To some observers, Asia, with its geographic, economic, ethnic, religious, and historical diversity, and home of two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India, offers a volatile, messy, and worrisome stew that inevitably will produce instability.
This gloomy outlook, often articulated by Western pundits, is countered by an opposing but equally unbalanced optimism, that pits economic dynamism (double digit growth in China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore) against the historical record that time and again illustrates that profound economic disparity between countries coupled with external threats (such as unchecked climate change) and weak security mechanisms spell instability. The sunnier outlook assumes economic growth will trump any potential conflict. However, it fuels nationalist tendencies that favor short-term economic priorities over longer-term stability.
If we accept the prevailing hypothesis in Asia that global problems are inherent in bi-lateral and multilateral security agreements, climate change and its ancillary concerns with energy, health, and food security may offer greater scope for cooperation if a new regional security architecture were developed. Conversely, while “space” may have expanded for increased levels of cooperation at the regional level, a countervailing trend of heightened potential for conflict at the bi-lateral level exits in parallel. To wit, China has offered economic incentives to Thailand in return for its support of proposed hydro-dams that may soon dot the Mekong River. While these incentives may ensure cooperation between China and Thailand, they serve as irritants to already tense relations with Thailand’s neighbors along the Mekong, namely, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While the current regional security architecture as manifest within ASEAN and built by international organizations such as ARF and APEC, may have sufficiently maintained stability in the post-colonial and pre-9/11 period, the economic and political ascension of China and complex challenges of climate change, present new aggravation that threaten to undermine regional security. China’s role in the region will, arguably, be determined by a new set of bilateral agreements based on country-specific calculations that are driven by mutually agreed upon cost-benefit calculations. Such agreements are likely to fit within a foreign policy constellation that is fueled by China’s development agenda with heavy emphasis on economic and security considerations. Simultaneously, historical disagreements over territory, resources, and sectarian allegiance that at times eclipse national boundaries (witness: the five southern provinces of Thailand; Mindanao and Negros in the Philippines; and Aceh in Indonesia), could be exacerbated by the challenge of climate change. The confounding nature of climate change is the very fact of its sprawl. It is a complex trans-boundary issue that requires a cooperative approach to finding solutions amidst a simultaneous anxiety to secure natural resources to fuel national economic growth. To date, the preeminent forums for climate change debate and policy-dialogue, notably the Bali Agreement (2007), Copenhagen (2009), and Cancun (2010) have largely been mired in a schism between countries favoring mitigative approaches (largely for G-7 countries) and those in favor of adaptive measures (the LDC’s). The difficult business of trying to wed these perspectives into a coherent policy for adoption at the regional level has been sidelined as bi-lateral disagreements between major powers, in particular, China and the US, have drained energy out of the IPCCC negotiations.
How can we encourage Asia’s emerging economic leaders namely, China and India, to offer the world a model of innovation and cooperation that paves the way for effectively addressing the sprawling challenges of global climate change?