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The Fog of War between the Powers in Asia

Fog of war is a military expression referring to the difficulty, during the course of battle, of knowing and calculating all factors at play as they unfold and interact. This image can be extended to the military-strategic and also to the political dimension of power relations: today a rearmaments race, regular parades of war devices, new alliances, political warnings and mutual ambiguities in Asia signal the agitated beginning of a long crescendo of tensions. A number of questions can help us understand the new characteristics of this contention.

Should NATO extend its strategic aim to the confrontation with China? Jens Stoltenberg, the Alliance’s secretary general and a Norwegian — a fact which expresses an Atlanticism closely aligned with American positions — thinks so. He tells the Financial Times that China, even though it cannot be defined exclusively as an adversary, is having an impact on European security via its capacity in cyberspace (the integrated field of electronic communications and the manipulation of data), new technologies and long-range missiles. NATO’s new doctrine for the coming decade will be how to defend itself from these threats: Nato is an alliance of North America and Europe, but this region faces global challenges. Terrorism, cyber, but also the rise of China. So, when it comes to strengthening our collective defence that’s also about how to address the rise of China. Stoltenberg answers the East European countries, which fear a new strategic concept less concentrated on defence against Russia, that Russia and China should not be seen as separate threats: China and Russia work closely together, and when NATO strengthens itself by investing more in technology that’s about both of them.

The question is full of implications which regard the ultimate nature of the relationship between Europe and the United States. The Dutch debate, which, after Brexit, has become the litmus test of the transformation in Atlantic relations, captures some of them. Tim Sweijs and Joris Teer of the HCSS (The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies) ask themselves in NRC Handelsblad what Europe would do if China attacked Taiwan and the United States reacted by asking its allies for help. Europe would have to choose whether to back the USA or to keep its distance, and it has to do this now, before a crisis breaks out. The answer must also define what a collective European defence would be without the USA, now that the United States is no longer able to uphold its two-front war strategy at one and the same time.

This observation sends us back to the controversial question of a division of tasks between America and Europe, which even becomes the agreed-upon defence of the two fronts of a potential single conflict, in Eastern Europe and East Asia. According to Caroline de Gruyter, also in NRC Handelsblad, the message coming from Washington is that the United States wants to concentrate on China, and Europe must do more for the security of its near abroad, i.e., the threats from Russia in the Mediterranean, the Arctic and the Sahel. The German weekly Der Spiegel is of the same opinion; it writes that, in spite of the AUKUS pact between Washington, London and Canberra, the United States is not clear about the role its European partners, including the British, could play in the Indo-Pacific. The American Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has raised doubts about the mission of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in the South China Sea: there are areas in which the UK can be more helpful. According to Der Spiegel, Austin seems to be proposing a kind of division of tasks: the United States will take care of China and the Indo-Pacific, and the Europeans of Russia and the Atlantic.

Is there consensus in Europe about a global NATO and the division of tasks between the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific? The two questions are connected, and are a concentrate of the unresolved ambiguities and mental reservations which characterise the Atlantic relationship. It goes without saying that the division of tasks hypothesises a purely regional role for Europe and a global role reserved for the United States: this does not correspond to the financial, industrial and commercial interests the Europeans have in Asia. In the same way, a NATO extended in its strategic focus to China and the Indo-Pacific presumes that American and European interests are the same in that area. This may not be true, or it may be that there is an agreement on these interests, although there is no sign that this is being explored in the exhaustive strategic debate.

As was to be expected, at a political level, the biggest reservations are being expressed by France. Le Monde is sceptical about a NATO role in the Indo-Pacific: it is not clear what advantage it would bring. Also in Le Monde, Sylvie Kauffmann wonders: Should we die for Taiwan? Taiwan is a long way off, and nothing had been signed about this in NATO. However, can Europe stay prudently out of this confrontaton which is structuring all of the glob al dynamic? According to Mathieu Duchâtel, of the Institut Montaigne, China will try to test the determination of America and Taiwan to resist, continuing in the meantime to prepare for the great offensive; it cannot arrive at this without creating critical situations.

Bruno Le Maire has tried to explain Europe’s reservations to The New York Times, with very Merkel-like tones: The United States wants to confront China. The European Union wants to engage China. Kauffmann sums up: according to the French Finance Minister, what is at stake for the Americans is to remain the leading superpower in the face of an authoritarian China which is trying to wrest its position from it; Europe does not have this ambition: what is at stake, for it, is not to depend on either of them.

Some American comments are harsh. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSS), the EU must be more realistic about its strategic dependence on the United States and recognise there is no credible European alternative to NATO. Emmanuel Macron is promoting a ‘third way’ in the Pacific that emphasizes trade and coopcration with China, but this is decoupled from the realities of dealing with an emerging authoritarian Chinese superpower. In the The Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead highlights the fact that the AUKUS pact has cut out Paris: Washington’s willingness to alienate an important European partner in order to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy is an important signal to allies and adversaris, because it demonstrates that the pivot is real.

We observe that the considerable convergence between Paris and Berlin over the Chinese question does not seem to be taken into consideration here, in spite of the many versions that would like to see France critical of the mercantilism which apparently antmates Germany’s policy. Commenting on the virtual leave-taking summit between Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping, the Global Times argues that Berlin’s line on China is structural and not contingent; the German companies which are strongly integrated into the Chinese market will also push the new government to continue with Angela Merkel’s pragmatism. If anything, we observe again, Paris adds a reflection at a political-strategic level which is most congenial to it: the so-called third way wants to avoid both the EU being dragged into the confrontation with China and being sidelined by an agreement between the United States and China.

What can a European card be worth for New Delhi? Raja Mohan writes in The Indian Express that the conjunction with the AUKUS pact has overshadowed the publication of the EU’s Indo-Pacific doctrine, although it will probably have a greater impact in the region. For the first time after the withdrawal of the European powers from Asia in the decades following the Second World War, Europe is again a geopolitical protagonist in the region, seen by many not with strategic suspicion but as a precious partner. In Mohan’s opinion, the EU is the most trustworthy partner for the ASEAN powers after Japan, ahead of the United States but also well ahead of China and India itself. With the confrontation between the United States and China beginning to hold Southeast Asia in a vicelike grip, the EU is seen as a force capable of widening the strategic options for the region. A similar prospect holds true for New Delhi, which sees the EU today as a crucial element in stabilising a multipolar world: this is the Jaishankar doctrine, in which India’s strategy is to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, [and] bring Japan into play. From this standpoint, even if the EU is not comparable to America’s military stature in the Indo-Pacific, it can help to strengthen the regional military balance and contribute in many other ways to the security of the area, also as a a valid complement to the Quad coalition.

We observe that the question of power proportions in the comparison between Europe and the United States does not elude Mohan; from the European point of view, the Indian suggestion also highlights the limits of the political centralisation of the EU, which, because of its delays, has difficulty in exploiting its political and strategic opportunities. From the Indian point of view, the hypothesis of a European card seems above all to want to signal the reluctance for, if not the rejection of, an unconditional alignment with American strategy.

Does Japanese rearmament mark a watershed in the Asian strategic scenario? In the new Liberal Democratic Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s election campaign programme, it is proposed, for the first time, to raise military spending also above 2% of GDP, abandoning the 1% ceiling agreed upon almost half a century ago. In other circumstances, the announcement that Japan intends to double its military expenditure, raising it from $50 to $100 billion, would have captured the attention of all the front pages of the world press; the fact that the news went almost unnoticed is a sign of the times, in the sense that by now the tension growing daily in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait almost takes the rearmament race in Asia for granted. We analyse in other pages of our newspaper transformations and Permanent features of Japanese politics in relation to Chinese question and the alliance with the United States: it is a fact that the ambivalence of the two hands towards Beijing now has to be played at a higher level than military preparation.

The considerations of a number of American analysts reported by the Japan Times contextualise the announcement of the new 2% spending level: it is a question of adopting the criterion/target in force among the NATO countries, with the political aim of strengthening the commitment to rearmament which was already in the Shinzo Abe line. We can add that the prospect of the plans to increase military expenditure will probably be for a five-year or ten-year period. This is not a strategic break, but it suggests the direction the next decade will take with its unprecedented tensions and the fog that is thickening over the Asian seas. Here, miscalculatons and unintended consequences increase the risk of collision.

La Barbera, Guido. La nebbia della guerra tra le potenze in Asia. Lotta Comunista, , p. 23