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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

Old and new: geopolitics in Asia

Jean-Luc Racine

Texte intégral

1October 2002

2“Realists” or “neo-realists” – as they are called – remind us that international relations are generally dependent on the quest for power driving the game of nations. In line with this old principle, states in the diplomatic arena only have permanent interests. These interests go beyond temporary rapprochements and alliances dictated by circumstances, as well as fluctuating domestic politics. Some excellent examples of this trend include post-Maoist China and India under the Hindu nationalists, where “Nehruvian idealism” was rejected in favour of realpolitik. Admittedly, the globalisation of economic markets and mergers between powerful multinational companies have increased new global networks. However, it would be naïve to think that economic actors develop strategies independently of public policies. Public policies seek to get around liberal rules (that include awarding subsidies to protect developed countries from the competitiveness of developing countries), and negotiate with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to strenghten national companies and lobbies. States also decide, in sensitive situations, whether to support trade despite fundamental political conflicts, such as in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, or to insist on the obstacles of past geopolitical eras over geo-economic promises – in India and Pakistan, for example.

3It was misleading to announce the end of the nation-state. However, in Asia, nation-states have developed in contrasting ways as a result of the different scales on which the complex dialectic between identity and power is played out. We cannot interprete this as merely the warning signs of a simplistic clash of civilisations or the affirmation of competing ethnocracies, which often express religious affiliations, political frustrations arising from democratic deficits and the bitter fruits of maldevelopment. What are separatist movements – unsuccessful in Kashmir and successful in East Timor – if not attempts by partisans of a self-defined nation to affirm their right to determine their own futures over and above the states that encompass them in the name of another existing or implied multiculturalist definition of the nation?

4The question of borders is therefore still relevant. Regional security systems seek to stabilise borders for existing states. Examples include the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which aims to settle border issues between China, Russia and Central Asia, by quashing independence movements such as the Uyghur of Xinjiang. These states’ geopolitical strategies, ratified by the United Nations, no matter what the Charter of People’s Rights might say, are today being overtaken by the expansion of radical Islam. In this situation, the issue of networks takes on new relevance.

5Letting Osama Bin Laden overshadow the attacks that have struck southern Asia in recent months – in Aden, Karachi, Bali and Manila – only reinforces Bush’s simplistic discourse. The ability to distinguish between the central Al Qaeda organisation and other groups claiming Al Qaeda as a model, despite having much independence, is something else. It requires the taking into account of, in addition to organic networks, the factors specific to national contexts and the ways in which ideologies and action strategies circulate.

6Dualities are present in both the war against terrorism and in extremists advocating the supremacy of Islam. These dualities explain why, in addition to the networks, the American administration targets states supposedly part of the “axis of evil”, which has little to do with the Wahhabism of its Saudi ally. While the most radical Islamists can invoke ummah, and the Salafi movement can be described as internationalist, the political forces of radical Islam are mostly active on a national level, even when they claim wider roles. The nation’s construction/deconstruction dialectic is complex; it can encourage internal separatism (such as in the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines), fight for external separatism (for example by taking Kashmir from India, by crossing the Line of Control, which is a border in practice, but not in law), prioritise grey areas (such as the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan) or undermine the constitutional foundations of Muslim nations by making the Sharia the rule of law and state, a programme, which can be easily manipulated by politicising and internal power struggles (as is the case in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia).

7Let us hope that the repercussions of September 11th will have at least a positive effect on those observing the different regions in Asia, by encouraging them to extend their research or expertise beyond the areas to which they are limited. They should widen the way in which they think, while continuing to study their field. It is not just about carrying out more relevant studies on recent events, by adopting different scales of analysis. Widening their thought is also about initiating, as far as it is possible, individually and jointly; critical thinking that is partly comparative (the subjects studied are comparable, but separate), but also transversal (the subjects studied are transnational and transregional).

8This is true of the new ways of organising the world order, characterised by American hegemony and Washington’s growing involvement in Asia. It is also true of the complex game played by Asian powers: China, Japan, India, and also Russia. They currently accept to engage with Washington, but keep their own counsel. Finally, it is also true of the forces challenging this international internal order of Asian states. We would be wrong to confine these forces to radical Islam because they also include promising activists from civil society. Here and there, these activists overcome difficult conditions to keep the hopes of a national and international order alive based on potentially universal values, without sinking under the illusion of exclusive truths legitimising, by ideological conviction or realpolitik, violence and force.

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