The Indo-Pacific, particularly its East Asian segment, stretching from India to Japan and Australia, continued to be marked by change and uncertainty in the past six months, with nations staying alert to the ways of both friends and adversaries. Political and strategic issues may receive greater attention than projects of economic integration and cooperation, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Even the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may be viewed more from the strategic rather than economic prism.
What are some of the main trends in the region behind the veil of summits and conferences? China, apparently taking stock of the pushback to its aggressiveness during 2017, chose to adopt a somewhat conciliatory approach towards the neighbours on its periphery, especially Japan, Vietnam and India.
As part of the U.S. alliance system, Japan is China’s adversary, but its economic relations with China have been so extensive, diverse and well developed that China-Japan ties can hardly deteriorate below a certain threshold. President Trump’s unconventional diplomacy on trade and economic issues and the Korean Peninsula compelled Prime Minister Abe to hedge and fulfill a rapprochement with Beijing.
Vietnam, for its part, has always been known to manage its relations with China on two different tracks – the government and party – thereby retaining balance and stability even while opposing China’s assertive stances on the South China Sea.
India-China relations have changed visibly since early 2018 when New Delhi showed special sensitivity towards Beijing’s concerns over the Tibetan refugees and celebrations of Dalai Lama’s 60th year of exile. It soon became clear that a full-fledged process had been unleashed to reduce tensions and increase cordiality. The Modi-Xi ‘informal’ summit in Wuhan was a notable milestone whose gains were consolidated at the follow-up meeting of the two leaders at the SCO summit in Qingdao. The two Asian majors were keen to cooperate. In summer 2017, Indian and Chinese soldiers were throwing stones at each other at the Doklam Plateau, but on 21 June 2018, they practiced yoga together along the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh.
Second, U.S.-China relations began to come under increasing pressure, thus dissipating the positive atmosphere created by the Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017 and Trump’s visit to China in November the same year when the U.S. president was viewed as being too friendly towards a nation that the U.S. National Security Strategy was to portray, a few months later, as “antithetical to U.S. values and interests”. Recent weeks have witnessed the growing heat of the trade war between the U.S. and China through threats of mutual imposition of tariffs on each other’s exports. The Chinese foreign ministry stated that China did not fear a trade war, asserting that it would firmly defend its legitimate rights and interests.
Third, the Quad, a budding strategic partnership of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, which had made a reappearance in end 2017, failed to register any significant advance, given China’s conciliatory diplomacy. While the second meeting of the Quad’s mid-level officials took place in Singapore earlier in June, it did not produce an agreed document. Nor was there any indication of elevation of the Quad dialogue to the ministerial level. More notably, India declined to accept Australia as a partner in the Malabar naval exercises that remained restricted to the Navies of the U.S., Japan and India. This was a clear nod to Beijing’s concerns. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the Quad process is likely to continue.
Fourth, intra-Korean issues and changing U.S.-North Korea ties hogged media headlines in the first half of 2018. The Singapore agreement between Trump and Kim Jong-un was widely seen as a first, positive step to defreeze the 70-year-old problem, but experts agreed that the sequencing of denuclearisation and removal of sanctions on North Korea may take a long time – if at all it materialises. Meanwhile, the other powers – China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – were angling to safeguard their own interests in the new situation where the White House had set up a direct hotline to Chairman Kim in Pyongyang.
Fifth, no progress was reported on the region’s top hotspot – the South China Sea. Discussions over negotiating the proposed Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN are proceeding at snail’s pace. China continues to move ahead with the militarisation of the South China Sea, violating its own assurances to the U.S. Under President Trump, seven Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) were arranged in the year from May 2017 to May 2018. The U.S. argued that the placement of weapons such as surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, jammers and bomber aircraft were linked directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion. “In short,” observed U.S. Admiral Philips S. Davidson, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”
At a time when the region is in visible flux, Prime Minister Modi presented a holistic vision at the Shangri-La dialogue. This is India’s Plan A, with a stress on “a free, open, inclusive region which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity”. At its centre is South East Asia and India’s support for the centrality of ASEAN as well as belief in “a common rules-based order for the region”. This approach also encompasses the need for unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes, a level-playing field for all, and mutually beneficial connectivity based on “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability”.
Unexceptionable as a normative framework, this exposition nevertheless raised the question: what is India’s Plan B if the region remains clouded by great power rivalries? In a complex game of chess that the Asian geopolitics has become today, no nation is expected to reveal its hand fully. New Delhi is, therefore, entitled to keep its options open. Through astute policy moves in the recent months, it has introduced greater resilience and balance in its relations with key players – China, Russia and Japan. The forthcoming, first-ever 2+2 dialogue at the ministerial level with the U.S. – which has just been postponed – may provide further clues about the likely directions of the U.S.-India relationship.
In its Asia Power Index 2018, the Lowy Institute has aptly portrayed the U.S. and China as ‘Super powers’, Japan and India as ‘Major powers’ and 13 other nations as ‘Middle powers’. The political dynamics in the region will largely be moulded by the changing equations among the Big Four – the U.S., China, Japan and India — as also by a few other nations, such as Russia, Indonesia and South Korea. Clearly, the region will remain in flux for quite some time to come.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He is a former ambassador to Myanmar and a regular commentator on East Asian affairs.
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 ‘U.S. Pacific Command Warns PRC Now Controls South China Sea’, Japan Forward, 4 May 2018, <https://japan-forward.com/u-s-pacific-command-warns-prc-now-controls-south-china-sea/>