New equations in Asia

New equations in Asia

Containing China

As the rise of China upends the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, new regional configurations are emerging thick and fast to tackle this challenge. The US, Japan and India held their first trilateral meeting earlier this week in Washington to discuss regional issues.

The US has a traditionally strong security relationship with Japan and has been instrumental in bringing India and Japan closer together in recent years. Though security of sea lanes of communication, coordination of humanitarian assistance and global terrorism were the focus of this meeting, the rise of China was the unspoken subtext and it will shape the trajectory of this arrangement in the near future.

As America’s economic constraints force it to go back to an ‘offshore balancing’ posture, it needs new arrangements in Asia if it wants to prevent China from dominating the regional strategic landscape.

The US will increasingly rely on its regional allies and regional arrangements to carry more of the security burden much as it did via its hub-and-spokes alliance system in Europe since the end of the Second World War. China, of course, remains very sensitive to this pro-active approach in Asia and has suggested that a ‘Cold War mentality’ is not the way forward but the regional states have their own plans.

The US has encouraged a greater role for India in East and Southeast Asia. Exhorting India to lead and look beyond its immediate neighbourhood, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, during her visit to India earlier this year asked India “not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well.” India has responded with a renewed focus on its Look East Policy which has evolved from economic and trade linkages with various regional countries to a gradual strengthening of security ties.

India’s ties with Japan, in particular, have been gaining momentum with both New Delhi and Tokyo making an effort in recent years to put Indo-Japanese ties into high gear. India’s booming economy makes it an attractive trading partner for Japan as the latter tries to overcome its long years of economic stagnation.

Japan is also reassessing its role as a security-provider in the region and beyond, and of all its neighbours, India seems most willing to acknowledge Japan’s centrality in shaping the evolving Asian security architecture.

Both India and Japan are well aware of China’s not so subtle attempts at preventing their rise. It is most clearly reflected in China’s opposition to the expansion of the UN Security Council to include India and Japan as permanent members. China’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council and as a nuclear weapon state is something that it would be loathe to share with any other state in Asia.

Trilateral initiative
As the US, Japan and India refashion their ties, there are now growing calls for another trilateral initiative involving the US, Australia and India. There is a distinct convergence of interests among the US, India and Australia across of a whole range of issues including the security of global commons, maritime security and counter terrorism.

The traditional neglect of Australia-India bilateral ties is beginning to get rectified with the Labour government’s decision to overturn a decades-old ban on uranium sale to India, paving the way for Canberra to supply the yellowcake to a nation outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Canberra has reinvigorated its alliance with the US in recent weeks agreeing to station 2,500 marines in a US base in northern Australia and has reached out to Japan for enhanced defence cooperation. Australia and India are ramping up their defence ties with the two sides converging on the importance of freedom of navigation in international waters, an issue that has bedevilled China’s ties with key regional states in recent months.

The issue has already generated a lot of heat with the Australian foreign minister first suggesting that India “has really been quite positive” about a possible trilateral defense arrangement involving the US, Australia and India but then Canberra having to publicly contradict such an assertion. New Delhi too was quick to deny it. Clearly any diplomatic move targeted explicitly at China will come unstuck in Canberra and New Delhi. But there is a clear recognition in Australia and India that new institutional mechanisms are needed for a new strategic landscape in Asia-Pacific.

Though economic ties between Australia and China are robust with China being Australia’s largest trading partner since 2009, the security implications of a rising and an ever more assertive China are becoming palpable with each passing day.

When the idea of a ‘democratic quad’ was mooted a few years back, the fear of antagonising China had led Australia and India to reject it. It was Kevin Rudd who had pulled out of the Quadrilateral initiative after winning the 2007 elections as he decided to reach out to China.

Now that similar arrangements are in offing, China will have to come to terms with a new reality that its faster than expected rise is creating tension in the region. Regional states are no longer willing to wait but are actively seeking new ways and means to manage China’s rapid ascent in global hierarchy.

India will now have to think more creatively about its role in East Asia and will have to seek new alignments if it wants to preserve a favourable balance of power in the region. The time for a regional ‘concert of democracies’ has arrived and New Delhi should give it serious consideration.

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