Why playing by the rules is the pathway to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region
- Brahman Chellaney writes that progress on building a rules-based Indo-Pacific order is linked to addressing the regional imperative for strategic balance
- Without a clear plan, the South China Sea will remain a missing link in Washington’s larger strategy for the region
Economically and strategically, the global centre of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific region. Security dynamics and power relationships are changing rapidly in this region.
Two recent summits underscore the changing dynamics – between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing, and between Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan.
Japan and India have reason to try to improve strained ties with China. But as Beijing has come under greater US pressure on trade, technology and other fronts, it has sought to ease tensions with its geopolitical rivals, Japan and India.
Indeed, in response to the mounting American pressure, Xi this month emphasised his personal relationship with US President Donald Trump and called for “a plan that both can accept”.
This underscores how active American pressure, as opposed to mere admonitions, can result in improving China’s behaviour.
When a nation pursues an accommodating approach towards Beijing, an emboldened China ups the ante. But while deference usually invites bullying, standing up to China draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and make concessions.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, unveiled his “pivot” to Asia in 2011. The pivot attracted a lot of international attention but had little impact in shaping the regional geostrategic landscape.
For example, it did nothing to tame China’s territorial and maritime revisionism. In fact, it was on Obama’s watch, after he had unveiled the pivot, that China created and militarised islands in the South China Sea, thereby fundamentally transforming the situation there.
With Obama’s attention diverted by developments in the Middle East and Russia’s takeover of Crimea, his pivot to Asia got lost somewhere in the arc between the Syria-Iraq belt and Ukraine.
Of course, under his pivot policy, the shift of more US forces to the Asia-Pacific gained momentum, along with a focus on investing in high-end capabilities with relevance to the Indo-Pacific, including electronic warfare, cyber and space.
But Obama’s pivot policy never acquired a clear vision, and critics contended that it merely repackaged some policies that began under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Against this background, the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, with its clearer vision and objectives, looks like the true pivot to Asia.
This is largely because of the paradigm shift under way in America’s China policy.
Starting in the 1970s, the United States pursued a policy of aiding China’s economic rise in the hope that a more prosperous China would liberalise economically and politically.
Now, despite the greater political polarisation in the US, a bipartisan consensus has emerged in Washington that this policy approach was based on wishful thinking and must be replaced with active and concrete counteraction.
The real architect of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, however, is Abe, who unveiled the idea more than two years ago in Nairobi. US foreign policy traditionally has not embraced an idea authored by a foreign leader. The US adoption of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept is a rare exception.
Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, however, faces some tough challenges, not least because of the hedging policies of some US allies.
Caught between an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration and an arrogant and pushy China, some US friends find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Moreover, some US allies, including Australia and South Korea, view their economic relations with China to be as important as their security ties with the US.
The last thing they want is for American policy to force them to choose between the US and China. America’s own neutrality on disputes between China and its neighbours, including in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas, encourages its friends to play balance or hedge their bets.
Another challenge for Washington relates specifically to the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free” and “open” when its most important sea corridor is neither free nor open?
To be sure, this is a difficult challenge.
How can the US, at this stage, undo what China has done in the South China Sea without provoking a war? The Trump administration inherited this problem from the Obama administration. Trump recently accused the Obama administration of having been “impotent” on the South China Sea issue.
The Trump administration, to be sure, has stepped up freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
But let’s be clear: such operations neither credibly deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies. Without a clear plan to deal with the changing status quo there, the South China Sea will remain a critical missing link in Washington’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy.
Meanwhile, the Australia-India-Japan-US “quad”, despite the hype, has yet to live up to its promise. It needs to acquire concrete shape and content. No ministerial-level meeting has been held thus far. This may explain why the quad’s institutionalisation has yet to take off.
Quad members must start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy. And they need to build broader collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, as well as with strategically located small countries.
More fundamentally, progress on building a rules-based Indo-Pacific order is linked to addressing the regional imperative for strategic equilibrium. Playing by international rules and not seeking to redraw borders by force are central to peace and security.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.