Throughout history, the geographic pivot has been centered on Europe, but the pivot has shifted to Asia in the past decade. The transposition in worldwide economic wealth has led to the ‘Asian Century.’ One can also not ignore the rising tensions in the Asia Pacific that have grabbed international attention. Adding to more complexities is a fading post-Cold War world order which was largely unipolar, making way for multipolar world order, giving rise to an augmented role of organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), BRICS to name a few. The ramifications of this economic shift are also seen in the political domain. In light of the US and its European allies’ declining power, the economic strength of China, along with its military might, is seen as a threat by the Western world. It remains to be seen if the US-China rivalry in Asia-Pacific can be zeroed in on a power shift or a competitive coexistence.
The War of Narratives
The term Asia-Pacific is utilized for the states around the Pacific Ocean that shaped the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an intergovernmental organization. It is a multilateral organization primarily conceptualized on the economy instead of focusing on security. Nonetheless, the economic ascent of India and China in Asia and the dominance of China in the region prompted the United States to widen the concept of Asia-Pacific geopolitically. By widening the concept, the US incorporated the littoral states of the Indian Ocean and highlighted the importance of India in the region. Indo-Pacific has gained momentum, reinforcing the region’s political, economic, and security ambits.
Tokyo and Washington viewed India as a balancing power against China in the region. The Indian Army is the second largest active-duty armed forces and can be used to counter China through a scope of military abilities. Moreover, Washington and New Delhi’s perceptions of China in the Indo-Pacific are similar. Both view China as a country that seeks to overshadow the presence of other actors in the region and is always prone to defy the international norms in a quest for such predominance – yet India and the United States would lean toward a strategy that compels China into consistence with the international norms as opposed to looking for a military confrontation.
On the other hand, Beijing does not recognize the potentiality of the concept of Indo-Pacific. Even though this is an evolving concept, it shows a power shift from the West to the East. The geopolitics unfurling in the Indo-Pacific region paints an obscure picture since India is a South Asian country while China is considered an East Asian nation. Moreover, the existence of multilateral organizations combined with the ambitions of global powers has made the Indo-Pacific a region with complex power dynamics instead of a traditional multi-power world where various actors grapple to defend and broaden their spheres of influence.
Geography and the conflict of perceptions in the Indo-Pacific
What are the United States and China vying for in the Indo-Pacific? There are multiple theaters of contention: the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the East China Sea. While Taiwan remains the most potential flashpoint between the US and China, the revisionist tendencies of China and the Communist party’s mandate of the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland have caused tensions in the region.
The South China Sea is another region where the two powers have been in strife. It is situated east of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, east of Taiwan and Malaysia, and South of China. The region is significant for many reasons:
- It is a hotbed for fisheries, and if countries use adaptable technologies for fishing, there is a potential for immense profit.
- The South China Sea is also one of the busiest shipping routes. The area additionally fills in as an avenue for the Chinese interests in Africa, which goes through the Indian Ocean. This region has also become extremely important in trading with the ASEAN nations.
- Moreover, there are estimates of oil and natural gas in the region, raising the potentiality of a conflict.
Hence the debate about asserting power and the various claims of nations over this region does not appear outlandish considering what it brings to the table economically and militarily.
According to the United States, its vision in the Indo-Pacific is based on maintaining regional freedom and ensuring security and stability. On the other hand, the Chinese vision is a China-centric one that extends their power and encourages greater regional integration and reliance on China. It also focuses on restricting the role of distant powers and hence bringing the Southeast Asian economies under Beijing’s umbrella. This clearly shows that incongruent values, objectives, and ambitions drive the US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. The UN Permanent Arbitration Court, in the 2016 ruling, thwarted the Chinese claims over the region, citing there was no legal basis. It also dismissed the historical concept of the “Nine-Dash Line,” through which it has asserted claims in the region. Beijing has outrightly reprimanded the international court’s acrimonious dismissal of its territorial claim. The Chinese newspapers cautioned of a military escalation in the light of what they reviled as a US ploy to impede China’s rise. Xinhua published the 13, 900 – word white paper where Beijing asserted the Philippines which had brought the case had contorted facts, found loopholes in the laws and created a bunch of blatant lies to sabotage the Chinese interests.
A quandary for the Southeast Asian nations?
The realist school of thought in international relations implies that the global framework is anarchic and that there is no way that one state can know the intention of the other with certitude. This vulnerability drives states to augment their power and security to dominate and anticipate challenges from other states. A country’s ambition of becoming a superpower today is almost unthinkable. Perhaps this is one reason why states seek to bestride as regional hegemons. China has lately gained the status of a regional hegemon in Asia and is also building up its military capabilities to back this up. This is one of the primary reasons both the United States and China consider each other a threat.
In their quest for influence, the United States and China utilize accessible means to shape third-country conduct and preferences to line up with their interests. Both are looking for partner alignment and support on major issues in the region. The results have been a quandary for the Southeast Asian nations since they are coerced to pick a side – either China or the US.
In terms of diplomatic and military influence in the region, the United States has the upper hand. Nevertheless, China has a more significant economic influence in the region. The economic aspect is of the utmost importance because the Southeast Asian countries rank economic development as their priority. They have consistently expressed concerns over the Chinese economic influence for the most part. China can use its economic influence as a bargaining chip for an assortment of objectives, including undermining the US military influence. Conversely, there is little proof that the Southeast Asian nations accept that the presence of the US military can counteract the economic influence of the Chinese. Additionally, the Chinese have more instruments and are willing to use them in their neighborhood, including the carrots and sticks approach.
Countries in the region are resorting to hedging, cooperating with the United States when it comes to security issues, and hence balancing China. On the other hand, they engage with China when it comes to matters related to trade and economics. This has largely helped the Southeast Asian nations secure their interests but has led them to walk on eggshells.
The US-China Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific
Three crucial aspects have continually grieved Sino-US relations in the post-Cold War period: trade, security, and human rights. While security issues have been arising ever since the mid-90s, such issues have all the earmarks of being the primary variable influencing bilateral relations. It is basically because of the distinctions in their perspectives, experiences, and capabilities that China and the US have conflicting ideas of security, which has prompted their differing security practices.
The rising significance of the Indo-Pacific region led to the former President Barack Obama releasing another Asia strategy in 2011, ‘Pivot to Asia.’ The new strategy is planned to reinforce the region’s economic, diplomatic, political, and security relations at both bilateral and multilateral levels. The ‘Pivot to Asia’ also restored the confidence of US partners and others that the US had not overly extended itself because of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new policy was subsequently named a “rebalancing” strategy since it suggested that it would scale down its military presence in West Asia and other regions while increasing its investments in the Indo-Pacific region. The Obama administration endeavored to foster a broad structure for trade and investments while encouraging alignment among major regional economies to hedge China in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Pivot to Asia is seen mainly as a US strategy that has notions of pre-9/11 since the spotlight is on a state actor, in this case, China. Nonetheless, in the Chinese view, the pivot was a ‘disturbing’ policy that could instigate other neighboring countries to put forth their territorial claims. Thus, the Chinese perceived the Pivot to Asia as a containment strategy: to contain China’s extending impact in the Indo-Pacific region. As indicated by Mearsheimer, two elements are thrusting China towards animosity:
- It is unimaginable for any country that has gained power and is influential in the region not to turn out to be assertive in its foreign policy.
- The containment of China by the United States and its allies in the region with the Pivot to Asia. This led to an indirect confrontation: the Americans and their Asian allies are standing up against China, while it has been the one responding.
Under the Trump administration, the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which lowered its global standing and economic index. At the same time, the economic prosperity of the Indo-Pacific states is combined with endeavors toward regionalism and regional integration. Despite the repudiation of the Obama administration’s policies in the Indo-Pacific region, the Trump administration could not pull out entirely from the region. However, by disposing of the economic component of the Asia Pivot policy like the TPP, the Trump administration was compelled to depend on a military-only approach. This shows why the materialization of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) has become so crucial for the United States; even though it has not been termed as a security alliance, it is indirectly to contain an aggressor in the region with the help of its allies. While Beijing has vehemently opposed the QUAD grouping, which stands for a free and open Indo-Pacific, it has taken a counteraction by forming a de-facto strategic alliance of authoritarian regimes CRIP (China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan).
To counter the trade imbalances and lessen the developing politico-economic influence of China over Asia and Africa, the US and the European Union are vigorously pushing their trade and venture interests. From human rights violations in Xinjiang to defying the labor regulations in the Chinese manufacturing plants and infringement of intellectual property rights by the Chinese multinationals, the West is contentiously coupling the economic aspects with the socio-political aspects to counter China in terms of trading. In 2019 the US Department of State formally expressed that the US will be an Indo-Pacific country… countries (in the neighborhood) face phenomenal difficulties in their sovereignty, prosperity, and peace. This is why the Quad allies: the US, Japan, and Australia, put in motion the Blue Dot Network (BDN) to oppose Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Lately, with the tensions rising in the region, the officials in the Biden administration accentuated their intentions to assist Taiwan to support itself. The PLA has been accelerating its power projection through military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang added, “For the Chinese, achieving complete reunification of China is a historical trend, and any person or force cannot stop it.” The tipping point for the United States would be a military campaign against Taiwan, and one cannot rule out the involvement of the United States in the conflict. The primary explanation for a war not breaking out despite all the warnings in the region is the undeniable level of economic integration within the region. Aside from this, nuclear deterrence has also worked out in the region since most nations seeking to project power possess nuclear weapons.
The waning power of the United States has challenged its global superpower status of late. It has been confronting growing economic difficulties due to stagnation at home, while the GDP in Asian states has constantly risen. In the past twenty years, China’s upward economic growth could challenge the economic and conceivably political administration, especially within multilateral organizations. This is one of the reasons the threat perceptions in Washington are at their peak, and it has been figuring out ways to counter China by all means. For example, the new security partnership, AUKUS (Australia, UK, and the US), has caused ripples from Asia to Europe since it is highly imprudent. However, the AUKUS countries have lauded their ‘efforts’ to support peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific by supplying nuclear-powered submarines to Australia despite knowing that the region is considered to be a geopolitical showdown between the US and China. The deal could lead to an arms race in the region making the security environment fragile.
Aside from the arms race, the Indo-Pacific nations are already wary of the aggressive behavior of China. It has been projecting power on both fronts’ military and economic. The predatory nature of economics has led many countries like Indonesia, Philippines, with the latest additions of Sri Lanka and Pakistan have become victims of its debt-trap diplomacy. On the other hand, it has also occupied the island chains and built naval bases in the South China Sea. Gone are the times when the United States only possessed certain technologies. What will considerably change the nature of warfare is the Anti-Access and Area-Denial and the hypersonic capabilities which the Chinese are also in the process of developing.
It is important to note that the United States is a maritime power that relies upon the oceans for its survival. Billions worth of goods are shipped from the US ports every year; the fisheries again spawn billions worth of sales. The oceans have become increasingly fundamental to Americans as international trade grows. Additionally, the advances in technology and innovation will empower more prominent utilization of assets and resources in the ocean bed, implying that the questions will soon rise about the territorial waters and become even more significant in the future. To resolve such issues, the only international legal framework that governs the law of the seas is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the United States is the only country to have signed but not ratified it yet.
One of the classic claims made by the United States against the ratification of UNCLOS was that the convention infringed upon its sovereignty during the Cold War since it favored communist states like the Soviet Union. President Reagan later acknowledged a majority of the convention’s content as “customary international law,” and the Senate reliably impeded the ratification on numerous occasions. At present, the US Navy depends upon customary international law, which is tacit and dependent upon the notions of foreign countries and has no system of courts for arbitration. Correspondingly the US is under the conviction that its capacity to navigate uninhibitedly on missions and patrols would be secured if it would depend on UNCLOS arrangements and anticipate that different nations also stick to the same pattern. Additionally, subsequent presidential administrations – conservatives and liberals – have depended upon Reagan’s precedent to legitimize and direct the Freedom of Navigation Program (FONOP) in vulnerable areas like the South and the East China Sea. Through the FONOP, the US has been projecting power in the Indo-Pacific while guaranteeing security to its allies.
Would the US allies still be dependent on the United States for security, considering its indifference in the Russia-Ukraine crisis and how it abandoned Ukraine in a time of need? Secondly, if Russia could prove that the world is not dependent upon the US-led world order by carrying out military operations in Ukraine, what would stop China from doing the same in Taiwan? The world has been seeing a wave of realism because of the trends in international relations: China has made it apparent that its interests are of the utmost importance regardless of the costs involved to the other actors. While the United States, under the garb of “Free and open Indo-Pacific,” has been promoting its interests. It has not ratified the UNCLOS since it does not want to be held accountable in the future for its exploration in the deep sea and as a maritime power.
So is the ‘Rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific just a game of conflicting interests of two powers while the other countries are mere pawns, balancing against both?
[Photo by Glenn Fawcett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Common]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Vidhee Makwana is a Postgraduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.