The Sino-US relationship is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and thereby shaping world politics by forcing other countries to choose between siding with one or the other. With COVID-19 distracting the international community as it wreaks economic and social havoc, China has begun to pursue its interests in its “near abroad” more aggressively. Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “hide and bide” is a distant memory in Chinese policy circles, as China views itself as a rising naval power and an established continental power. With an election looming, the Trump Administration has made a “tough on China” stance a major pillar of its policy agenda and shows no signs of conceding economically, politically, militarily or financially to Beijing. US-China relations are now at an all-time low and riddled with suspicion and belligerence.
Middle powers such as Australia, Japan and India do not want the Indo-Pacific region to be defined by the US-China rivalry. Their interests lie in ensuring that regional Sea Lines of Communication remain free and open and that their vital trade partnerships remain viable and safe. Smaller Southeast Asian nations live in the shadow of the Sino-US competition and do not want to make invidious decisions or overtly pick a side.
Middle powers can thus play a proactive role in shaping a rules-based order in the region and providing alternatives to “team China” or “team USA”, and some achievements have already been made. The Trans-Pacific partnership, which would have acted as a critical lever of power in co-ordinating efforts between the US and Asian countries in pushing back at China, was a lost opportunity as the US withdrew soon after Trump’s election. In the wake of the US withdrawal, however, Japan stepped up and rallied the remaining states to form the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership without US help.
Japan’s foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, began a tour of five South-East Asian countries and Papua New Guinea in August, largely to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and the resumption of trade and travel. It has been reported that he will also discuss the issues in Hong Kong and the South China Sea (SCS) and promoting Tokyo’s desire for an open and rules-based Indo-Pacific. The visits bode well for security in the region, as they underpin Japan’s commitment to, and friendly relations with, many ASEAN member countries.
India, Japan and Australia have also embarked on discussions to commence a trilateral Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in an endeavour to reduce their economic dependence on China. With tensions between India and China rising, New Delhi has become more inclined to enter into agreements that could be perceived as being anti-China. The SCRI will see India emerge as an alternative supply source for the globe and, more importantly, the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN nations are predicted to be encouraged to join the initiative once it has been fleshed out, which could buttress the resilience of supply chains across the Indo-Pacific and thus act as a bulwark against potential malign Chinese actions.
These tools of soft power that are orchestrated by middle powers in the region could become key factors in countering aggressive Chinese policies and expansion. If they do, they could complement the actions of the US in the region. In the SCS, the US has openly sided with ASEAN claimant states as US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declared China’s territorial claims ‘completely unlawful’ and affirmed the US commitment to upholding international laws and norms in those waters. Although potentially emboldening ASEAN members to uphold the tenets of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in attempting to resolve the dispute multilaterally within the organisation, such claims, due to the toxic and increasingly competitive US-China relationship, could cause China to double-down on its SCS efforts and further threaten the territorial claims of the smaller claimant states. That is where the effects of the soft power initiatives bear fruit as, on top of the US efforts, the smaller countries will be able to look to Australia, India and Japan for economic co-operation if China punishes them for sticking to international norms.
Middle powers can also help each other, without US aid, to counter illegal Chinese expansion. China is conducting lawfare in the East China Sea as it collects data and repeatedly enters the waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese) Islands. China is doing that to demonstrate Japan’s lack of control over the islands and, in turn, its own. Middle powers, such as Australia, can enter those waters with Japanese authorisation to create a counter-case against Chinese claims, and ultimately demonstrate that Japan does control the archipelago, which – aside from US administration between 1945 and 1972 – it has done since 1895.
This is not to say that US support is not wanted, or ineffective, in countering illegal Chinese claims and belligerence. It is timely, rather, for middle powers to shoulder some of the burden and have agency in the process of shaping a rules-based order. As the US-China relationship continues to be marred by diplomatic spats, dysfunction and competition, US efforts to counter China will only be met by retaliatory measures from Beijing. Middle powers can thus play a crucial role in the region in buttressing a rules-based order, without further exacerbating the US-China rivalry.