resolving mechanisms within the regional system and the regional institutions to correct those mistakes. According to Russian and Chinese assessment by pivoting to Asia all that America is doing is bringing its militarised foreign policy to the region which can only pose new strategic challenges and further destabilise the existing order and system in the region.

Besides Russia and China, two other countries in the region both of which can be termed medium powers and which had a difficult relationship with the US in the past are also waiting for the beginning of their new relationship with the Biden administration. Iran is waiting for the culmination of the renegotiation of its nuclear deal with the West and the Pakistan PM is still waiting for President Biden’s first contact with him.

Engaged in talks for renegotiating the JCPOA deal for which four rounds of talks have already been held in Vienna, Iran is depending on the goodwill of other participants of the deal — Russia, Germany, France, Britain and China. The US is not directly participating in the negotiations but its special envoy to Iran, Rob Malley, is in contact with all the participants.

It is being hoped that the fifth round of these talks is likely to be the last and the world may finally hear that a nuclear deal has been renegotiated between the two countries. The US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and if the US is now interested in renegotiation and restoration of the deal, is it also in the interest of Iran that the deal gets restored? What is it that Iran is likely to gain from the restoration of this deal? How have the circumstances and conditions on ground changed from the time the deal was initially signed in 2015 to its renegotiation and restoration in 2021, and does this mean there will be new constraints and modifications in the renegotiated deal before its finalisation? Will Iran agree to these modifications? These are some of the important questions the answers to which will be well considered by Iran before it agrees to sign the new deal. But is acquiring a nuclear weapon no more an Iranian ambition?

Pakistan and India tested nuclear weapons and got away with it. Instead of being punished for committing the crime of proliferation (although both countries are non-signatories of NPT), one became the US defence and strategic partner and the other a major non-NATO ally. So, if we talk of nuclear history of the region, Iran can take some incentive from how the world tends to adjust its relationship for better with a declared nuclear power. North Korea has already carried out six nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009, and 2013, twice in 2016, and in 2017. Like Iran, North Korea is an NPT signatory and is rightly called a rouge state — a state that broke international laws and now threatens the security of other nations. So, if the JCPOA negotiations fail, would Iran like to do the same despite being signatory of NPT i.e. test a nuclear weapon in the coming years and earn what Kim Jong-Un earned — US-Iran summits?

What type of contact President Biden makes with Pakistan — his first — is important for Pakistan because Biden has a history: as Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he authored and introduced the infamous Kerry-Lugar Bill in July 2008. Three months later, he was in Pakistan meeting President Zardari and receiving Hila-e-Pakistan for this “achievement”. The bill had introduced $7.5 million in non-military aid to be provided over a period of 5 years with greater accountability for Pakistani military which favoured to support civilian democracy. Military aid to Pakistan was also conditioned on certification by the Secretary of State who was required to highlight that “security forces are making concerted efforts to prevent al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups from operating in the territory of Pakistan”.

Besides dealing with China and Russia in Asia, what will be the nature, scope and direction of the US engagement with Pakistan and Iran is also a very important development that not only these two countries but the entire Asian region and the world is waiting to see.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2021.

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