The global strategic scene is being transformed radically by the rapid growth of several economies of the East Asian region led by China, South Korea and several of the Asean member states. Now the second and the third largest economics in the world (China and Japan respectively) are located in East Asia. The size of the economies of several other East Asian states particularly South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia has increased substantially because of the high growth rates recorded by them over the past two decades or so. The weight of East Asia in the world economy has, therefore, grown significantly. This conclusion is reinforced if one adds Russia, which is both a European and an East Asian power, into the calculus of economic power. If the current economic growth trends are projected into the future, particularly if China is able to maintain its high growth rates, East Asia will assume the pivotal position in the world economy in the foreseeable future.

The growth in the economic power of the East Asian stales has been inevitably accompanied by rapid rise in their military expenditures as these states use their economic strength to safeguard their legitimate security interests as viewed by them. China’s latest annual budget allocates an amount of $115.7 billion for defence. This is, of course, far below the US annual military budget estimated to be over $700 billion. But the situation is likely to change to the disadvantage of the US as China increases rapidly its military budget over the next two decades and the US is forced to apply brakes because of its economic woes. Japan’s annual military expenditure is over $60 billion currently. It may increase it substantially in the coming years in the face of the rapid growth in China’s military expenditure. The same may be true about the military budgets of South Korea and several Asean member states as they adjust their defence policies to the emerging global and regional realities.

It is worth remembering that the central aim of the American foreign policy is to be a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere and prevent the emergence of a rival hegemon in either Europe or Asia. An important Pentagon planning document that was leaked to the press in 1992 declared unequivocally, “Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival... that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union   Our strategy must focus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.”

The United States, therefore, views the rapid growth in China’s economic and military power with apprehensions. Its decision to rebalance its forces so as to deploy 60 per cent of its combat ships in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 should not have come as a surprise to keen observers of the evolving strategic scenario in East Asia. The US is also engaged in a well-calculated policy of containment of China by strengthening alliances around China’s periphery with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. The strengthening of its strategic partnership with India is also designed to serve the same purpose.

The strategic scenario in East Asia is further complicated by the growing tensions in the region which feed on territorial disputes between the various regional countries, historical grievances and mutual suspicions about each other’s intentions. Besides the territorial disputes and the growing Sino-US rivalry, the situation on the Korean peninsula, especially North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programme, is another source of tensions in East Asia. Further, although the relations between China and Taiwan have witnessed an historic détente during the tenure of Taiwan’s incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou, and the two sides continue to expand their economic relations, the possibility of a sudden turn for the worse cannot be ruled out.

In view of the growing weight of the East Asian countries in the world economy and their deepening economic linkages with the rest of the world, what happens in East Asia deeply affects countries around the world. Pakistan which, besides its vital strategic partnership and economic links with China, has close friendly relations and growing economic and commercial ties with Japan, South Korea and the Asean member states, cannot remain immune from the developments in East Asia. The growing importance of East Asia for Pakistan’s economic well-being and security, therefore, cannot be over-emphasized.

Unfortunately, despite our rhetoric to the contrary, the critical importance of East Asia for Pakistan is not sufficiently realized by our leaders, businessmen, opinion makers and the public at large. This national attitude of benign neglect of East Asia in practical terms must be changed through a conscious policy decision by the government to highlight the economic and strategic importance of the region for Pakistan in public and private forums.

The rapid economic growth of East Asia offers vast opportunities for economic and commercial cooperation to our country. While the government must lead the way by facilitating economic and commercial exchanges between Pakistan and East Asian countries through official agreements with those countries and appropriate regulatory framework, our business community should take steps to improve its competiveness in foreign markets. Our business chambers should activate their research departments to explore and identify the emerging business opportunities in East Asia. Our businessmen should also enhance interaction with their counterparts in East Asia through frequent exchange of delegations.

Some of the East Asian countries, e.g. South Korea, Malaysia and China, because of increasing labour costs are gradually shifting out of labour intensive products to more capital intensive lines of production. This development obviously opens up new possibilities of the export of labour intensive products to those countries by our businessmen. In some cases, businessmen in East Asian countries may be looking for investment opportunities abroad in countries like Pakistan to take advantage of low labour costs. It is the job of our government to create a congenial investment climate to attract such prospective investors. However, a lot will still depend upon the ability of our businessmen to act as reliable local partners to prospective foreign investors. In short, while East Asia offers growing opportunities for trade and investment, our government and businessmen will have to put their act together to take full advantage of these opportunities.

Pakistan must also observe carefully the developments in East Asia in the field of security since its own security and economic well-being are linked in many ways with the security situation in East Asia. In view of the critical importance of our strategic partnership with China for our security, we cannot be a part of the US grand design in Asia to contain China. We must keep this limitation in our mind while trying to develop friendly relations and cooperation with the US. As for the territorial disputes between some of the East Asian countries, we must be careful so as not to tread on sensitive toes. In general, we should advise the parties to territorial disputes in the region to exercise restraint and try to resolve their disputes peacefully:

East Asia is also witnessing the emergence of new forums for security and economic cooperation. Besides Asean, the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Apec and Asem, one can mention, by way of example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is being negotiated currently to establish a free trade area among the countries on both sides of the Pacific. It is in our interest to remain abreast of the developments in these forums and, where possible and desirable, to participate in them actively to safeguard and promote our national interests.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for  World Affairs.   Email: