The Indo-Pacific narrative, US insularity, and China’s increasing influence

Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump, during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific’). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State Richard Tillerson, while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC), explicitly mentioned a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India, and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, an official statement from the US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier, too, the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. This was discussed during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018, and between representatives of Japan, the US, and India in April 2018 when the three sides met in New Delhi, committing themselves to furthering connectivity between the countries.

China Factor

While members of the Quad have continuously denied that the Indo-Pacific concept is specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India, Australia, and France to work together in order to ensure a rules-based order. Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President stated:

What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony.

Evolving relationship between China-India and China-Japan

While it is good to talk about a rules-based order, and a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant, especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second, the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of the Malabar exercises last June (Japan, US, and India participated). Australia is a member of the Quad alliance and has been one of the vocal protagonists of the Free and Fair Indo-Pacific narrative. Canberra has also expressed vocally the need for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has on more than one occasion expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations, though India has been dismissive of this argument.

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers in April 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said such a possibility was discussed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to improve ties with China, recently reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly, the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) projected to be components of the Indo-Pacific strategy, has even gone to the extent of stating that it does not perceive the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, the President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao, stated that “AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does the Indo-Pacific move from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not an unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, China’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang, had stated that there was “no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

Similarly, in terms of promoting democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, especially in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important for the Indo-Pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders.

The Asian Age

I love Asia. Ever since my student days I have had a keen interest in South East Asia and China, with my course on the Politics of the Asia Pacific at the London School of Economics in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong as a high point. This was followed almost a decade later with four years of living in Manila, with time spend as a freelance journalist covering Philippine politics and society, as well as teaching for three years at the European Studies Program at the elitist Ateneo de Manila University. I also had the opportunity to travel to almost all countries in the region (with the notable exceptions of Laos, Taiwan and the Koreas, but one should keep something to be desired). I admire the resilience of the Asians, their humour, great work ethics, the beauty of their countries, and of course their sumptuous food.

As a classical liberal I always have a keen interest in the economic developments of the region, which to me serve as the prime evidence for the great and positive impacts freeing up economies have. The rise of Asia in essence is the empirical proof that classical liberal ideas work, that capitalism has the capacity to improve the life of millions of people, in a very short term. This despite the imperfect implementation of capitalism throughout the region, so there is much room for further improvement. In this light it is also interesting to see how long economic freedom and political lack of freedom can co-exist. Classical liberal ideas predict, most clearly expressed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, that one follows the other. Economic and political freedom cannot be separated forever (nor forever suppressed together, as the experiences in the former Soviet bloc continue to make clear, even despite Putin’s increasing autocratic rule).

For an international relations observer from Europe, the developments in the Asia Pacific are of particular interest, because the rise of Asia seems to go together with the fall of Europe as a geopolitical player. Or more precisely: the fall of the middle rank European powers, as the European Union itself is a significant player in trade politics only, the only field where it represents all member states and policy is determined at the European level, with a leading role for the European Commission.

The recent book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, deals precisely with this issue.

blog-easternisation

It is a great book, bringing together Rachman’s extensive experience in the US, Asia, and Brussels. Often, books written by journalists lack sound analysis for the mid to long term, and historical perspective. While Easternisation is not an academic tome either, it does provide sufficient deep analysis, especially by tackling developments in all important countries which play a role in the process. It is not just another volume of simply USA or EU bashing, as we have seen before with the huge literature on the alleged Japanese take-over of the US economy.

Rachman’s main argument is that the influence of the West, Europe in particular, has crumbled. This may lead to a major conflict in the Asia Pacific, most notably between China and the US, which also endangers the global economic order. Yet many other conflicts are also building up, in a region which heavily invests in armaments. In short, in the 21st century, ‘rivalries between the nations in the Asia Pacific will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over 500 years from 1500 onwards’. I think this is an important message, which should be taken seriously by everybody. Certainly by the Europeans, who are in danger of just inhabiting the world’s largest open air museum within a few decades.  One thing is certain: the Asians will not wait for them to come to terms with the current shift of power.

A View from Inside China

Below is what I think is an interesting document. It’s an email from a former MBA student. He is a Singapore Chinese who spends a lot of time doing business inside China, in Mandarin. He is an intelligent and well-educated man. I know him to have a conservative temperament overall but he is also a keen observer and an independent thinker. Some of his statements are disturbing to me. I post this document on my blog for its intrinsic interest, not as an endorsement. I note with interest that he has not asked me to delete his name in spite of his denunciations of Singapore’s treatment of its dissidents. I withhold it nevertheless. He can add it subsequently if he wishes.

I have been hearing lots about evil China and their evil products (mostly from Taiwan opposition party folks, Chen Sui Bian and his gang).

There have been lots of negative press about manufacturers in China and how bad they are. Thing is the blame needs to be shared. I sourced in China as well and I what I have seen appalled me. Not that the manufacturers are out to get the buyers, but more so, the buyers are working so hard to get the manufacturers. The incident about Mattel, for example, I feel it was an error on Mattel’s part not to confirm that lead-free paint was going to be used. They probably assumed it.

And they probably pushed the price down so hard that the manufacturers had to cut corners to make any sort of financial sense. And when excrement hits the fan, they sad the manufacturers were to blame. And what about Walmart? Most manufacturers I know, many of whom are my friends, are refusing to sell to Walmart. Walmart are so harsh on pricing that they would specifically ask for the lower (if not lowest) quality goods. They would put such a large order, so huge that they would take over the entire manufacturing capability of a factory. If the factory is dumb enough to let them be the biggest and majority customer, they will be in for a fix. Walmart to hit prices down low and threaten to move elsewhere. The factory would have no choice but to budge because, if Walmart left, they would go out of business. So corners are cut, and Walmart knows about these cuts. All they care about is price and in the end, the customer suffers. It is not just the savings are “rolling back” to the customers, but the poor quality of the products are going back to the customer as well. By the way, Walmart usually price their goods anywhere from five to twenty times that of the cost they procured it at.

My view on communism is very different from the average person in the “free world”. This is the “new” communism in China. My opinion is that things actually get done here and quick too. In the time that Oakland took to rebuild the Cypress Highway that connects 880 to the Bay Bridge after the earthquake, Shanghai has constructed more than 10 times of that distance in highways, most of them elevated, a complete subway system, 3 large bridges and 3 underwater tunnels, a full industrial park (cao he jing) a full financial center in Pudong, A new airport, and a new half of the city in Pudong literally done up. This is just within the limits of Shanghai city, excluding all the work done for the interstates. What can I say?

Comparing it to Singapore with a “democratically” elected government, China enjoys more freedom. Now, I say this as a person living in China, not as a politician. I see demonstrations from time to time in Shanghai and recently, the Shanghai government has been listening.

Talks happen, and situations get changed. It is true that China has seen more restricted times in the past but Hu and his current government is set to change that. The situation in Singapore is much more different where the law is often used to suppress opposition and dissidents.

See http://singaporedissident.blogspot.com/.

People in Singapore mostly just take it in and forget about it, choosing to think about car payments, house payments and if their favorite British soccer team is going to win.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts. Of course, there are things that gets to me in China and Singapore as well, and also many things I like about the USA. These are some ramblings I have. Feel free to put them on your blog if you want to. I really miss talks with you outside Kenna Hall while you are bumming cigarettes off me. ;)

P.S. I haven’t seen the Palin article on your blog. I will look it up. Every time I see her picture or video anywhere, I always get the impression of a deer in the headlights.

P.S.S. I have been out of touch with a lot of things. I really disapprove of Obama in 1) his work on 90% tax on the AIG bonuses (which I think is stupid and unconstitutional) and 2) him sending more troops into middle east.

A. L.