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International Relations Of Asia

STRATEGIC GEOMETRY

“This is the only region in the world where so many combinations and

permutations of two- three and four- and even two plus four or three plus three-

power games can be played on the regional chessboard with all their complexities

and variations.”

introduction

The concept of strategic geometry comprises the notion that that the

interactions and interconnections between a number of political actors within a

particular system of international relations, either global or regional can be

seen in terms of geometric patterns of strategic configurations. It can be a

case of simple geometry, in which A interacts with B: but in a more complex

system such as that of Asia, with the presence of more than one major actor,

each with their distinct, sometimes conflicting political agendas, the

interaction between A and B will be likely to affect C or influenced by C.

The concept of an international ?system’ itself implies that events are

not random, and units within the system are interrelated in some patterned way.

This ?patterning’ maybe envisaged or conceptualized as patterns of strategic

geometry.

Any attempt to analyze the transition from a Cold War system of

international relations to a post Cold War one, will incorporate an analysis of

the general nature of the system itself, in this case the system of

international relations in Asia; of the actors involved and their respective

roles; how changes in the political environment and in specific policies of the

actors shape the evolution of a new system; and finally the nature of the new

system with its own actors, their new roles, and new concerns.

The concept of strategic geometry enables us to understand these

changes in the political dynamics from one system to another, in our case the

transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War era, by serving as an analytic

tool. If we view the international relations of Asia, more and the interactions

of the main actors in terms of strategic configurations and geometric patterns

of alignments and oppositions, then we can assess changes in the political

system over time by way of the changes in the strategic geometry. Some strategic

configurations change, others remain the same, while new patterns of strategic

geometry appear, as the old forms dissolve–the explanations behind the shifting

pattern of strategic geometry is what enables us to understand the transition

from the Cold War era to the post Cold War.

Geopolitical and politico-economic factors have in some cases changed

the content, but not the form of the particular strategic configurations and in

some cases however, we find both form and content are changed. In my essay I

will focus on this dual analysis of the content and form of the major patterns

of strategic geometry and their change over time from Cold War to post Cold War.

In order to assess the usefulness of the concept of strategic geometry, we must

first see how well the concept is expressed in the international relations of

Asia. Firstly I will briefly outline the general strategic concerns or tenets of

the Cold War era, the roles and interactions of the actors involved, and the

major strategic geometric patterns this produced. The second part of my essay

will comprise an analysis of the evolution of the system, and the tenets of the

new post cold war system, drawing attention at the same time to the usefulness

of the concept of strategic geometry to explain the transition.

One may even conceptualize pre -Cold War international relations in

strategic geometric terms: the past is replete with instances of three-way

interactions between Japan, China and the Soviet Union. According to Mandlebaum,

the fate of the region has “for the last two centuries’ depended ?on the fate of

three major powers–China, Japan and Russia, on the stability and tranquillity

of their mutual relations.” Hence we may presume that it is not novel or

unknown to apply the concept of strategic geometry to Asia and as I shall

illustrate it will prove particularly useful in understanding the transition

from the Cold War to the post Cold War era.

Let us begin with a simpler model of strategic geometry which existed in

Europe during the Cold War. From 1948 onwards, a more or less clear-cut line

divided Europe into two main political and military blocs: the communist bloc

and the free world of Western Europe, resulting in an almost perfect bipolarity.

However, the politics in Asia during the same period were more dynamic and

nuanced than just the simple East-West divide of Europe. Here, there was none

of “the sharp structural clarity of Europe,” no drawing of a line, no Iron

Curtain; rather, there existed a more complex web of international relations,

because of the physical presence of three great powers: the Soviet Union, China

and Japan. And from 1945 onwards, another great power, the United States, took

up a permanent political and military residence in the region. These four major

powers have dominated the East Asia region both during the Cold War and

continue to do so in the post- Cold War era, hence according to Mandlebaum, “the

appropriate geometric metaphor was and still is the strategic quadrangle.” The

interactions of these four main powers-sometimes in cooperation, other times in

conflict- have shaped the international relations of Asia. How this took place

during and after the Cold War is in many ways quite dissimilar. However, more

importantly than the all encompassing quadrangle, it is the strategic geometry

within the quadrangle that is most interesting and illustrates best, the changes

and nuances in the transition from Cold War to post Cold War. The interactions

within the strategic quadrangle itself, have been generally of a bilateral or

triangular nature. As Mandlebaum suggests “Indeed in Asia, the structure of

politics all along has been more complex than the stark bipolarity of Europe.

Rather than two competing systems, Asia’s international order was a clutter of

triangles.” The triangle is the predominant strategic geometric metaphor

characterizing the nature of interactions in East Asia, especially during the

Cold War and to a less intense degree in the post Cold War era.

the Cold War era

The Cold War system of international relations was a geopolitical

intermixing of security, ideology and the balance of power, especially military

power. Everything took root from two essential conflicts: firstly, the US-

Soviet opposition and secondly, from the 1970s onwards the Sino-Soviet split;

and from one essential alliance: the US-Japanese partnership. Each of these

bilateral alliances or oppositions affected in some way a third party. ?The most

well-known and widely debated triangle being the Sino-Soviet-US grouping with at

least 4 possible configurations.”

One may just turn towards one actor in the system, or one player in the

Strategic Quadrangle, to see the preoccupation with strategic geometry. As

Mandlebaum states: “For no country more than the Soviet Union did the underlying

structure of Asian international politics revolve about a complex

interconnected set of triangular relationships. The most obvious and famous of

the triangles linked the Soviet Union, China and the United States, but the

Soviet-US- Japan triangle was also important. In addition, five others also

helped to shape Soviet policy 1. Sino-Soviet -Japanese triangle 2. Sino-Soviet-

North Korean triangle 3. Sino-Soviet-Vietnamese triangle 4. Soviet-Vietnamese-

ASEAN triangle 5. Sino-Soviet-Indian triangle. Though from this perspective,

certain things stand out. First, China’s centrality: China figures in nearly all

of the triangles, not even the US affected Soviet policy to this degree. Second,

the full set of triangles that impeded, shaped and invigorated the policies of

Gorbachev’s predecessors varied greatly in importance, all of them overshadowed

by the crucial Sino-Soviet-US triangle. Indeed the others owed much of their

dynamic to the course of events in this main triangle.” Through the 1960s,

there were 4 main triangles in the Asian political arena: Soviet Union-China-

North Vietnam, Soviet Union-Japan-US, Sino-Soviet-Indian- and Soviet Union-

China-North Korea. In the 1970s, however this changed not only because more

triangles were added, but because they included a new kind of triangle, the

Sino-Soviet-US triangle.

“Normally triangles are not thought of as a stable form in social or

political relationships nor as a stabilizing influence within a larger setting.

The great post-war exception was the Soviet-US-Japan triangle. Relationships

among the three countries scarcely changed, apart from fluctuations in US-Soviet

and US-Japanese relations from time to time. Its immobility may have been the

single most stabilizing element in post war Asian politics.” The Soviet-

Japanese-American triangle drove Soviet policy towards Japan, since the Soviets

viewed Japan as a creature of American engagement in Asia. A whole series of

strategic triangles were borne out of the cold war climate which make strategic

geometry very useful and illuminating model to study the international

relations of Asia during the period. However, our emphasis is on the usefulness

of the concept for studying the ?transition’ from Cold War to post Cold War.

This requires an analysis of both systems, in order to assess the process of

change.

the post-Cold War era: changes in the system

Today, we are in a relatively ?open’ period of history, free from the

polarized nature of the Cold War, yet “more than ever each of the four powers

has compelling stakes in its relations with the other three. More than ever each

of the four counts as a separate and independent player, none has the power or

inclination to destroy the equilibrium.” But what about strategic geometry? With

the disappearance of the Soviet threat is it still a useful model for the study

of international relations in Asia? Or is its use limited to the great power

play of the Cold War? And most importantly, how can the concept of strategic

geometry lend to our understanding of the transition from the Cold War to the

post Cold War system of international relations in Asia?

First, I will briefly outline the features of the transition.

The tenets of the post Cold War system seem to be the predominance of

economic considerations, national welfare and stability. Mandlebaum expresses

his view of the transition from a Cold War to a post Cold War system, when he

states: “nations, including those in East Asia, crossed into a world in which

they had more to bear from dangers than enemies….dangers of political,

economic, and ecological disorder…the primary stakes ceased to be security,

but welfare…no longer war and peace, but the vitality of societies and the

dynamism of economies.”

To begin with what constitutes ?power’ has changed dramatically in wake

of the demise of the Soviet Union. The shift from a military to an economic

definition of power, from “a geopolitical to a geoeconomic axis” resulting from

“wholesale change in the entire military-strategic edifice in Asia,” has in its

turn, produced “a radically different range of collaborations among the four

major powers.” Though, military concerns still warrant a significant priority,

as some of today’s triangles demonstrate, especially considering the presence of

three out of five of the world’s nuclear powers in the region. On the whole

however, today’s Asia is one of mutually dependent economies “where economics is

the name of the game.” The concept of strategic geometry has a reduced validity

or maybe more aptly termed ?economic geometry.’ With the rise of the Asian

tigers, and Japan’s status of an economic superpower, coupled with greater

regionalism such as embodied by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEAN,

there is more diversification of power in East Asia, at least in economic terms.

Understanding the change from a Cold War to a post Cold War system also

requires an understanding of the transition in terms of military power. China

and Japan are the rising military powers, while Russia is a declining one.

Strategic geometry very useful in assessing the transition in these terms.

Instead of Japan and the US balancing Russian military power, today Japan and

the US act to balance Chinese military power. I will elaborate on this issue

later, in my discussion of the Japan-US-China triangle.

Democracy and prosperity, two traditional goals are back on the US

agenda after the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Yet for the US, like for

the others, the post Cold War is still dominated by considerations of power and

wealth; fear of the first and lure of the second keeping the US engaged in East

Asia.

Russia’s preoccupation with internal restructuring and the rise of

Central Asia has meant that Russia’s role in the strategic quadrangle has become

as “less of a player than a problem.” Within the quadrangle, Russia has

replaced the Soviet Union. “The radical revision of Russia’s surroundings not

only profoundly affects Russian foreign policy and therefore indirectly East

Asia, but it directly affects East Asia because of the new, intervening reality

of Central Asia. From the standpoint of the others, the Soviet threat is not of

warfare but of diminished national and international welfare.”

China’s emphasis on economic modernization. China has been the least

changed by the ending of the Cold War since its great shift in course came a

decade earlier, at the end of 1970s which saw the development of Deng Xiaoping’s

program of economic reform. The post Cold War era sees China more firmly

committed to a capitalist vision, with its focus on economic modernization and

growth. This in turn has produced China’s ?omni-directional’ foreign policy. The



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