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Asia’s emerging geopolitical faultlines
The emerging faultlines in the Indo-Pacific are clear: An illiberal China intent on shaping a unipolar Asia, pitted against a ‘concert of democracies’ who seek a multipolar and rules-based alternative.
US President Trump’s tour of Asia was a keenly anticipated event. One idea in particular which has received a significant amount of attention is the resuscitation of the Quadrilateral dialogue (‘Quad’) — a coalition comprising of the US, India, Japan and Australia intended to shape a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. While the idea itself is over a decade old, the imperative to revive it today undoubtedly comes against the backdrop of a China that is increasingly assertive in shaping an Asian order.
Ironically, the original idea was abandoned because of deference to China’s concerns. Rather than placate Beijing, however, this only seems to have emboldened it further. Today, it appears that China is the only nation with a coherent vision for the Indo-Pacific — one that is neither free nor open — that is enforced through economic statecraft and military prowess. The Quad, on the other hand, currently represents normative resistance to a China-led order, with no concrete strategy of its own.
"Today, it appears that China is the only nation with a coherent vision for the Indo-Pacific — one that is neither free nor open — that is enforced through economic statecraft and military prowess."
China’s vision for the Indo-Pacific
Already, China is the largest bilateral trading partner for most Asian states. Add to this the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Beijing promises will bring over $1.3 trillion in investment, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, that places a reduced emphasis on labour and environment standards, China’s proposition is increasingly attractive to states in the region. Additionally, China’s leadership in institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, gives it the capacity to hardwire its authority in Asia.
Unfortunately, Beijing’s rise has often been accompanied by coercive economic diplomacy. For example, while President Xi hails the BRI as a shining example of “win-win” cooperation between states, the reality is that several recipient states, such as Sri Lanka, are now burdened with large debt, making them susceptible to Chinese influence. China has also run roughshod over sovereign concerns by planning a part of the initiative — the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — through territories that are currently claimed by India.
Similarly, Beijing’s flagrant violation of international law in the South China Sea (SCS), and the border standoff with India and Bhutan on the Doklam Plateau represent its willingness to resolve disputes through military force. Regrettably, these tactics seem to be paying off for China. Despite its loss at The Hague Tribunal, for example, it has successfully outwitted the US in the SCS, and is now working on a code of conduct for the region with the ASEAN littorals. This is a clear sign that states in South Asia now acknowledge China’s role in regional security.
"Beijing’s flagrant violation of international law in the South China Sea (SCS), and the border standoff with India and Bhutan on the Doklam Plateau represent its willingness to resolve disputes through military force."
The emerging faultlines in the Indo-Pacific, then are clear: An illiberal China intent on shaping a unipolar Asia, pitted against a ‘concert of democracies’ who seek a multipolar and rules-based alternative. What exactly this alternative offers, however, remains an open question.
America’s flailing response
As the resident power in the Indo-Pacific, America is the only country capable of adding heft to the Quad. However, its Asia policy is noticeably incoherent.
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Trumps’ ‘America first’ rhetoric, and criticism of Asian states for ‘chronic trade abuse’ did nothing to ease tensions about America’s waning economic influence in the region. Further, his praise for Xi’s ability to resolve trade disputes and diffuse the North Korea crisis only reinforced the perception that America’s actions are more transactional than strategic. Following Trumps withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, America’s lack of trade proposals is perhaps the single largest impairment to the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Similarly, While Rex Tillerson recently criticised the BRI for its “predatory economics” and disregard of sovereignty, the Trump Administration has not put forward any real alternative connectivity proposal. Previous initiatives, like the ‘New Silk Road’ mooted in 2011 for infrastructure development in Central Asia, have not borne fruit so far. In the face of Asia’s massive infrastructure demand, unless the Quad can offer institutional options for finance and development, states in the region will look to China as the default option.
On the maritime front, the US and Japan continue to focus on their concerns in East Asia and the SCS. The Quad, however, does very little to challenge China’s growing influence in the Bay of Bengal, especially in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The same story prevails in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, where strategic interests in Afghanistan and the Middle East, continue to shape America’s policy. This disconnect between America’s Pacific Command and Central Command will challenge the Quad’s ability to develop a holistic approach to the ‘Indo-Pacific’.
If America’s own policy is inarticulate, it is also unclear if each of the other states has sufficiently achieved a convergence of interests; either due to their limitations in state capacity, national priorities or their respective relationship with China.
"If America’s own policy is inarticulate, it is also unclear if each of the other states has sufficiently achieved a convergence of interests."
It is instructive, for example, that India’s statement on the Quad did not employ the phrase “Freedom of Navigation and Overflight”, suggesting that it is not keen to get involved in the South China Sea. In fact, the 2015 Indian Maritime Security Strategy cautions that “there can also be issues of wide divergence, including in security perceptions, with nations that may be traditional friends.” New Delhi is also absent from key economic institutions in the region, like the APEC forum.
In Tokyo, while Shinzo Abe’s recent electoral victory likely provided a fillip to Japan’s position as a leading regional actor, amending its pacifist constitution remains a difficult challenge, limiting its efficacy as a military power. Japan also omitted any reference to “increasing connectivity” in its own statement on the Quad, considering that it continues to see commercial value in the BRI.
Australia, on the other hand, is still embroiled in a long-standing debate over the nature of its relationship with China. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the country to maintain a security relationship with the US, while improving economic ties with China. That New Delhi was hesitant to invite Australia to this year’s edition of the Malabar Navy Exercise also reflects that it still views Canberra’s priorities with some skepticism.
To be fair, regional powers in Asia are not simple bystanders. Through a raft of multilateral and bilateral initiatives, such as the proposed Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and the revival of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Asian countries are attempting to stitch together viable alternatives to Beijing’s proposition – with or without the US. The level of military co-operation between each of the states has also seen a significant up-tick over the years. However, China’s economic integration with other states in Asia and its growing military power makes it difficult to co-ordinate these initiatives into a larger overarching architecture for the region.
"Regional powers in Asia are not simple bystanders. Through a raft of multilateral and bilateral initiatives.. Asian countries are attempting to stitch together viable alternatives to Beijing’s proposition – with or without the US."
China has a clear vision for the Indo-Pacific — one that extends from the South China Sea in the east, to the Horn of Africa in the west. The economic, political and military resources it is ready to spend to achieve this vision are significant. The Quad, on the other hand, is a reactionary initiative. In part, it is driven by America’s unwillingness to tackle China head on, and in part by the insecurity of other powers in Asia.
However, in a region that has been thrown into instability because of China’s aggressive rise, co-operation amongst democratic regional powers could potentially be a stabilising influence. Without a dedicated effort by the ‘concert of democracies’ to establish a rules-based order in Asia, China’s illiberal hegemony will undoubtedly prevail. The real challenge for the ‘Quad’ will be in maintaining an alignment of strategic interests, while managing their own respective relationships with Beijing.
This commentary originally appeared in Swarajya.
15 December 2017