Pacific Power Play: US-Led Alliances, India, and China’s Strategic Moves
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 12 Apr , 2024

The China challenge goes far beyond the western Pacific. The strengthened US-led alliances in the western Pacific have their more security-oriented deterrent role, while the Quad, with India in it, has a wider, more diffused role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea, raising tensions with the Philippines by aggressively pursuing its illegal claims in these waters. The Permanent Arbitration Tribunal under UNCLOS has already declared China’s 9 Dash line as having no basis in international law, but China is undeterred and continues to assert its “historical” claims much beyond its EEZ.

China continues to assert its illegal claims in the South China Sea, disregarding international law and escalating tensions with the Philippines.

It is accusing the Philippines of violating Chinese sovereignty, threatening it with consequences, and blaming the US for promoting tensions. China is following its usual tactics of creating a problem and then claiming that it is the wronged party. After creating differences, it then calls for “managing them properly”. It is a deceitful way of blaming the other side for creating differences and putting the onus on it to accommodate China’s claims. This is the diplomatic trope China also uses in the case of the border issue with India.

China has been steadily raising temperatures on the Taiwan issue, with aggressive statements and military moves. President Xi has stated categorically that Taiwan will inevitably be unified with mainland China either peacefully or by use of force, if necessary. The strategy is to project an uncompromising position while building up China’s military strength which would, in its view, increasingly raise the cost of intervention by the US and its allies in the defence of Taiwan and conceivably let China achieve its goal without the use of force.

This is diplomatic brinksmanship based on the assumption that the US is a declining power which would not want to risk an actual conflict with China over a distant territory, particularly with the experience of the Korean and Vietnam wars in mind. It would therefore opt ultimately for some pragmatic, compromise solution. Xi has given himself a timeline of 2049 for absorbing Taiwan, banking on a decisive shift in the power balance between it and the West by then, and in any case, he would not be in power 25 years from now.

The US has responded to mounting tensions in the western Pacific by reinforcing its alliances in the region, be it with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. In August 2023, President Biden held a first-ever trilateral summit in the US with the leaders of Japan and South Korea. Unresolved differences between Japan and South Korea have been a chink in the armour in terms of a united front against China in the region.

Japan under Prime Minister Kishida has made moves to strengthen its own defence posture by raising its defence budget, initiating a re-armament programme, assuming more security responsibilities in the region, and so on.

President Xi Jinping declares Taiwan’s inevitable unification with mainland China, either peacefully or by force, projecting an uncompromising stance while building up military strength.

AUKUS had already signalled a more robust deterrent posture against China’s aggressive policies in the western Pacific to quell doubts about the strength of US security commitments to the region. In real terms, the announcement of AUKUS, a long-term project to equip Australia with nuclear-propelled submarines, did not materially change the security balance in the region. It was more a prospective signal that China’s expansionist ambitions in the region will be countered.

Japan has signalled an interest in joining AUKUS as a partner, though it is not clear how receptive the other AUKUS partners are. The Australian prime minister has poured cold water on any immediate plans for expanding AUKUS, though he has stated that AUKUS partners will work with Japan on the sharing of technology.

This reticence in making Japan a partner could well be to avoid a rupture in the dialogue that Australia seeks with China to lower bilateral tensions. The US too is engaging China with the Biden-Xi exchanges, recent visits to China of a very high-level CEOs delegation and that of the Treasury Secretary Yellen, not to mention the projected visit of German Chancellor Scholz to China with a high-level business delegation, followed by Xi’s visit to France etc. It appears that there is some tactical responsiveness to Xi’s softer posturing on China welcoming more Western investment and the mutual benefits to be derived from opening up to each other. Maintaining such opening suits both sides even as the underlying adversarial posture is also retained. India is following this policy too.

In any case, Japan is already in alliance with the US and the effort now is to deepen that alliance not only bilaterally but also regionally. In addition to the trilateral US, Japan and South Korea summit, leaders from Japan and the Philippines are set to meet in Washington for a trilateral summit aimed at strengthening defence ties. This follows recent military exercises in the South China Sea involving the US, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.

The US reinforces alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines to counter China’s aggressive policies in the region.

Separately, Japan is strengthening bilateral ties with the Philippines. It has sold coastal radars to it and is now negotiating a defence agreement that would include joint military exercises. Japan’s new Official Security Assistance scheme is intended to strengthen the security capacities of like-minded states and improve their deterrence capabilities.

It is significant that India too has begun strengthening ties with the Philippines, including in the defence domain. Minister Jaishankar was in the Philippines recently where he firmly reiterated India’s support for the Philippines in upholding its national sovereignty. He added that the 1982 UNCLOS was the “constitution of the seas” and all parties “must adhere to it in its entirety, both in letter and spirit”. This statement can be read as India’s firm commitment to the Indo-Pacific concept and its readiness to contribute to the security of the Pacific region too.

With all these developments, a question has arisen about the strategic importance of Quad in addressing challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. Will an expanded AUKUS and strengthened US-led alliances in the western Pacific reduce the salience of the Quad?

While the Quad stands for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and one of its primary objectives is to work for a free, open, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, its agenda goes well beyond security in the traditional sense. Its focus is on securing a rules-based global order, freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as exchanges on contemporary global issues such as critical and emerging technologies, connectivity and infrastructure, cybersecurity, maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, climate change, pandemics and education.

Quad was not intended to be a military alliance. The US has been underlying this too. The three other members of the Quad — the US, Japan and Australia — are close military allies. That alliance has been regionally strengthened with the inclusion of South Korea and the Philippines, which are also allies of the US. The immediate security challenge is in the western Pacific. This is primarily related to China’s threat to Taiwan, its aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea, and its developing confrontation with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands.

The Quad aims for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, focusing on security, rules-based global order, and collaboration on various contemporary issues beyond traditional military concerns.

China-contested sovereignty over islands reefs or rocks, or maritime boundaries does not exist in the Indian Ocean. China’s expansionism in the Indian Ocean is strategic; it does not violate international law. However, China is also vulnerable in the Indian Ocean. This Chinese challenge needs to be met differently. India is doing increasingly complex exercises along with the Quad partners in the Indian Ocean and in the Sea of Japan. India has signed logistics agreements with the US, Japan and Australia, which provide the basis of security cooperation to meet China’s threat in the Indo-Pacific theatre, if and when required.

China has vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean area as the sea lanes vital for its exports and imports pass through these waters. To exploit these vulnerabilities, the role of India’s naval and air assets would be indispensable. India has already described itself as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. In combating piracy and protecting commercial shipping from Houthi attacks, India has deployed 10 naval ships in the Indian Ocean with success.

In the larger agenda of Quad, India has played and can play a vital role as the first responder in case of humanitarian disasters. The value it can bring to cooperation in developing critical and emerging technologies is already recognised by the US under the iCET. Connectivity and infrastructure are areas in which India’s participation, especially with its “leadership” of the Global South, can be an asset. As shown during the Covid pandemic, India can be a vital partner in the healthcare sector, especially in the production of vaccines.

The China challenge goes far beyond the western Pacific. The strengthened US-led alliances in the western Pacific have their more security-oriented deterrent role, while the Quad, with India in it, has a wider, more diffused role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and providing more options to countries in the region in diverse areas.

Courtesy: First published on

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

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