Even without the leaders of the Quad nations meeting virtually on March 12, the Asia Pacific, or more recently being referred to as the Indo-Pacific, has its share of problems.
Home to about 30 nations cutting across cultures and civilizations, the region is central not just to trade and commerce but also the emerging strategic tensions that is worrisome of erupting into a full scale war that seemingly cannot be contained to any one or small theatre or for that matter guaranteed to be limited to only conventional weapons. In the midst of all these concerns many are simply worried about the ascending role of China increasingly aggressive in flexing its muscles and in a well founded perception that a country like Japan is punching well below its weight.
The problem for the government in Tokyo is not just internal opposition to abandoning the Peace Constitution, but also of neighbouring countries in East and South East Asia, including China, who remain wary of Japan given what transpired in the Second World War.
Indo Pacific is a huge economic and commercial powerhouse housing some of the world’s largest and powerful economies like that of the United States, Japan, Russia, India, China. The region has some of the most powerful economic and political groupings like the G-7,G-8, G-20, APEC and ASEAN together with their associate partners.
The region has vital strategic waterways through which commerce, notably oil flows. Any insistence of a country to claim exclusivity to a zone is bound to be troublesome. The seas around the Spratlys, Hormuz, Malacca and Andamans is just a case in point. The potential of a flashpoint is always there.
Indo Pacific is host to big time allies and even bigger adversaries: the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, Australia, North Korea and South Korea, for example, are allies of some and adversaries of others.
A country like the United States is perhaps the only country that can flex its military might in different theatres and at the same time. Russia is a European as well as an Asian power, a fact that many seem to forget.
The challenge of a Biden administration is in giving coherence to the directions of American foreign policy—a US$ 25 Trillion economic power neither has the luxury of incoherence in foreign policy issues nor that of unilateralism in economic and trade matters as has been the case over the last four years.
“The Quad is very central to the United States and our thinking about the region, and looking at the Indo Pacific also through the prism of our ASEAN partners and their vision of the Indo Pacific. So, yes, the Quad is very central, I think, to our ongoing arrangements” said the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison.
But apart from outward expression of positiveness and in carefully measured words of not wanting to give the impression of four nations “ganging up” to contain China, the misgivings are simply for all to see. In a conversation with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, flagged China expressing concerns the Communist Giant is attempting to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.
Japan has been watching with a lot of unease China flexing its military muscle in the dispute South Chian Seas—or the Spratlys—where some six nations have laid competing claims including Taiwan. The area comprising small islands, islets and coral reefs where many of them get submerged by rising tides, is said to be rich in oil and mineral deposits prompting some to start exploration activities.
Tokyo is also concerned about a recent Coast Guard Law of China that gives this wing of its armed forces the authority to use force and hence target Japanese vessels in the East China Sea. Beijing maintains that its law does not target any specific country but not many in Japan are willing to take this at face value.
The fact that China is blatantly ignoring established maritime rules and provisions of the Law of the Sea and exclusively claiming one thousand kilometers or more off its southern coast is particularly disturbing to many. There is one view that sea based tensions are bound to increase in the years to come as nations start competing for scarce resources in the Blue Waters. It is just not what lies under the oceans of the Spratlys but the race for developmental space in the Oceans leading to deep sea mining and the hunt for marine products could bring nations in direct conflict. Add to this, the fact that countries like India and Japan are heavily dependant on imported oil and policing established international waterways is going to be yet another problem.
Undoubtedly the “four hundred pound gorilla” sitting at the Indo Pacific table is China whether some in South, South East, East or West Asia would want to admit it openly, and for obvious reasons. But the biggest problem is few in the region or within the Quad have any definite clue as to how to go about dealing with Beijing without giving the impression that the containment game has begun all over again.
In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the containment of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the heydays of the Cold War should not have gone about the military route—rather the exercise should have been to bind Moscow into a web of arrangements making it very difficult for the Soviets to break out of. The military containment of the Soviet Union leading to an arms race that included the Star Wars project was in many ways debilitating.
The question is if the administration of Joseph Biden is prepared to go down the beaten track of military containment of Beijing or has another grand strategy of coming to terms with the East Asian giant.
Washington will have to bear in mind that a country like India will be quite apprehensive of any formal military alliance to confront or contain China and for good reasons. As it is China’s “String of Pearls” strategy against India is making many nations apprehensive given the kind of inroads Beijing has made in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other smaller states in the area. And Pakistan is a different cup of tea altogether. Add to this the fact that China is making fresh initiatives in the Gulf of Thailand that will give it some outlet to the Indian Ocean.
Much attention from now on will be on how the Biden administration firms up its strategy vis-à-vis Beijing. The elements of this policy have slowly started falling in place with Washington making it known that in its China plate there are also issues of human rights, Uighurs, Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
The America First policy of the Trump administration brought to the fore trade issues and unilateral imposition of tariffs as a way of cutting down trade deficits without actually addressing the structural issues involved in two way trade.
Talking tough with China does not mean sending warships to the South China Seas to challenge Beijing claims, rather it is in convincing the leadership in China that there are economic and political costs of not playing by established international laws and rules.
(Formerly a senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations, the author is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.)