The utility of the Indo-Pacific as a geo-strategic concept remains the subject of debate, particularly in the “Quad” countries; the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. A series of views published in the Australian National University’s East Asia Forum last month provides several perspectives in this continuing debate. The first questions U.S. strategy in extending the Asia-Pacific concept to India when its real focus is China, North Korea, and Taiwan. Another suggests that, “rather than India leading a grand Indo-Pacific coalition against China, it is more likely to cut a deal with China to divide the wider Indo-Pacific region up between them.” A third posits that, “For now, the Indo-Pacific idea is based on implausible assumptions about India’s political posture, amateurish calculations of India’s projected economic power and unrealistic expectations of American commitment.” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had described the Indo-Pacific concept as a “headline grabbing idea, like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, which may get some attention but will soon dissipate,” would certainly be pleased.
The United States has not yet fully articulated or implemented the steps needed to realize its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, but there is reason to believe that it will. America’s formulation of strategy against its previous great power competitor, the Soviet Union, was not instantaneous. It started with the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, transitioned through National Security Council Paper NSC 68 in April 1950 before NSC 162/2 formalized the strategy of containment in October 1953. The current challenge of formulating a strategy toward China is far more complex due to its deep economic linkages not just with the United States, but also with U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The “allies” of yore are actually security dependencies, severely limited in their ability or willingness to secure themselves in an anarchic world. They now face conflicting pulls from economic considerations on the one hand and ideological values and security interests on the other.
The United States has slowly but steadily moved toward enhancing relations with India, drawing it outward into the Pacific while accepting that the Indian Ocean, too, needs security. Expansion of the Asia-Pacific concept rests on realization that only India possesses the potential to provide a meaningful regional counterweight to China. President Donald Trump thought it important enough to make a standalone visit to India despite the demands of pre-election politics and the emerging coronavirus pandemic, during which he upgraded the U.S.-India relationship to a “comprehensive global and strategic partnership.” Given the bipartisan determination in Washington to counter China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, there is reason to believe that a coherent partnership-driven strategy will emerge in due course.
Australia’s strategic trajectory is more uncertain. The belief that Australia possesses the heft to act independently while China expands its assertiveness appears delusional. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has committed to “restoring trust following the Rudd Government’s policy to disconnect from the Quad.” But the absence of consensus within Australia on the value of the Quad, made apparent in the East Asia Forum series, creates doubt about the continuity of its commitment should a new government come to power. This will inevitably play a part in the geopolitical calculations of other Quad countries.
Whether India will act with the Quad to balance China or not depends on Delhi’s perceptions of where its interests lie, the reciprocal commitments given by partners, and its own capabilities. As Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said, “India’s vision is consultative, democratic and equitable but must find clearer expressions through its own narratives and concepts.” This narrative views the Indo-Pacific concept as the reemergence of a centuries-old reality that was disrupted when global leadership passed from the United Kingdom to the United States. The shape of the Indo-Pacific of the future will be determined by “the ambitions of China, the interests of India, the re-emergence of Japan, the confidence of Australia and the awareness of ASEAN, among others.” And as the minister went on to say, “Where India can really make a difference is in the Indian Ocean itself. That is not just a natural arena for its influence but of overriding security consequence.”
As for reciprocity and capability, India is the only one of the Quad countries that shares an unsettled (and 2,000-mile long) border with an assertive China. It does not seek mutual defense commitments from the Quad should China or its proxy Pakistan initiate conflict on land. What it does seek is assistance in addressing the marked asymmetry between Chinese and Indian military capabilities, particularly in the Indian Ocean. The United States has begun to undertake actions to reassure India in this regard. Will Australia and Japan play their part?
The India of today is very different from the India of yester-year, when timidity projected as “strategic restraint” was used to justify inaction in the face of provocations. A new resolve to actively defend India’s interests is visible, as was evident in 2017’s Doklam standoff with China, its response to recent terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, and even in India’s withdrawal from the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership. The assessment of these interests is guided by Indian thought steeped in its historically inclusive culture. Arguments that India and China are likely to strike a deal to divide up the Indo-Pacific between them betray a lack of understanding of India’s experience in the last seven decades and rest on questionable assumptions, including the belief that a China that has never respected India would be content with such a deal.
It was clear decades ago that the unipolar period in which U.S. power reigned supreme was not going to last forever. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in the conclusion of his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, “In the long run, global politics are bound to become increasingly uncongenial to the concentration of hegemonic power in the hands of a single state. Hence, America is not only the first, as well as the only, truly global superpower, but it is also likely to be the very last.”
U.S. allies, long used to outsourcing their strategic thinking to the United States, could have foreseen that a time would come when their security and ideological interests would conflict with their economic interests. They did not, which is why they struggle to reduce their overreliance on a U.S.-provided security blanket. The need for countries in the region to build up diverse coalitions to hedge against all possibilities, including a reduced U.S. role in the region, should be apparent. Only those determined to look favorably on China despite irrefutable evidence about its intentions would ignore this imperative.