With China or without?
This article is more than 6 years old

With China or without?

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review

When Southeast Asian leaders gathered for a recent summit with Australia in Sydney, many of their diplomats had a question for their hosts in private. What, precisely, is the meaning of the concept of the Indo-Pacific?

The very fact that leading proponents of this newish term need to explain it shows that its meaning is not immediately obvious. The slight edge in the questions from the diplomats attending the first-ever meeting of Australia and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in March also signifies something else -- that Southeast Asians remain deeply wary of the concept.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toyed with the concept in his first term in 2006 and 2007, speaking of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. But the phrase "the Indo-Pacific" as a diplomatic term only really gained broader adherence at the start of this decade. Hilary Clinton, as U.S. secretary of state, used it in 2011; Australia adopted the term in its Defence White Paper in 2013; and in Indonesia, prominent leaders have talked about their archipelagic nation as the maritime nexus between the two oceans. Most recently, U.S. President Donald Trump has adopted Abe's formulation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific in speaking of American policy in the region.

At the most straightforward level, the term makes sense. India is a rising power more entwined economically than ever before with the Asian countries further east, including those on the Pacific. Increasingly, New Delhi is also tied in different ways into East Asia's talk shops and summit meetings.

But behind this simple geographical nomenclature lies a bigger political question -- to what extent is the definition mostly a device for Japan, the U.S., Australia and their allies to elevate New Delhi's importance at the expense of Beijing? In other words, is it really just a way to constrain a rising China in the region?

Certainly, for the growing band of politicians and officials in Washington who have been hunting for ways to push back against Beijing, the concept has become a useful rallying point for the U.S. and its allies.

It hardly needs emphasizing the adoption of a new term as an organizing principle for governments can have a substantial impact on foreign policy, setting priorities in everything from regional diplomacy to military spending.

One of the term's most persuasive proselytisers, Rory Metcalf, of the Australian National University, argues that the Indo-Pacific is not about containment. Rather, it is a strategically coherent idea whose time has come, not just for the U.S. and its allies, but most importantly, for China itself, if it were willing to buy into the concept.

With ASEAN, though, the term Indo-Pacific has an immediate branding problem, symbolized by the absence of the word "Asia."

ASEAN has arguably not been an effective regional instrument on a number of fronts, notably failing to use its collective strength in negotiating with Beijing over maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where China has been extending its influence.

But ASEAN has been successful in one respect, in placing itself at the center of the region's diplomatic architecture. The ASEAN annual meeting forms the core of the region's premier forum -- the East Asia Summit. Any attempt to wrest that position away, from ASEAN, even rhetorically, would be bound to meet resistance.

Many ASEAN leaders wonder what their countries would get out of a regional re-branding, beyond losing their place at the table, or being relegated to a lesser seat. Most important of all, they worry that the Indo-Pacific is only going to heighten tension between the U.S. and China -- precisely what they are trying to avoid.

The ASEAN dilemma is encapsulated in the controversial love child of the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, a defence dialogue made up of Japan, the U.S., India and Australia. First proposed by Abe in 2006-2007 the Quad fell apart, largely because Australia under then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided he wanted no part of it.

Abe today is a wholly different creature on the world stage, a leader who has won respect for his regional diplomacy and his transformation of national security policy at home. He has also found common cause with the U.S., India and Australia in searching for ways to balance a more assertive China.

The Quad still has no regular schedule of meetings, let alone a firm agenda. As it was in its first incarnation, the Quad encapsulates a loose commitment amongst its members to cooperate, but, so far, little more. But starting slowly may be the right approach, allowing Quad members to dial or dial down their interactions, depending on what China is itself doing.

At the moment, only two other countries are mentioned as possible Quad members, Singapore ("Squad") and New Zealand ("Quadz"). Neither has seemed to be in a hurry to decide.

China's scorn for the Quad is instructive. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March that the Quad would "dissipate" like sea foam, a statement that indicates Beijing fears exactly the opposite, that it might firm into something solid.

But China struggles to attack the concept of the Indo-Pacific head on, because, as Metcalf points out, China is the "quintessential" Indo-Pacific power. The Chinese military and state either have, or will soon have, ports in Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Myanmar. Its navy's first genuine blue-water expedition was in the Indian Ocean just over a decade ago.

Elements of China's signature geopolitical policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, run through the Indian Ocean, en route to Europe. In short, no other country straddles the Indo-Pacific like China.

But for China to highlight this politically might give oxygen to the Quad. In Beijing's worst nightmare, the Quad could be the genesis of an Asian NATO, a military pact against China.

Beijing's hostility today makes both the Indo-Pacific and the Quad a hard sell for the moment with ASEAN. But Beijing's hostility will also make it an easier sell over time, providing none of the four countries lose their nerve again.

Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.