The discussion addressed the possibility of an Indo-Pacific Charter emerging along the lines of the Atlantic Charter, and also discussed the ways in which powers such as India and Australia can contribute to the security and stability of the region.
1: In the Indo-Pacific COVID-19 has accelerated the need for re-balancing of regional strategies by creating a network of multi-polar partnerships that can dilute China’s economic and military presence.
2: To build consensus for this network, the region needs to define a ‘common minimum framework’ that can help bind countries to act on an inclusive and regionally beneficial, economic and strategic vision.
3: Partnering with China in framing this Charter will encourage inclusiveness and will also help evaluate China’s resolve towards an inclusive approach for engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
Question 1: Welcome Rory. Your book focuses on the increased role of India in the Indo-Pacific. Can you expand on that?
RM – Thanks very much. It’s a real pleasure to join you all. 12 or 13 hours ago I was talking about my book virtually in the U.S. and now I’m talking about it in India, so I feel like I’ve crossed the Indo Pacific in a single day. I have a copy here just to share with everyone. Indo-Pacific Empire is the title of the International Edition. Contest for the Indo-Pacific is the title of the Australian version. It is an attempt to try and explain how the region has got to the situation it is in, not including current crisis of the pandemic, which has shaken these regional structures.
To tell the story of the past 20 to 30 years as to how we have found ourselves in an Indo Pacific strategic system, which is different from the Asia Pacific idea that dominated the late 20th century. The book is not intended as an academic exercise. It’s not just a history lesson. It takes these changing mental maps of the region that bring the Indian part of the ocean into the mainstream of the regional strategic story and explains that with the rise, the influence, the presence and frankly the disruption of China’s power in India’s traditional region of power, we are going to have a much more multi-polar power play in the region.
The book tells the story of the influence of Indian civilizations in South East Asia and East Asia, the journey of Islam across the region, China’s own foray into the Indian ocean region in 1400s and of course the great impact of the E.U. powers – colonialism and resistance to colonialism.
All of this occurred across these two ocean systems, and it was only in the brief window of the 20th century that India and India’s worldview was somewhat removed. The big narrative is that Indo Pacific is back. Partly because of India’s rise, partly because U.S. is building relationships within the wider region, but largely because of the grand power play that China is making, and the Belt and Road, and China’s expanding military footprint. To conclude, having introduced this historical narrative, the book talks about how trade, commerce and energy, diplomacy (amongst other things) are working in a highly connected, Indo Pacific region. We have a framework that powers like India and Australia and many others (Japan, Indonesia and U.S.), all of them have greater agency in this multi-polar Indo Pacific to build networks, to build partnerships to try to moderate Chinese power, and come to a settling point for our prosperity and security in the years ahead.
The book went to print right before the COVID calamity struck. I talk a little bit about black swan events and how crises such as pandemics could travel through the connectivity of the region and have these disruptive consequences. I would argue that the strategic implications of what is happening to our countries now through the pandemic crisis and the international response will actually accelerate some of the trends that will help us build a multipolar system in the Indo Pacific. I’m really interested in some of the parallel ideas that are circulating, and especially this one on the Indo Pacific charter, that has been in some opinion pieces, both in India and in Japan. I’m interested in where is it coming from and what the intent is in this volatile strategic environment.
Question 2 : The idea of an Indo-Pacific Charter has been floating around for some time. What are your thoughts on this? What exactly would this framework reflect and what would be its implications?
CP – The issue of framework is key and that’s where this idea came from. I was lucky enough to work with GH a little bit at the end of last year, looking at perceptions of frameworks going forward and some of the issues that came up amongst Indian strategists was that – we got the word, but we don’t know what it means and we don’t quite know how to build on it and we know what we don’t want, in terms of this is a military construct designed to go after one specific country and we want to bring in more people so how can we conceptualize in a way that creates such a strong alliance that we can avoid a war. In that context, there is a looking back at the attempt to create an alliance of ways of looking at the word in 1941. Particularly between Churchill and the U.S. The U.S. did not join the war until pearl harbor. They put together this Atlantic charter, and it said this is what we want the world to look like when we come out of war, and if we can be strong enough together we can make sure that we can all work in the same direction.
The Indo Pacific charter is very similar. These are the kind of things that we want. That’s what I’ve seen coming out of the Indian strategic community, I saw it on NewsX and Japan has some elements like – for e.g. there are 9 points that I have seen floating around. Participants work together to promote democracy and participatory govt. Nations that are democracies, stay democracies. That is basically saying we want to make sure Taiwan does not drift into the Chinese orbit. I don’t know what we are going to do about Honk Kong in that context, but also new world issues like sovereignty of data, so that your data isn’t being controlled by China or other countries that are not conducive to creating a secure strategic environment. Also, the formation of a joint space security council and ideas that can bind countries together in a strategic sense, so that they are working towards a common goal.
You can see which country is an outlier in all of this and you are trying to build a framework of common understanding that is strong enough to build onto the QUAD, as just a military construct. So, you can have a QUAD+ with an Indo Pacific charter sign on component to it. I think it’s the beginning of what we have started to think about which is the term Indo Pacific. We don’t all agree on what it means. Are there ideological elements behind it that are more than strong and free Indo Pacific? Common framework would work towards showing who the outliers are and lets us combine to isolate them in areas that are not conducive to security and prosperity in the region.
RM – I think that’s a really intriguing proposal and I would argue that it is intriguing but too ambitious to have a real prospect of working at the moment. I think it’s an exciting idea to raise in the second track, to begin seeking feedback on. My own take to give normative purpose to the Indo Pacific is that the Indo Pacific works on two levels – on one level it is a description of the geo-economic system in which we are operating in, a system in which China is rising and has imperial impulses. In that sense, it is just a mental map.
On another level, the Indo Pacific creates a much larger canvas of powers, potential partner and empowered middle players, a larger set of options for India and Australia to work with. Not all of them democracies. Vietnam is an example, but mostly maritime democracies. If you look at the embryonic attempts to give shape to this, the focus would be to the normative statements that have been made – thinking of the principles and statements about the free and open Indo Pacific – strategies of the U.S. and Japan.
I’m thinking of PM Modi’s speech in Singapore, a few years ago which was a strong articulation of the Indian view of the Indo Pacific and the statement that the Australian government has put out. Australia was, as my book identifies, the first country to formally define its region of strategic interest as being Indo Pacific. And interestingly, the work Indonesia has laid, within the ASEAN countries and within the South East Asian countries, if you start to look at commonalities in the Indo Pacific visions, they do exist. Some critics point out that because countries do not agree about the specifics, there’s no solidarity. In fact, quite a few of these values, are shared, from the point of view of an Indo Pacific Charter such as – the rights and interests of smaller states, the non-use of coercion in regional affairs, respect for International law and so forth. This is common among the Indo Pacific visions of the region. Whether we need to go further, is a different question.
Question – What would be the problems faced in the formation and execution of the Charter?
RM – In some ways, this would be perhaps more challenging for China and also more challenging for many other countries in the region. Particularly, the idea that it would involve a commitment to act in the common good or a commitment to come to the assistance to those countries that are experiencing coercion or military pressure. That’s a big ask to make of many countries in the region; the idea of taking on risk for countries that are not formal treaty allies. In some ways, it is more natural that that kind of commitment would arise during war or a major crisis, such as 1941. We’re not quite there yet in Indo Pacific, thankfully. It is an idea that is useful to keep in the diplomatic arsenal though. Particularly as China’s assertiveness continues to grow. We’ve developed the QUAD partly as a result of China’s choices. The charter idea might be a sign of things to come if China continues to make those choices.
CP – What if you breach the charter is the big question. That is going to be the problematic front of it. On a diplomatic front though, Australia and India are bearing the brunt of very different sorts of Chinese aggression. Trade with Australia, the issue in the WHO in which India is backing Australia. India with the border issue with China, is at least getting some acknowledgement from the U.S. that this is a problem. At least initially diplomatically there can be some acknowledgment that we are going to back each other. This might not look like war. China is very good at staying under the threshold.
In the region, China is pushing on all fronts, with the Malaysians, Vietnamese and the Japanese. China gets a lot of traction because they do this against separate countries. Everybody is dealing with them one on one. So, if there’s a diplomatic message or acknowledgement that this group of countries won’t stand for this. But you are right in that if you don’t stand for it, what do you do when it does happen? But this grouping condemns aggressive actions then there is more publicity and discussion regarding these issues as a comprehensive set of actions coming out of Beijing that is destablising all of the neighborhood.
This could then in turn help to create targeted responses. Australia is not going to send troops to the Indian border to help with China. What they can help is in the UN or in diplomatic forums in those discussions. Similarly, India can maybe help with purchasing rare earths from Australia, which were previously bought from China. As China does these unconventional and asymmetric attacks, across the region, the Indo Pacific charter adherence is not a military thing, but it is rather a collection of nations that are like minded in how they would like the Indo Pacific to develop to create more stability, security and prosperity
Question – The Atlantic Charter was the handiwork of two future victors. This is a different age and context. Principles must emerge from within the region. Do you then agree that an inclusive approach is needed?
RM – The way the Indo Pacific charter has been framed, is not to say that China could not be in theory be given the opportunity to sign on too. It is open, and it’s a set of values that is open to everyone. It’s about the choices that China makes. Does it want an inclusive approach to regional engagement? Does it want to behave unilaterally, or would it be open to being incorporated into a regional system where it too has to make adjustments, where is it prominent but not dominant. There is a place for China in the Indo-Pacific. China interests are the glue to the Indo-Pacific. It is the engine that has driven a lot of the economic engagement in the region. It is up to China what they choose.
CP – In 1941, they weren’t the victors. The Atlantic charter individual nations were very concerned. They were putting together a vision of where things should go if they go well, but there was no guarantee of that. The conceptualization of it is what I am referring to. Just have an idea as to where you are going
Question – One of the biggest obstacles to QUAD and QUAD+ is the ASEAN outlook. How do we navigate these divergences and different perceptions?
RM – We already have quite a few of the institutions that we need at this stage in the Indo Pacific. It is just that we are not using them effectively enough. For Example, The East Asia Summit, which India and Australia are active member of, is already an overarching Indo Pacific organization. When Australia and India joined that in 2005 at its establishment, China sought to obstruct their membership. South East Asian countries and Japan fought to include India and Australia. ASEAN architecture can be used to emphasize a rule based order. That is the path I would suggest. ASEAN can be a part of it. Indonesia has worked with ASEAN to begin to move themselves towards a more Indo-Pacific treaty ally.
Question – How dependable is the U.S. as a partner in the Indo Pacific?
RM – Despite what it looks like, there is still reliability when it comes to the U.S. because they benefit from us just as we benefit from them. India’s concerned, and that is another question. India should have realistic expectations. Despite dysfunction of the Trump administration, U.S. will continue to be a powerful partner in balancing China.
CP – On the U.S. side, I have found this administration to be pretty focused on the Indo Pacific and operationalising this relationship than many others. Yes, the U.S. is withdrawing in Afghanistan, but they are also very actively trying to create mutual partnerships, including with India.
How reliable a partner does India want to be in the particular context, when talking about buying the S400. The U.S. needs India in the Indo Pacific. U.S. wants to give space to India and wants to move manufacturing platforms to India. It wants India to be a net security provider in the region. But if India is buying Russia missile systems that makes it impossible to put in high tech U.S. systems, those collaborations become difficult. It goes two ways. The U.S. can’t do it alone. The intra operability between U.S. and Japan who are long time partners is much lesser than you would think. Part of that is because of Japan. They don’t have a joint Headquarters. There is an opening now where the U.S. is giving space.
Question – What do you think are the expected outcomes from the Summit meeting between the Indian prime minister Modi and Australian prime minister Morrison?
RM – Before the pandemic, Australian PM was going to be visiting India. It would have enhanced bi-lateral relations. The bushfires in Australia made sure PM stayed at home. This summit (virtual) was to be held a few months ago. It was to be the next step in the Indo Pacific partnership. It now has this new context of COVID-19 and Chinese aggression. I don’t think there will be a really startling outcome from this summit. It is much more about deepening the process we already have underway. . Security relations, naval exercises are bigger than people would have thought. Critical Tech and cyber security. Supply chain security are the big issues. There’s a lot more we can do if we stay realistic, over the next several years.
Question – Canada also has Pacific shores but does not act like a Pacific power. Could you close with that?
CP – As for Canada, it is a very wealthy country. It has Gold, gas and uranium and a very small population. It has one land border which is with the main security provider, the U.S. There just isn’t a sense of strategic urgency. We don’t really have a bad neighborhood. We sell to the south of the border. We sell to China but not as much as Australia. So, our threat perception is very different. We’re not engaged with immediate strategic risks.
Question – China has become increasingly assertive in its neighborhood. They have also decided to enact a national security law that will cover Hong Kong as well. There is also plenty of evidence that China is being aggressive in the South China Sea. How do you see the Chinese government taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic?
RM–Many of us have been disappointed in the way in which, instead of transcending or suppressing rivalries and building cooperation to deal with the consequences of the pandemic , we have actually seen rivalries exacerbated. Though, we do have to recognize that the spread of the pandemic was in part a result of the failure of China to suppress the virus. Instead we have seen rivalries being accelerated. A lot of the negative trends have gotten worse.
I write about this in my book. One of these is the way on which, unfortunately for China and the world, the way in which Chinese leadership is associate with nationalist assertiveness externally. That is manifesting in the way in which we see pressure on the border with India. It manifests in some of the economic coercion that Australia experienced. EU too has felt this. It is also showing in Hong Kong and Taiwan. From the East China sea to the South China sea, we see this.
I take the view that China is trying to project a much greater degree of confidence, recklessness and willingness to take risk than is actually the case. It defies belief that the regime thinks that it can handle all these risks that they are taking on. The next few years will be risky. It also presents a great chance for smaller and medium sized countries to show assertiveness. Countries such as India have a big future. We need to build that solidarity over the next few years. The creation of the QUAD+ dialogue including Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand; COVID-19 responses; and also at how we cope with the strategic landscape after the pandemic. I see some positive developments along with the big horizon of risk.
CP – Years ago, Captain James E Fanell who was head of intelligence for the US Pacific fleets said that the 2020s would be the decade of concern with China. And we have seen that happen on an accelerated time scale, going after Hong Kong, Japan and now, repeatedly after Taiwan. The entry point across the region has been economic. This is where the COVID situation has completely rewritten the rules. A lot of the economic decisions being made in the U.S. with regards to the defense production act would have been unthinkable 3 or 4 months ago.
Gateway House has done a lot of research about how China is investing in startups in India and has taken the economic route to undermine the strategic independence Japan has been putting together to fund Japanese companies to move out of China. U.S. is looking to relocate supply chains from China This could help India but would also help undermine China’s economic reach. The whole thing has been accelerated; the risk is higher than before. The economic structures are different now. WTO rules are out of the window now. Countries have access to levers that were unthinkable a few months ago. Economic controls that are outside of the sphere of influence such as LNG in Japan will start to gain traction. With the hit that Hong Kong is going to take, Capital will move from there too. If countries work together and move fast, we can restructure some of the capital underpinnings that give China so much strategic strength. India is key to that, potentially.
Prof. Rory Medcalf is Head, National Security College, Australian National University, and author of Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region.
Cleo Paskal is the Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources, and Asia-Pacific, Chatham House
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