The Indo-Pacific, the Quad and the reality of Chinese power

EAST ASIAN FORUM23 September 2021

Author: Kerry Brown, King’s College London and the Asia Pacific Programme

The idea of a coherent territory called the Indo-Pacific has been appealing to strategists for some years, but it is no coincidence that the tighter and more urgent formation of this idea has happened at the same time as China’s rising prominence. The desire to counterbalance China has driven much of the intellectual and diplomatic investment in the idea of the Indo-Pacific.

The United States, Europe and countries in the region have invested publicly in the idea, in terms of diplomatic commitment and actual resources.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — consisting of Australia, the United States, Japan and India — was resuscitated in 2017 with a focus on making the idea of the Indo-Pacific real. In March 2021, for the first time, its meeting was held at the head of government level, forming part of the new Biden administration’s move to restore and recommit the United States to multilateralism after the chaotic Trump years. The United Kingdom sent its newly deployed Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier to the South China Sea region in July, drawing the ire of China. In March, France sent its warships to the region before undertaking exercises with the United States.

The face-to-face summit in Washington this week ramps Quad diplomacy up another notch, yet despite the Quad and other efforts, the BRI is still a more compelling international vision than the Indo-Pacific. It has captured the imagination of those who were already willing to work more closely with China. The biannual summits on the BRI held in China may not have attracted many key European or North American leaders, but Central Asian, African and Latin American leaders have all taken part. The amorphousness of the BRI idea is its great strength.

As a testament to its success, the United States, Europe and others (including, it is clear, Australia) would dearly love something else than the BRI. Can there be such viable alternatives? Attempts so far have proved tepid and unpromising.

Most importantly, there is the issue of cohesion. The BRI is united by at least one solid commonality — Chinese interests. The Indo-Pacific is a far messier idea and doesn’t originate from one source. Asian multilateralism has a scratchy track record. Sovereignty was hard-won in this region after varying experiences of colonisation and nation building in the early 20th century. The Westphalian notion of statehood is perhaps one of the most successful Western exports to the region. In this context, everyone jealously preserves their own interests. There is little commonality — fear of China is hardly a positive idea on which to build solid multilateral co-operation.

India is one of the key fault lines in the Indo-Pacific concept. India is a tricky player to fit into any neat multilateral framework. Australia’s hopes that it might — as a market, source of overseas students and security partner — be a counterbalance to China have proved salutary over the past decade. The assumption that India would be a more compliant partner because it is a democracy has proved misplaced. Its economy is attractive, but it remains only a third of the size of China’s. Before COVID-19, growth was 7 per cent or more, higher than in China. Post-pandemic, things look far less optimistic.

Geopolitics make this problem even more severe. India is a highly autonomous actor. Former US president George W Bush’s attempts in the 2000s to draw closer to India proved frustrating. India might not have an optimal relationship with China — with constant clashes over the contested border between the two from 2015 — but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to be closer to President Xi Jinping creates an unsettling ambiguity.

Nor is it in India’s interests, occupying the front line, to antagonise its powerful neighbour. It does not want to be used as a proxy diplomatic weapon because it, rather than others, would take the brunt of any tension with China. India enjoys amicable relations with Russia and from which it has procured military kit, despite US anger. It has its own strategic interests which do not align with those in the United States, Europe or Australia.

Other countries in the region are driven by pragmatism and self-interest. Within ASEAN, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam all face very different issues and approach China in different ways. What unites them is a clear desire to avoid needless turbulence provoked by those distant from the region.

An Indo-Pacific with any real chance of enduring will need to focus on generating a viable and pragmatic framework for cooperation, something that can work within the very different political and security worries that exist across the region. It would also have to be a framework that would at least persuade everyone it could protect them and serve their interests. That includes China. It is hard to see India, let alone the other players, working with an idea that antagonises China. Even the security agreement between Australia, the US and UK last week remains aspirational. It is hard to see what it will actually achieve beyond sidelining Australia strategically ‘forever’.

The idea of a ‘softer’ Indo-Pacific, which is a space for better communication and clears away some of the existing blockages, is more viable. For this to happen, it would make sense for partners in the region to take the lead, rather than allowing the United States or others to shape the priorities.

But as a more solid security alliance, with the kind of appeal to the imagination that the BRI has, the Indo-Pacific is fatally flawed. At most, it risks non-Asian powers trying to impose themselves among a set of relationships and a reality where they simply no longer have the economic, diplomatic and security resources to have the impact they might wish.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College London, and Associate Fellow with the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House.

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