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Sorting out strategic confusion in the Indo-Pacific

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Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of a Bushmaster military vehicle at Camp Narashino, Japan, 18 January 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

In Brief

The Indo-Pacific idea appears to be on a roll. On his Asian trip last year, US President Donald Trump called for a new Indo-Pacific security strategy of strengthening partnerships (among the democracies) in the region.


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The Abe administration then hastily unveiled its own more fuzzy version of what economic and political bounty this conception of interests might visit on Japan and like-minded regional partners. A quadrilateral officials’-level meeting between Australia, India, Japan and the United States around the East Asia Summit meeting gave the idea a nudge, but the past two weeks have seen it ramp up to another level.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) corroboree in New Delhi last week gave an open platform to Washington’s hardening maritime security conception of the Indo-Pacific idea. That should be a wake-up call to conduct a more hard-headed assessment of this drift in strategic thinking across Asia and the Pacific. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s musings in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about a softer, less articulated version of the Indo-Pacific idea also invite scrutiny of what it is that America’s top alliance partners think they are getting into and how the Indo-Pacific idea squares in its various guises with regional realities.

That is not yet clear.

The Australian Foreign Policy White Paper adopted the Indo-Pacific idea but neither tested nor defined it except through a footnote definition as a geographic area that touches every continent bar Europe. We know that it is a maritime security construct that has been part of military dialogue for some time. That is one element in responding to the complex problems we now all face — but only one. It is an element that vastly underestimates the complex economic and political interdependence with mainland Asia that faces Mr Trump in Washington, Mr Xi in Beijing and everybody else in the region.

The element that goes beyond what is already embedded in Asia Pacific security cooperation among the United States, Australia and Japan is India. Yet despite India’s Quad enthusiasts, New Delhi remains cautious about a quadrilateral framework. For one thing, it doesn’t want to complicate bilateral relations with China any further. For another, it has no desire to court entanglement in the China–US rivalry. Despite India’s elevated concern about China’s growing influence and Modi’s more active internationalist stance, the psychology of India’s foreign and security policy is deeply rooted in a tradition of neutrality and non-alignment, and it is unlikely to pivot in another direction any time soon. This is in India’s international political DNA: it is the equivalent of the national psychology of Japan’s Article 9 peace clause.

India has its own domestic issues including an ineffective bureaucracy, corruption and a national development priority. There is nothing in present circumstances that could easily persuade India to swallow the idea of becoming America’s pawn in power games with China, especially since those games would impose huge and uncertain burdens and constraints on its strategic behaviour regionally and globally.

Another weakness is the India–Australia relationship: the two countries lack deep understanding and rapport. In Japan, India–Australia ties are seen as the weakest link in the Quad idea. There is nothing of the mutual understanding and confidence building between them that Australia enjoys with Japan and the United States. Bilateral military exercises are a very recent development and the history of practical cooperation between the Australian Defence Force and the Indian Armed Forces is quite limited (except for experience in responding to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami). Ministerial-level interaction is a future agenda for the Quad rather than a present prospect. To get there will take some years, not months.

Japan’s diplomatic speak embraces an Indo-Pacific zone of peace and prosperity but avoids the Quad.

As James Curran argues in this week’s lead essay, ‘Abe was emphatic that the Quad “does not mean necessarily engaging in any military activities”. He stated that it had to do with “raising our voice” about the importance of cooperation, especially where that cooperation concerns freedom of navigation, maritime enforcement capabilities and the promotion of international standards in infrastructure and ports. Joint military exercises are one thing, but Tokyo and Canberra remain unwilling to follow the United States into the contested 12 nautical mile zone around contested territories in the South China Sea’.

The diplomatic terrain here is extremely tricky. It’s not just a question of boxing China in with containment thinking.

How does Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbour and democratic partner in the region, fit into quadrilateral thinking? How does South Korea? Will the promotion of these ‘strategic interests’ widen the distance between Australia, Japan, the United States and other regional players including ASEAN, which seeks to maintain a delicate balance between the United States and China? Most ASEAN states are deeply cautious about joining any minilateral groupings and purposefully seek to enhance cooperation with external powers through multilateral and bilateral frameworks. In this context, Japan has gradually increased regional defence engagement with ASEAN countries on the basis of bilateral and multilateral arrangements, rather than by proposing unrealistic ‘coalition’ frameworks. It has also chosen a more flexible and issues-based approach than has any fixed grouping like the Quad. Stumbling towards the Quad could fundamentally unsettle a delicate regional strategy that ameliorates great power rivalry. Instead, a regional order under the Quad could serve to aggravate it.

‘It is easy to flick the switch to hyperbole at the sound of military top brass talking tough’, as Curran says. ‘Beyond the importance of the declaratory statements, the real strategic ballast in the Quad is hard to discern’.

The confusion over thinking through the Indo-Pacific and the Quad is pretty plain for all to see, including for foreign and security policy analysts in Beijing — but that also puts the ball in China’s court. China has every incentive to reassure the region of its multilateralist intentions and to work together with its neighbours on the practical configuration of the shared international community to which it aspires. Japan and Australia should be open to engagement with China in the region as Mr Abe promises.

A self-restrained, fair and disciplined posture from China at this time would certainly promise a better outcome for great-power relations in the region than most who back the Quad are prepared to contemplate, if it does not outright win the day.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

One response to “Sorting out strategic confusion in the Indo-Pacific”

  1. It always takes two to tango…

    While it would be nice for China to initiate it, others can certainly help start the positive reciprical stand down process – and its hard for me to imagine India US or Japan to do it due to they are all too entangled personally in one way or another…

    I would Imagine Singapore, South Korea, a more neutral Australia , Indonesia, and maybe even Vietnam can be a mini mid-power bulkward to keep the diagolue and engagements on a more neutral platform. They have the most at stake should great power compeitition heats up, and they all are much less personally involved in the disputes and compeititons, and they also have power base to remain not overly attached (cough australia) to any side, such that they can play an honest broker role..if they can get their acts together.

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