China, Quad and the Indo-Pacific: Rethinking Asia’s post-COVID geopolitics

Noble Horvath

India’s border skirmishes with China in 2020 have underlined one consequence of India’s decades of non-alignment: In this battle against the world’s next superpower, India fights alone. For sure, Indian soldiers are bolstered by both Western (and Russian) arms. Among democracies, support for India is almost assured—whether in form of […]

India’s border skirmishes with China in 2020 have underlined one consequence of India’s decades of non-alignment: In this battle against the world’s next superpower, India fights alone.

For sure, Indian soldiers are bolstered by both Western (and Russian) arms. Among democracies, support for India is almost assured—whether in form of funds or weaponry. But, lacking a military alliance with any other nation, India must be its own guarantor of national sovereignty. No other power, not even the US, would risk their own soldiers’ lives in an Indian conflict.

This reality has emboldened discussions and expectations of the Quad—a grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the US that many hope will someday serve as an Indo-Pacific NATO. Whether it can become this is another question—the quad emerged more as an alliance of convenience in the aftermath of a devastating tsunami that forced inter-regional cooperation.

Like the 2004 tsunami, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has also left its imprint on geopolitical realities. As Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s foreign ministry, points out—while strategic realities may not have been fundamentally changed by COVID-19, the pandemic has accelerated them and created new context.

In the webinar, ‘Disruptive Evolution in Asian Geopolitics: Post-COVID Implications’, held as part of the G1 Global Conference at GLOBIS University in Tokyo by G1 Summit, the realities of Asian geopolitics amid an isolationist US and a post-pandemic world order were at the centre of discussions—with a focus on the ASEAN powers and the Quad nations.

When the Indo-Pacific is looked at as a region, comprising nation-states at various levels of competition and cooperation with China, it becomes clear that few countries share a common approach to their regional hegemon. Countries in southeast Asia have lived for centuries in the midst of great powers—and see no need to ally too closely with one side or the other.

“When I was in government, as a Singapore diplomat, I used to tell my young diplomats. ‘We are not put on this earth to bring joy to Chinese hearts or American hearts. We are put to bring joy to Singaporean hearts.’ Our national interest. Sometimes, this takes us in the way of US, sometimes we tilt in the direction of China. Or sometimes we go our own way irrespective of whether China or the US like it,” Kausikan said.

What proves the decisive factor then is China’s own approach to its foreign relations. As it antagonises most of its neighbours and regional powers, it risks building up its own enemies.

“I can’t think of any major economy that does not share concerns about some aspects of Chinese behaviour. The concerns may not always be the same. The intensity may not always be same. [But] in effect, there is a very loose global coalition against China. Not because of anything US has done. The Chinese have done it by themselves,” Kausikan said at the event.

In fact, global opinion of China has never been lower, according a new survey by the Pew Research Centre that polled over 14,000 adults in 14 countries classified as “advanced economies”.

The survey, polling adults in Australia, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, US, South Korea, Spain, France, Canada, Italy, and Japan, Belgium and Denmark saw negative views on China at their highest level since the Centre began polling this topic over a decade ago.

China’s role in obscuring the severity of the coronavirus in its early stage was the main factor driving the negative view. Another aspect was that 78 per cent of those polled felt they had no confidence in President Xi Jinping to “do the right thing” in international affairs. Nonetheless, most nations polled felt China was the world’s leading economic power—only in Japan and South Korea was the US seen on top.

This clash between geopolitical tensions pitting nations against China and economic ties that bring them closer is what makes creating a united Indo-Pacific front against Chinese aggression such a challenging prospect.

In the Indo-Pacific, China’s PR problem is compounded by more than just its handling of the coronavirus or its perceived role in international affairs. Many countries in this broad region faced the spectre of Chinese aggression even as they grappled with the coronavirus pandemic: Indian and Chinese forces have been in a deadly face-off along their mountainous borders since skirmishes began 160 days ago, Chinese fighter jets regularly buzz Taiwanese airspace as nationalistic calls for “reunification” grow louder, the South China Sea is a regular point of friction between China, the US, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan.

Unsurprisingly, it is the US that is often looked up to as a hope for smaller powers faced with the prospect of Chinese hostility.

“There is still deep resentment and scepticism about China. The US is the only country with the credibility to serve as a world leader. But this will require the US to work with its allies, to re-establish itself as an international leader, to reinvest in the roots of American power,” says Abraham Denmark, director, Asia Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

A common theme in the discussion was America’s changed foreign policy under Trump—especially in its ‘America-first’ approach.

“The US, having historically borne all the risk and exertions of the cold war for more than 40 years, after 9/11 got involved in seemingly interminable wars in the middle east, is redefining its engagement with the world,” points out Kausikan.

“This is sometimes described as a retreat, [which] I don’t think is accurate. But, it is certainly redefining the way it engages with world. After 40 years of Cold War, after more than almost 20 years of getting embroiled in Middle East conflicts, Americans are no longer willing to bear any burden or pay any price in the international order,” he adds.

In the absence of America, the world seems to have moved towards a multipolar world order. This, for Kausikan, is the natural state of affairs in the Indo-Pacific.

This compounds the question of what the Quad can hope to achieve. What is its end goal, asks Darshana Baruah, Visiting Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“One conversation that has been made over and over, that was made in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech [at the Shangri La Dialogue], was that India will collaborate with all countries in formats of 2s, 3s, 4s and beyond. The Quad is one of the partnerships in the larger pacific region,” she said.

When the Quad first emerged in the aftermath of the tsunami, there were clear end goals as the four countries came together to coordinate relief efforts. Now, in the Indo-Pacific, what nations consider a priority area differs with geography. “For India, the priority is the Indian ocean. For Japan, the Pacific. When push comes to shove, when all have capacity constraints, India will first invest in the Indian ocean, Japan in its region, Australia in the south Pacific,” she points out.

The Indian Navy’s own changing priorities play a big part in India’s relations with Quad powers. Take the much-delayed plan to procure Japan’s U-2 ShinMaywa amphibious aircraft. Nearly a decade in the making, the procurement remains pending. The reason, as The Print reported in 2019, is that the Navy’s priority list is yet to place amphibious aircraft at the top (the blue-water Navy has a more pressing need for submarines—even if they may come at the cost of another aircraft carrier). But, there remains hope yet for the deal—which may take place under a new ‘leasing’ model approved by the ministry of defence.

Even so, India used the pandemic period wisely—in its own neighbourhood. Baruah points out India’s “COVID-diplomacy” in the Indian Ocean Region, distributing food and medicines to smaller maritime neighbours.

And, even as India and China were eyeball to eyeball in Ladakh, the US Navy conducted its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea—to China’s growing detriment. For now, at least, there remain limits to China’s sense of impunity in its own backwater.

“China will not become a global hegemon. China will become just a regional hegemon,” predicts Nobukatsu Kanehara, professor at Doshisha University and former Japanese Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary.

As he points out, Asia has “No NATO. No EU. No alliance.” By itself, Japan cannot sustain the weight of China. There is a need to be united, then, to defend the liberal order and keep the strategic balance with China, he says.

Much as how Japan led the way in Asia as the first Asian power to industrialise, so too must it show the model for a liberal order in Asia, says Kanehara.

How this order can be defined, nurtured and maintained remains the question for Asian policymakers in the post-COVID age.

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