Emerging powers in their regional context

Inclusive Politics,Peace & Security03 Jun 2011Evert-jan Quak

The Broker was present in Oslo for the ‘Emerging Powers in the 21st century’ seminar. The event was organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (NOREF). Political and economic hegemony in today’s world is changing at full speed from a single polar situation to a multi-polar situation – and not one country or power is clearly sitting in the driver’s seat. No one can predict with certainty what today’s power relations will look like in 50 or even 10 years from now. Though the changes in the foreign policy agendas of the emerging powers, and at Western responses to these, suggest possibilities for detecting both common ground and conflicting interests.

What is an emerging power exactly? This is a typically academic discussion. One can, for instance, argue at length about whether or not, and why, Russia qualifies as an emerging state. But isn’t it more important to look at how the citizens and governments of these countries think about themselves as new players in the international arena? And how this perception changes the relationship with their neighbours?

All nations are embedded within a region. And when one nation grows much faster than its neighbours and develops ambitions in the global political arena’, regional political and security conflicts are likely to arise. Interestingly, Brazil and South Africa are both looking for ways to prevent increasing such tensions. Although both countries have by far the largest economies in their respective regions, fortunately their aspirations are not too strong, says Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of PRIO, in this introduction at the Oslo seminar. Stability close to home is more important and regional cooperation can be used as the springboard for international recognition.

Marcel Fortuna Biatro, Ambassador for Brazil to Bolivia and one of the invited guests at the seminar, shares his optimism about the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Through this intergovernmental union, established in 2008, twelve South American countries work together for the first time without interference from the United States. He emphasizes that this reinforces the sense of belonging to the region, he calls it ‘local solutions for local problems’.

But the situation in Asia looks more complicated and delicate than in South America and Southern Africa, is my conclusion after the seminar. There is a growing lack of trust between the emerging Asian countries, fuelled by lots of unsolved historical conflicts and without much political cooperation.

Following Zulkarnain Duki, Chief Secretary of the Advisory Council of the Indonesian President, Indonesia is willing to focus strongly on economical cooperation in the Asian region rather than to step into the ‘political jungle’. The first step is to create economic hubs for a trusty relationship.

This is what the triangle China, Japan and South Korea tries. These countries could potentially benefit from working together more closely, agrees Professor Chuanjie Zhang of Singhua University’s Institute of International Studies. The governments of these countries are striving now for better economic relations, but it has proved a very slow process and a bumpy road indeed. Zhang points at the nationalistic tensions between the three countries that obstruct political and even economic cooperation, especially among citizens. As long as politicians keep using nationalist sentiments as a political tool, he should temper any expectations for far-reaching cooperation in the near future. (Interesting for further reading are the three blog posts on the website of The Broker about the wider geopolitical issues that are likely to be affected by the nuclear incident in Fukushima Daiichi, Japan, written by Alex Calvo, Professor of International Relations and International Law at the European University in Barcelona, Spain.)

But much more problematic are the political relations between China and India, following Zhang. The two giant emerging states (which are neighbours) aren’t willing to come closer on political terms with the exception of the climate talks where India and China defended the same agenda. Zhang is not hopeful, he even struggles to find students from India who are interested to pursue their studies at his renowned Chinese university. And Zhang says that, research shows an increasingly negative perception of the citizens in both countries towards their big neighbour.

Isabel Hilton, of the China Dialogue Network, agrees. Various political tensions and conflicts undoubtedly add to these negative perceptions. The Kashmir conflict, for instance, is not only a Pakistani and Indian affair, but China is also involved, and even actively fuelling the crisis. The Tibet region is another unresolved political problem between India and China. And in the near future, tension over access to water from the Himalayas may add to the political discord if talks about this issue do not start soon, she adds.

More about changing power structures in Asia will be published soon in this blog. But clear conclusion so far is that a multi-polar world does not automatically imply an increase in intra-regional or cross-regional cooperation. Instead, old and new political tensions and increasing nationalist sentiments can fuel new security conflicts.

If countries are unable to overcome the regional differences and rivalry, and if they do not envision a common destiny, it will be very difficult to establish regional stability. And we all know that regional stability is one of the most important factors for development to happen and for new international political and economic opportunities to arise.