131 – Asia-Pacific anxieties

Posted on June 28, 2012 by

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In his op-ed “Pacific winds bring spring”[1] former Indian ambassador T P SREENIVASAN reviews the US-India strategic relationship and concludes:

The spring in India-US relation, evident after the third round of strategic dialogue, comes from the anxiety of the two countries to rebalance themselves in the face of Chinese assertiveness. Compulsions of security in Asia Pacific may well bring the two democracies closer together in the future.”

The inchoate world of geopolitical anxieties

Anxiety is a murky psychoanalytical term suggesting subconscious fears as well as repressed guilt. When leveraged to define the “state of mind” of governments (and nations) it becomes an all-purpose– one anxiety fits all – justifier of policy.

“Realists” claim that they can predict international relations. In so doing, they often become prey to anxiety: in their inescapable logic a mere scenario, or may be a propensity, becomes inevitable destiny. von MOLTKE and his lot prided themselves on their “realism” when they went to war in WWI based on the anxiety-driven argument “better now than later”[2].

In the context of the emerging centrality of China in international relations I’m fascinated by the underlying asymmetry of anxiety. Here we have the world hegemon which, for the last 50 years has projected military power half-way across the world and around China, declaring itself to be in a state of anxiousness about the very emergence of Chinese security policies.

Anxiety-driven policies tend to be counterproductive and beget the very outcomes they are designed to prevent. As fear begets fear, perceptions become more important than reality. Irreversible path-dependencies ensue – what Barbara TUCHMAN called the “march of folly”[3]. Coalitions to the detriment of third parties, furthermore, are notoriously unstable. They are prone to squabbles over aims, burden-sharing and distribution of spoils, and of course the reaction of the intended third country. They are a flimsy base on which to base lasting relationships.

Centrality or assertiveness?

China’s geopolitical role is becoming increasing central – current projections indicate that China might become the world largest economy in real terms by 2016 – just four years or so away. That such a country develops security policies and no longer meekly consents to preventive policies of “containment” should not seem outlandish[4]. Automatically to label moves in that direction as “assertiveness” would seem at least premature. I’m not aware that China is reciprocating in kind the US regular patrolling of China’s coastline.

The elephant in the room

But let’s forget all this, for a moment. I find it particularly interesting that the US-India dialogue – with its “endless list of issues of agreements in diverse fields” (so Ambassador SREENIVASAM) – fails to even mention the major strategic issue confronting both US and India as the Afghan war draws down. Pakistan’s ambiguous role (and much of the residual instability once the Afghan conflict draws down) is much rooted in an issue which has poisoned the region for over 50 years: Kashmir.

Settling this issue in whichever form is feasible would contribute more to regional stability – and by implication limiting China’s opportunities there – than all the talk of “strategic partnership” (whatever this term may mean). That Kashmir is not even mentioned bodes ill for the future of India-US relations.


[1]           The New Indian Express, Wednesday 27 June 2012.

[2]           David FROMKIN (2004): Europe’s last summer. Who started the Great War in 1914? Knopf, New York.

[3]           Barbara TUCHMAN (1985): The March of folly. From Troy to Vietnam. Ballantine, New York.

[4]           The concept of “containment” followed, and did not precede, Soviet military expansion. Its original proponent, George KENNAN, saw it as a preliminary to reciprocal and political accommodation. He spent much of his life trying to undo the militarization of “containment” and concomitant freezing of relations in a state of “cold war”. Preventive containment would be even farther from his views on how to handle international relations.