Prospects for crisis resolution in the Asia-Pacific are better than between Russia and the West. Despite abundant conflicts, none of the major powers in the region tries to actively destabilise the other – leaving room for informal compromise and ad-hoc arrangements to maintain peace.
Today’s Asia-Pacific region looks like anything but a host of stability. China and its neighbours are engaged in increasingly hostile territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea. As China seeks to create facts by installing military hardware on some of the disputed islands, it also challenges the U.S. naval dominance in the region. In the meantime, North Korea scares South Korea and Japan with its nuclear threats and frustrates policymakers in Washington as well as in Beijing with its intransigent behaviour.
All these hot-button issues seem to add up to a rather bleak security environment. Yet, when comparing those conflicts to the hotspots of other current global crises, especially the ones involving Russia, Asia seems in a better position to keep its regional disputes from escalating beyond control. When compared to the civil war in Syria or to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Asia’s fortunes seem to be steered by a set of much more rational actors.
Last weekend’s Munich Security Conference was a good occasion to highlight this comparison. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev conjured up a new cold war with the West in his speech. Western conference participants vehemently criticised Russia’s diplomatic and military operations in Ukraine and Syria for purposefully tearing apart Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They also accused Moscow of destabilising Turkey and the EU by triggering waves of mass migration with its bombing campaigns of civilian targets in Syria.
China’s constructive tone in Munich set it apart from Russia
Throughout these tough controversies, China and other Asian countries kept a low profile. China’s delegation leader Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the National People’s Congress, did not take the big stage. But her participation in a constructive discussion on a panel co-hosted by MERICS, made clear that confrontation was not what she was after.
The vision she laid out for China’s global role sounded much more modest and pragmatic than Russia’s current grandstanding in Ukraine and Syria. Despite its aggressive posture in territorial disputes and its regional power struggle with the U.S., China has also shown that it is interested in uniting the region by creating new regional institutions (under China’s influence) such as the recently established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
The sharp difference to Russia is that neither of the major powers in Asia – China, Japan or the U.S. – feels internally threatened by the other or has an interest to actively destabilise one another.
In its interventions in Ukraine or in the Syrian conflict, Russia either aims to destabilise its diplomatic rivals or accept that reaching its own foreign policy goals will have destabilising effects on others. In Syria, Russia seems less interested in defeating the Islamic State, which has become a threat not just to the region but also to Western societies, than in propping up its ally Bashar al-Assad. With its cynical bombardments of civilian targets in Syria, Russia has increased an already uncontrollable flood of refugees to Turkey and the EU.
Apart from that, Russia has displayed remarkable ruthlessness and cynicism in its attempts to mobilise and manipulate public opinion even beyond its own borders. This became visible in its propaganda efforts among its population abroad (notably among Germans of Russian origin) as well as in its aggressive public statements at the Munich Security Conference.
Powers in the Asia-Pacific don’t try to destabilise each other
None of the Asian-Pacific powers pursues a comparable external destabilisation strategy vis-à-vis one another. China, Japan and the U.S. can be described as restrained “rational” actors who share a vital interest in maintaining stability in the economies and societies of their neighbours. This unspoken doctrine of mutual non-destabilisation gives them more room to find formal and informal arrangements to prevent military conflict and escalation – just like they have been able to do in the past.
As explosive as the situation in the region may seem – Asia appears to be in a much better position to prevent aggressive rhetoric and military posturing from turning into an active conflict of the sort that Russia has brought upon its neighbours and beyond.