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Democratic alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia wants to work with China – not contain it

C. Uday Bhaskar says Donald Trump’s visit to Asia coincides with a renewed effort by Asia-Pacific democracies to draw closer together to champion a ‘free and open’ Pacific region. This need not mean excluding China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 November, 2017, 11:27am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 November, 2017, 12:13pm

The White House has announced that Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit to East Asia will be an opportunity for the president to “present the US vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Vietnam on November 10.

This focus on the Indo-Pacific was the central theme of a major policy speech by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington last month. Reference was also made to the “predatory” economic model of China and its less-than-responsible rise – in contrast to India. In the Trump-Tillerson formulation, the United States and India were perceived as the two bookends of global stability. A red rag to Beijing?

Tillerson reiterated his views on a visit to Delhi last week, during which the maritime domain was identified for greater bilateral interaction between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

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Democracy as a lodestar for partnership is enticing. The idea of a concert of democracies and the confluence of the two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific, was mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first tenure in August 2007, when he addressed the Indian Parliament in Delhi.

A quadrilateral naval engagement was considered – “the quad” – with Canberra also on board. Beijing served angry démarches at the time, and this vision remained dormant due to a dilution of political support and commitment among the three countries – India, Japan and Australia.

The Tillerson visit to Delhi resurrected this idea of like-minded democracies becoming stakeholders in ensuring the freedom of the Indo-Pacific, and the responses from Beijing and Tokyo were along expected lines. Japan was the first off the blocks and Foreign Minister Taro Kono proposed a meeting of senior officials among the quad nations. An irate Chinese ambassador in Washington decried the forming of “an exclusive club” and warned that no one could “contain China” in this manner.

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This is the backdrop for the Trump visit to East Asia. Is there a serious attempt to “contain” China in the maritime domain and is an exclusive club being formed for this purpose? The short answer to both questions is “no”.

The US and its allies, such as Japan and, more recently, India, have been dwelling on the need to respect the freedom-of-navigation principle, calling for compliance with international law as derived from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has demonstrated its reluctance to accept this principle and the muddy South China Sea dispute is illustrative.

The current objective is not so much to contain China but to include it as a consensual stakeholder

The objective of the US and the democratic cluster is to encourage a degree of compliance by Beijing, in relation to the management of the first of the global commons – the maritime domain (cyber and space are the other two). Thus, the current objective is not so much to contain China but to include it as a consensual stakeholder.

The “exclusive club” tag is also misplaced, for all the quad nations are already in a very dense and inclusive trade and economic engagement with China and none has envisaged any kind of exclusion apropos Beijing – not even the mercurial Trump, after some intemperate initial outbursts.

What is stoking the deep anxiety in China is the Malacca dilemma – a phrase coined by then president Hu Jintao in 2003. It implies an exigency where the US and its partners would exploit the maritime dependency-cum-vulnerability of Chinese trade and commerce traversing the Indo-Pacific.

To assuage its anxiety, Beijing has invested in an Indian Ocean littoral port network, from Myanmar and Sri Lanka, to Gwadar (Pakistan) and Djibouti that is described as the “string of pearls”. China’s current concern is to ensure that the democratic quad nations led by the US do not become a “diamond necklace” that would in any way inhibit the realisation of the Chinese Dream, as outlined by President Xi Jinping at the 19th party congress.

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Pearls and diamonds do not need to constrict each other and the success of the Trump visit will be determined by the harmony index, apropos the Indo-Pacific, during his meetings in Beijing.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. [email protected]