- The Indo-Pacific region connects large swathes of the globe and has become a major geopolitical theatre.
- The consequences of China’s decision to “stand up” are being felt globally, with the Indo-Pacific being the most affected region.
- Beijing must understand, however, that the Indo-Pacific is a multipolar region and is too large and complex to be dominated by any one power.
- A plausible future for the region is one in which the strategic dynamic becomes predicated on pushback against China, leading to instability over an extended period of time.
The Indo-Pacific has become a locus of twenty-first century attention. It connects large swathes of the globe, which has made it a major geopolitical factor. The almost concurrent rise of China and India and the rapidly changing dynamics of the region now make this construct even more important. China’s escalated military presence and its aggressive policies, and the push-back by the United States, Australia, India and Japan add to that salience. The term “Indo-Pacific” denotes India’s significance in the region, since it marks its western boundary and recognises India as one of the key players in the twenty-first century. Any issues and events could, consequently, have an impact on India’s strategic and economic interests.
The major players in the region recognise India’s role in maintaining a balance in the Indo-Pacific against China’s aggressive foreign policy. That role was recognised, apart from the US, by Germany, the current EU president and Europe’s biggest economy. Also like the US, Germany, in its newly launched Indo-Pacific strategy, believes India will play a key role in its outreach in the region. In 2019, France renamed its Asia-Pacific security policy “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific”. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad”, which is a loose association (for now, at least) of four countries – the United States, India, Japan and Australia – has stepped up its interactions in various combinations in light of growing Chinese aggression and belligerence. India is engaged in a border standoff against China in the Ladakh region, the Australian Government has bristled against the economic hindrances placed on its exports to China, Chinese intrusions into the waters off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have riled Japan and the US has been engaged in a trade war, accompanied by frequent naval operations in the South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety.
It is timely, therefore, to unpack the volatile dynamics of this region that, as a mental construct, pertains to state-on-state confrontation and geostrategic manoeuvring, to help us understand the larger implications of China’s rise and the ongoing contest for power, both of which could mark how the geopolitics in the region may unravel in the future.
The Great Game
The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to have said, ‘Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.’ The consequences of China’s awakening are being felt around the world and the region most affected by that awakening is the Indo-Pacific.
An expansionist China is already claiming maritime territory in the South and East China Seas. The United States-Taiwan alliance has angered China and there have been reports claiming a sharp rise in incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. Taiwan demanded that China “back off” after a Beijing official rejected the existence of the median line between the two countries in the Taiwan Strait. Australia-China relations have also been resting on a knife-edge, leading the Australian Prime Minister to call for a stronger Indo-Pacific alliance as a “critical priority”. The current US-China hostility has been fully analysed in recent times.
In the Himalayan Region, China has been in a stand-off with India since May, which is far from de-escalating, and now protests have erupted in Nepal over China’s perceived land grabs by building structures in the Humla district. In another instance, China’s remarkable claim to Vladivostok (where India has significant investments) this year, has reinforced Russia’s military presence in the Far East.
Political realists generally believe that the Thucydides Trap – the idea that an emerging power will inevitably challenge the existing hegemon and the latter will inevitably respond to the challenge, making war inevitable – cannot be avoided. Although China has tried to convince the world that it is pursuing a peaceful rise, (addressing the seventy-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly, General Secretary Xi stated, ‘[W]e will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country’), the war seems already to have begun. The above only gives a glimpse of the dangerous game China has been playing, especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. China’s actions are only proving detrimental to its own interests, however, as the world unites to fight it as a common aggressor. The encirclement of China has begun and now the task at hand is to stop China from writing the rules that bind the international system.
Decoding the QUAD: Meeting in Tokyo
Despite earlier attempts by the United States, Japan, Australia and India, the Quad remained a non-starter. While India did not want to antagonise China by joining any alliance that could be seen as an attempt to contain China’s growth, Japan and Australia were riding the China boom to prosperity. The US itself did not want to antagonise China and so sought instead to bring Beijing on board to cater to American priorities.
The second Quad Ministerial meeting took place on 6 October in Tokyo. The reason for reviving the Quad now is entirely related to the current geopolitical situations in the Indo-Pacific. It comes at a time when the Trump Administration has made a U-turn on US policy towards China, which was first crafted by the rapprochement policy that Henry Kissinger tailored fifty years ago under the Republican administration of Richard Nixon. The armies of both India and China have been locked in a standoff along their mutual border since May due to Chinese claims to territory in the Ladakh region and the subsequent flare-ups between their troops.
For Australia, the relationship with China nosedived after Beijing imposed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley, launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine, blocked Australian beef imports, arrested an Australian journalist and banned two academics from visiting China. China has upset Japan too, with its claims to the Senkaku Islands. Japan has also grown wary about China’s authoritarian new security laws in Hong Kong, and its growing confrontations with Taiwan.
China’s overweening strategic actions in the Indo-Pacific under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic are further driving the consolidation of the Quad.
What the Indo-Pacific Future May Hold
A plausible future for the region could be increased coercion and instability for an extended period of time. ‘The future of the Indo-Pacific lies in a complex range of forces interacting on a continuous basis. As with so many other facets of international relations today, this too has many open questions’.
While China may think of its position in the Indo-Pacific as strong, it appears to be trapped in its own game: ‘Its hasty regional expansion in the Indo-Pacific is unsustainable over time. There is a great risk of overstretch as China must cope with domestic challenges such as debt, ageing population, environmental problems, and the coronavirus, as well as pushback from other countries.’
Even if China has ambitions to control the Indo-Pacific, it has to understand that the Indo-Pacific region is a multipolar region and too large to be completely dominated by any one country. As Rory Medcalf suggests in his book, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future, ‘If co-operation with China is unrealistic, we need to move towards “competitive coexistence”.’ He further writes that the tools for constructing an Indo-Pacific to balance China will be development, deterrence and diplomacy. The qualities underpinning those instruments will be solidarity and resilience. A US role in the region is vital; Medcalf prescribes a greater role for Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia.
The dynamics in the Indo-Pacific will now probably be predicated on pushback against China, which we are already witnessing with the realignment of alliances, the rise of regional powers and American endurance. The simultaneous staring at each other will continue.
 Jaishankar, S., The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2020.