China and the liberal vision of the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pompeo’s recent speech (titled ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision’) at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of $113 million in areas like infrastructure, energy, and digital economy). The US Secretary of State, while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).

The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.

A response article in the Global Times is significant here. Titled ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geopolitical military alliance’ and published in the communist state’s premier English-language mouthpiece, what emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, though, in expressing its skepticism with regard to the geopolitical aspect of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:

[…] the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert.

The piece is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that American investment would be beneficial and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that while the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of cooperation between the Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and US governments, rather than just private companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as “the foam on the sea […] that gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

While there is absolutely no doubt that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision and BRI, especially in the economic sphere, China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision needs to be viewed in the following context.

First, the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping $13 billion). Even in the ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects. Malaysia, which shares close economic ties with Beijing, is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).

Secondly, the Indo-Pacific vision has long been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ that lacks gravitas in the economic context (and even now $113 million is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech by Pompeo, indicate that the American Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The US needs to walk the course and, apart from investing, it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.

The Indo-Pacific also speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but countries are becoming more inward-looking, and their stands on democracy and human rights are more ambiguous than in the past. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither the US, nor India, Japan, or Australia have criticized China for its human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Here it would also be important to state that there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.

In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it cannot expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important for countries like the United States and India to speak up more forcefully on key issues pertaining to freedom of speech and diversity (and ensure that these remain robust in their own respective countries), given that one of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific vision is a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Finally, the US is getting serious about the Indo-Pacific

China has not been particularly comfortable with the Trump Administration’s repeated use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (of late, it has been quite scathing in it’s criticism). The term ‘Indo-Pacific’, which has been used for a few years, has now gained more attention after a few developments:

First, during Trump’s Asia visit in 2017, in which he visited Japan, Vietnam, and attended the ASEAN Summit, he used this term on more than one occasion.

Before his India visit in October 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated a vision for a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. Tillerson, while pitching for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific, also highlighted the need for preventing illiberal multilateralism. Said the former US Secretary of State:

We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity — so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.

The use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was followed by the revival of the Quad Grouping (India, Australia, US, Japan). Senior officials of these four countries met on the eve of the East Asia Summit, held in Manila, and discussed ways to strengthen cooperation for promotion of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’.

There have been a number of meetings between representatives of Japan, the US, and India to discuss a wide range of issues such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, and strengthening collaboration between these countries

China’s criticism of Indo-Pacific and Quad

China dismissed the Indo-Pacific as an ‘attention grabbing idea’, while the Quad too has been criticized by Beijing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while commenting on the Quad, likened the Quad to ‘foam on the sea’ that ‘will soon dissipate’ once the attention due to headlines turns elsewhere.

The Indo-Pacific narrative did lack a vision

One issue on which it is hard to disagree with Beijing, and those skeptical about the ‘Indo-Pacific’, is the fact that countries who have joined hands for promoting a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific (as a sort of counter narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative), did not have clarity in terms of enhancing connectivity and economic linkages. They have met on a number of occasions to discuss connectivity projects and a myriad of other issues but nothing substantial has emerged so far. This lack of effort, according to many, has been one of the main reasons for the Indo-Pacific narrative not being taken seriously (even by US allies). The other problem, of course, has been the Trump administration’s differences with allies like Japan and South Korea on economic and geopolitical issues.

US rolls out an economic vision for the Indo-Pacific

At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated a broader economic vision for the Indo-Pacific, while also speaking about the likely role of the US in promoting cooperation.

First, Pompeo yet again reiterated the US desire for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, and how the US was fervently opposed to the hegemonic tendencies of certain countries (in a clear reference to China).

Second, at a time when a number of countries, such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, are beginning to question the financial feasibility of China’s Belt and Road Initiative-related projects, Pompeo’s words are significant. It may also be pointed out that his address at the US Chamber of Commerce was made days before he began his Asia trip (which included visits to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore).

Third, Pompeo spoke about the $113 million investment in areas such as digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this investment as a ‘…down payment on a new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’.

Fourth, the US Secretary of State also spoke about the potential role of the US private sector in promoting economic growth, prosperity, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. In an interview with CNBC, Pompeo stated:

We want private industry with the assistance of the United States government, understanding that we’re going to support this effort, we’re going to have private industry go in and develop relationships. When American businesses come to these countries, they’ll thrive

China’s reaction to Pompeo’s speech

China was dismissive of the US commitment towards Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated that even in the past, there has been talk of cooperation between Japan, the US, and Australia working jointly for developing infrastructure, but so far not much has been achieved.

While there is absolutely no doubt that an alternative narrative is needed to China, the US also needs to be more predictable in terms of economic and strategic relations with key players in the Indo-Pacific. One of Washington’s closest allies in the past, Japan, has been extremely uncomfortable with not just the tariffs, but also on Trump’s handling of strategic issues (such as the North Korea issue).

The example of Indian and Japanese Companies in South Asia

If differences can be ironed out, there is clear space for companies of different countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have already taken the lead in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (two countries likely to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific). In Bangladesh, Marubeni and Larsen and Toubro shall work jointly for supplying electrical and mechanical railway systems for Phase 6 of the Dhaka Mass Rapid Transport. In Sri Lanka, Petronet, along with Japanese companies, is setting up an LNG terminal near Colombo (L&T has already been working with Marubeni for setting up a 400 MW gas plant in Habibgant district, Bangladesh). Petronet will hold 47.5 per cent stake in the project while Japan’s Mitsubishi and Sojitz Corp will take 37.5 per cent stake, while the remaining 15 percent stake will be held by a Sri Lankan company.

Conclusion

Pompeo’s emphasis – on the need for greater transparency in investments, US support for areas such as technology in the Indo-Pacific, and a more pro-active role for the private sector in the Indo-Pacific – all make sense. A lot will depend upon Donald Trump’s approach on critical geopolitical and economic issues, and whether he is able to take along key allies such as Japan. A lot will also depend upon relations of countries, especially Japan and India, with China. In recent months, Japan and India have been trying to recalibrate economic ties with Beijing (a number of Japanese companies are in fact participating in the BRI). While this in no way implies that the narrative of the Indo-Pacific will lose its relevance, it does remain to be seen whether Japan and India would put it on high priority.

Pompeo’s speech is interesting, and it remains to be seen how companies from other countries react and whether they explore the possibility of investing in big ticket connectivity projects.

How will Imran Khan’s electoral triumph affect Pakistan’s relationship with China?

All eyes are on how Imran Khan will fulfill the ambitious promises which he and his party (Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaaf, or PTI) have made for creating a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan). Khan, who will take his oath as Prime Minister on August 11, 2018, needs to hit the ground running given the myriad of economic (Pakistan’s external debt is well over $90 billion, and accounts for over 30 percent of the country’s GDP) and geopolitical challenges. As Pakistani senior officials were drawing up plans to approach the IMF for a loan (estimated at $12 billion), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the IMF that there is absolutely no justification for ‘IMF Dollars’ to bail out ‘Chinese bond holders’ or China.

Given the high expectations as well as the impatience amongst the youth, Khan is not likely to have a very long honeymoon period.

Pakistan-China relationship under PTI government

It will be interesting to see how the crucial Beijing-Islamabad relationship pans out under Imran Khan. During his first address (after his party’s victory) to the Pakistani nation, he dubbed the Pakistan-China relationship as the most important for Pakistan. Khan also emphasized the point that Pakistan had a lot to learn from China in the context of poverty alleviation, as well as the latter’s anti-corruption campaign.

China’s relationship with Imran Khan

In the past, Khan, while supporting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in principle, had expressed certain apprehensions during his meetings with Chinese diplomats. Khan had also stated that the government of Pakistan needs to be more transparent with regard to the contours of the project, and that each province should get it’s rightful due.

The Chinese in turn were uncomfortable with Khan’s dharna (protests) of 2014 (it was as a consequence of these protests that the inauguration of the CPEC Project had to be delayed). Khan’s 2016 protests against the Nawaz Sharif government (after the names of three of Sharif’s family members, who held offshore accounts, appeared in the Panama leaks) were also watched with skepticism by the Chinese.

It would be pertinent to point out that the PTI manifesto, while praising the project, has pointed to some of CPEC’s short comings, including investments as a consequence of ‘insufficient transfer of knowledge and capabilities, fewer partnerships with local businesses and Pakistan’s high dependence on imports of goods and services from China’.

PTI’s chief rival, the PML-N, often spoke about the need for an independent foreign policy, but never ever alluded to this aspect.

Beijing’s preference for PML-N

It would also be pertinent to point out that while Beijing has had problems with Pakistan, it has had a close relationship with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N. Beijing, which has maintained robust relations with the army, also shared cordial relations with Shehbaz Sharif, the President of PML-N and former Chief Minister of Punjab. China has praised Shehbaz Sharif for his efficiency more than one occasion, even referring to his style of working as ‘Shehbaz Speed’ and Punjab speed. When Shehbaz was appointed President of the PML-N, he received a congratulatory message from senior members of the Chinese Communist Party.

The PML-N also sought to take credit for the CPEC project on more than one occasion. In August 2016, while addressing a meeting of his party’s parliamentary committee, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated:

He [Xi Jinping] said this is a gift to you from China. They were also waiting for the time when our government would be in power so that they could make this investment.

Chinese Media’s comments on Imran Khan and CPEC

Post the election results, Chinese media has sought to be positive, and has been confident that the CPEC project will go ahead as planned. One op-ed published in the Global Times (‘Will Imran Khan pivot Pakistan from US to China’) referred to how the West was creating unnecessary paranoia with regard to the economic ramifications of the CPEC project. The op-ed also said that Imran Khan may take Pakistan further into the ‘Chinese orbit’ and that he had no problem with the CPEC project. The article cites the PTI manifesto to bolster its argument (saying that PTI has dubbed the project as a ‘game changer’). Other sections of the Chinese media have also welcomed Imran Khan’s election. Only one analyst, Tom Hussain, has categorically made the point that PTI had strained ties with China in the past. Said Hussain:

the PTI has been working overtime to repair its relations with the Beijing, which had been damaged by its disparaging remarks and allegations of corruption about CPEC projects in the past.

Likely developments in the short run

Imran Khan doesn’t have too many options, but there could be some re-examination of some of the CPEC projects. While Pakistan is now dependent upon China given Islamabad’s rock bottom ties with the US, the question on many people’s minds is if Khan can do a Mahathir (Malaysia’s Prime Minister), where maintaining good ties with China does not mean shying away from questioning the financial feasibility of certain projects within CPEC.

In the short run, this is impossible, and many would argue that even in the long run this may seem like nothing but a pipe dream. Yet, if Imran Khan can harness relations more effectively with neighbors (as he emphasized in his speech) and build a robust economic relationship with India (something which the Chinese may not mind), we could witness a course correction. One of the reasons why Nawaz Sharif advocated good ties with India was so that Pakistan could develop an independent foreign policy and end its dependence upon the US. One of Sharif’s slogans in 2013 was ‘Trade not Aid’. While Imran himself has spoken about trade ties with India, will the establishment allow him to go ahead.

Changing geopolitical dynamics in South Asia

If one were to look beyond economics, even in the context of Afghanistan, one of the significant developments in South Asia has been a decision by India and China to work jointly in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how Imran Khan’s government perceives this. India and Pakistan are also likely to participate jointly in anti-terror drills in Russia, in August 2018, under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Conclusion

It is very tough to predict how Imran Khan handles ties with China, but one thing is for sure: Beijing may publicly be welcoming Khan’s election but from the opinion pieces in the Global Times, there is a worry deep down concerning his maverick nature. Imran, unlike the Sharif’s (who were businessmen), may not be as transactional in the economic sphere. His economic ideology is left-of-center (with a strong thrust on welfare). While he needs foreign direct investment, he is not as obsessive about mega projects as the Sharif’s.

Imran on his part will have numerous challenges to contend with, and needs to strike a fine balance. A less hostile relationship with the neighbors will benefit him, and a slightly less hostile relationship with the US would give him space. Given the plethora of challenges he is likely to face, no real changes should be expected in the context of Pakistan-China ties, though over a period of time, recalibration of policies should not be ruled out.

Nightcap

  1. Sexual Harassment’s Legal Maze Rachel Lu, Law & Liberty
  2. Why the argument for democracy may finally be working for socialists rather than against them Corey Robin, Crooked Timber
  3. How much value does the Chinese government place on freedom? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  4. Authoritarian Nostalgia Among Iraqi Youth Marsin Alshamary, War on the Rocks

Eye Candy: Shanghai Cooperation Organization

NOL map SCO 2018
Source

First off, Shanghai and Warsaw are two very different cities, and because of that I think the SCO is a different animal than the Warsaw Pact. For one thing (aside from the difference in the two cities, one being selected for its geographical prominence, the other for its commercial acumen), the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance led by the Soviet Union, while the SCO is dedicated to political and economic cooperation as well as military security. Notably, the security aspect of the SCO is dedicated to coordinating state-led efforts against terrorism and separatism rather than against a rival alliance.

I don’t see anything wrong with multilateral efforts undertaken by states other than the US. I don’t see any need to worry, fret, or otherwise suspect the SCO of undermining world peace and prosperity. The fact that the SCO is made up of cooperating autocratic regimes rather than democratic ones does not faze me. The SCO has been making overtures to the democracies of India, Iran, and Sri Lanka (be sure to check out Tridivesh’s excellent take on India and the SCO), and multilateral cooperation among states is in itself an exercise in political participation among equals, albeit not at an individual level.

There is also cause to be happy that China and Russia have bound themselves up in such a prominent cooperative venture, too, given the two powers’ history of fighting each other. The SCO is contributing to peace and prosperity, and while it appears on the surface that the venture is designed to be a rival of the Western-built world order, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization actually contributes to it.

(h/t Nick)

Nightcap

  1. Did Cicero Devise Modern Constitutional Thought on His Own? David Potter, Law & Liberty
  2. Russia’s Pacific history is little known, perhaps even in Russia Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  3. The Opium War and the Humiliation of China Ian Morris, New York Times
  4. The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir al-Zour Kimberly Marten, War on the Rocks

Could free speech have led to overseas empires?

Tridivesh’s recent post on China’s multilateral struggles got me thinking about the difference between the United States and China when it comes to coalition-building and international affairs more broadly.

I don’t think the Chinese are purposely attempting to smaller countries in debt so that Beijing may have a shorter leash for them. I think Beijing simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is proceeding apace with multilateral initiatives like the BRI through a trial-and-error process. Unfortunately, trial-and-error processes only work if there is a mechanism to identify the error that takes place during the trial. In the West, we call this mechanism “free speech.” In China, free speech ruins order and is thus discouraged at best and disposed of at worst.

China’s expansionist efforts will probably, as a result of the lack of free speech, end poorly for the regime. Beijing’s reputation will suffer, and it will have to resort to more coercive tactics to secure its alliances and influence over its smaller neighbors.

This thought process, in turn, got me thinking about how the West came to churn out so many powerful worldwide empires in such a short span of time, and how these empires managed to coexist with each other at various points in time. Given China’s troubles with establishing hegemony, the fact that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and the United States were able to achieve what they achieved is amazing. Throughout most of history, empires (or wanna-be empires) have sought to expand abroad while keeping order at home, just like China is doing today. In the sixteenth-century West, order at home was rejected in favor of liberty at home, and as a result the few societies that tried liberty ended up being able to afford overseas empires, where order was sought instead of liberty!

The short-sightedness of imperialists continues to astound me. If liberty at home leads to opportunities to establish colonies abroad, why on earth would you try to stamp out liberty in the colonies you’ve been able to establish thanks to liberty? Imagine if the people living in Indonesia, or India, or Algeria, or the Philippines, had all the liberty that Americans and western Europeans had. Alas…