IT is no longer the “Asia-Pacific”, but the “Indo-Pacific”, at least, according to the United States and some of its allies. Such a change may not seem much on first glance, but these four letters are far more than a matter of semantics: they have the potential to create a seismic shift in the geopolitical landscape of the region.
This much was evidenced when the US, Japan, Australia and India announced this month they had agreed to create a coalition that would patrol and exert influence on waterways from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific to the (much disputed) East and South China Seas. The grouping of the four “like-minded” democracies – known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad – was first mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, but the idea was dropped after Beijing protested, saying the defence partnership with India was aimed at stifling China’s growth. It made a sudden comeback when senior officials from the four nations met in Manila on November 11 – on the sidelines of regional summits during US President Donald Trump’s maiden tour to East Asia. Obviously, the group will have a China-centric security agenda. The Quad’s rebirth highlights the growing suspicion and unease diplomats in Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi feel about China’s meteoric military and economic rise.
In a statement after the meeting, the four nations said they were committed to ensuring a “free and open” region, with “respect for international law”, and “the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific”, a reference to what they see as China’s flouting of territorial, maritime and trade rules – including Beijing’s rejection of an international tribunal’s ruling against it regarding its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines.
The new strategy to confront China head on with a unified front underscored a growing regional competition between Beijing and Washington. The Quad meeting came as the US appeared to be shifting strategic focus. As Trump was visiting East Asia, he too referred to the region as the “Indo-Pacific” rather than the “Asia-Pacific” – a clear shot at Beijing.
The strategy appears to be part of Trump’s “hard-balancing” of his East Asia diplomatic policy. He sees it as a way to keep a US presence in the region after abandoning his predecessor Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Those moves could be interpreted as a sign of passivity in the region. Although a dominant power in the Pacific since the end of the second world war, the US’s diplomatic and military might have rarely extended past the Indian Ocean. However, the new accord shows Washington’s commitment – on both diplomatic and security fronts – to the region and highlights the importance of India as an ally.
Smaller nations, such as South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, might also benefit from a US-led partnership in a multipolar “Indo-Pacific” to check China’s power.
It also underlines the rising significance of maritime geopolitics in an increasingly integrated world. Economically, the strategy can be seen as an answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to establish a China-centric trade route from the Philippines to the Mediterranean Sea.
Though the Quad members have not said their aim is to contain the world’s last major communist-ruled nation, they see the rise of totalitarianism as a potential threat to regional and global stability and peace. The grouping has said its aim is to promote freedom, liberty and democracy and to make sure liberalism prevails over totalitarianism in the region.
What might define this accord more than its shared ideology, is the lack of competing interests on regional security issues, including the South and East China Seas and North Korea. The aegis these democracies create has the potential to develop into an Asian Nato – and dramatically change the region’s security landscape in the decades ahead. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s