Changing geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific
The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is increasingly finding favour and has been used on more than several occasions in recent years, by policy makers from the US and Australia. The vision of a “free and fair Indo Pacific” has also received strong vocal support.
Developments over the past year have led to the narrative of a free and fair Indo-Pacific gaining traction.
During his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, US President Donald Trump used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific).
On the eve of his visit to India last year, former Secretary of State, Richard Tillerson, speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC) advocated a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and also for India and the US to join hands in the Indo-Pacific.
“The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
In November 2017, the ‘Quad’ (Australia, US, India and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, the US Department of State said the discussions were important and members of the Quad were “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”
While members of the Quad continuously denied that the Indo-Pacific was specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe this assertion.
During a visit to Australia, the French President spoke about the need for India, Australia and France to work together to ensure rules- based order. Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work together in the Indo-Pacific to check hegemony (alluding to China), the French President, Emmanuel Macron, said, “What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony.”
While speaking of a rules-based order and free and fair Indo-Pacific, it is necessary to ensure that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant, in the context of two important events: The reset taking place between India and China and, second, the thaw between Japan and China, with interesting developments already unfolding.
Australia has been kept out of the Malabar exercises in June (Japan, US and India will be participating). Australia is a member of the Quad and has been a vocal protagonist of a free and fair Indo Pacific narrative, and a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has, on more than one occasion, expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.
Many argue that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercise is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations.
Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in the (Belt and Road Initiative) BRI, as long as international norms are met. This came up in talks between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers (in April 2018). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s also discussed the issue with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Japanese PM, who is seeking to improve ties with China, reiterated the potential of the BRI in giving a boost to the regional economy.
A number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is powered by Japan, and has been funding development projects in the region, many of which have been projected as key components of Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific strategy, has said it does not perceive AIIB as a threat.
The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and the Quad has been cautiously dismissive, like “froth.” Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Wang Yi had said that there was “no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate”,
Similarly, in terms of promoting democratic values, the Quad makes sense. The real problem lies in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India and Japan, the other Quad members have not elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen how this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects.
Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified. Australia could play a key role in important infrastructural projects in the South Pacific.
It is important for the Quad to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan in the Indo-Pacific. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders.
In the constantly evolving geopolitical and economic dynamics in Asia, with China seeking to recalibrate its ties with both Japan and India, the key protagonists of the Indo-Pacific ‘vision,’ all stakeholders, especially members of the Quad, need to do some serious thinking.