PacNet #36 – 10 Things Every Sailor and Marine Should Know Before Deploying to Southeast Asia: A Regional Primer

An earlier version of this article was published on the US Naval Institute Blog.

With a little bit of advance preparation and intellectual investment, a deployment to Southeast Asia can be a life-changing professional experience for sailors and marines. Here are 10 points, based on several decades of personal experience in Asia, that can help any service member arrive ready to accomplish the mission, represent their service well, and enjoy themselves while doing it.

1. Southeast Asia matters. It is not just a battlefield. 

Those focused on geopolitical dynamics may regard Southeast Asia as strategic territory where the United States must win hearts and minds now and be prepared to sink ships in a future conflict. However, the region’s nations also have unique, vibrant cultures, and strong identities. Southeast Asian states are home to more than 655 million people. Their economies weigh in with a GDP of more than $3 trillion. Ensuring strong bilateral relationships is essential to the well-being of the United States. That is why most of our regional exercises are not about fighting an enemy state but strengthening bilateral relationships.

Prevailing in the strategic competition with China is critical to US security and many Southeast Asians will be ready to discuss shared concerns, but US friendship should primarily be about the bilateral partners’ diverse concerns. We won’t expand the trust and confidence we need by treating Southeast Asian partners like cartological chokepoints or the spoils of a prize fight.

2. Southeast Asia is neither with us nor against us. It is for itself.

Southeast Asians want to benefit from their relationships with the United States and with China but there is little confidence either power would look out for Southeast Asian interests. China is ASEAN’s largest trade partner, and ASEAN became China’s largest trade partner in 2020. To avoid falling into Chinese orbit, Southeast Asians are generally glad for the counterbalance delivered by the US military. Balancing these competing relationships is akin to charting a course between two reefs. To cleave too closely to the United States exposes them to the risks of abandonment and the ire of China.

3. Southeast Asia is incredibly diverse.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, largest Muslim-majority nation, and 10th-largest economy. It shares an island with Timor Leste, a predominantly Catholic nation with fewer people than Trinidad and Tobago. The per capita income in the city-state of Singapore is more than $100,000 a year, one and a half times that of the United States. Twenty-six million Indonesians earn less than one dollar a day.

To represent the US Navy well in Southeast Asia, get to know the various countries you visit.

4. Southeast Asian Sailors have plenty to teach you about gray zone operations.

Southeast Asian navies matter. So do their coast guards. In some cases, their ships are older. Some are decommissioned US vessels. Not even the most technologically advanced states possess the combat equivalent of a 96-cell US destroyer. Sensitive communications are often carried by unclassified apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, or Line. This does not mean they are incapable. These maritime forces are engaged, day-in and day-out, in securing their nations’ sovereignty. Dangerous, close encounters with Chinese forces are common. They also regularly face off with neighbors in disputes over maritime boundaries and resources.

You will quickly notice that your Southeast Asian partners will approach problems in ways foreign to you. Pay attention; listen up; absorb the good. Do not lecture.

5. Nontraditional threats are a top regional priority.

In Southeast Asia, coast guards have become more popular in recent years but still commonly share constabulary duties with navies. Naval services across the region regularly face threats of terrorism and insurgency, as well as human and narco-trafficking. Environmental crimes and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing cost billions and imperil livelihoods. These threats to coastal communities demand national security prioritization.

Learn how your fellow sailors in Southeast Asia deal with these issues.

6. History matters.

When the United States arrived in Southeast Asia as the newest colonial power, our counterinsurgency operations were nothing to recall with pride. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is now an important pillar of regional security, but the United States only recently returned war trophies seized from Balangiga in 1901. During the Cold War, the United States was associated with violent coups that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in several nations. Senior Vietnamese leaders have personal memories of the war against the United States. Washington dropped more explosives on Cambodia and Laos than the Allies dropped globally in World War II. Despite this, Vietnam welcomed two US Navy aircraft carriers.

Our past should engender a spirit of understanding and humility from US sailors in Southeast Asia.

7. ASEAN is central and not an “underdeveloped EU.”

The European Union is about governments relaxing sovereign control to pool resources, prevent state-to-state conflict, and facilitate flows of capital and people. Put over-simply, ASEAN is aimed at enabling governments’ efforts to strengthen their own states. ASEAN is built on principles of consensus and non-interference. You may hear the term “ASEAN Centrality”—it is a concept that reinforces ASEAN’s credibility and legitimacy, respecting its role as the driving force behind the region’s collective agenda.

Do not fall for the trap that ASEAN is destined to “mature into” something that exists elsewhere.

8. Southeast Asia does not want an Asian NATO, nor an Asian Combined Maritime Force.

NATO functions on the basis of shared threat perceptions and common interests. Its Cold War counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, fell apart shortly after the Vietnam War. Southeast Asian states are concerned about China’s behavior, tilting the alignment of some of those states toward the United States, but fears of entrapment and abandonment dictate that no Southeast Asian state is ready to tie itself into a collective defense pact.

Other officers envision opportunities to create a Combined Maritime Force. Attempts to sell the idea in Southeast Asia have fallen flat. If geared toward China, they are non-starters. Efforts geared toward the nontraditional threats at the top of regional states’ maritime priorities gain some traction. However, most of the nontraditional threats operate within domestic waters, so beyond information-sharing and coordination, there is little desire to invite in foreign security operations.

9. Corruption is rampant—do not let it trap you.

According to Transparency International, in ASEAN only Singapore and Malaysia rank among the world’s 80 least corrupt states. Things that might be illegal or unethical in the United States are often the way the system is designed in Southeast Asia.

Understand the relevant regulations and internalize your ethics training. If your command is not giving you training, ask for it before deploying. See the bevy of high-profile cases associated with the Fat Leonard scandal: Some of those Americans were filthy traitors. Others made much smaller mistakes; these individuals are free, but the ethics violations put their careers on ice.

10. Enjoy your liberty.

Done right, a deployment to Southeast Asia will be an experience that will stay with you. These ports offer world-class opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, and the relaxation needed for superior performance at sea.

A typical port visit is four days. Given the limited time and all the opportunities, mission success requires a plan. Planning requires information. Do as much as you can before you deploy. Shelling out a couple of bucks for a guidebook to read underway can save hours. Even if your deployment schedule is not fixed, taking along a library can be a great investment for your liberty crew. The sailor-centric non-profit YCAPS has a great list of suggestions.

A deployment to Southeast Asia is an opportunity to have a unique experience. To represent the US Navy well in Southeast Asia, get to know the countries you have the opportunity to visit. We hope these 10 suggestions will help you do just that.

John Bradford (johnfbradford@gmail.com) is a senior fellow in the maritime security program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Now retired from the US Navy, he spent more than a dozen years as a surface warfare officer in ships forward deployed to the Western Pacific and studied in Indonesia and Singapore as an Olmsted Scholar.  

Blake Herzinger (blake.herzinger@gmail.com) is a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum and US Navy Reserve foreign area officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the US Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government. @BDHerzinger.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #34 – Advancing a Rules-Based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific

The following is an excerpt of Chapter 1 of Issues & Insights Vol. 21-SR2, edited for length. Read the full article or download the entire volume here.

Many have called for stronger rule of law in maritime Indo-Pacific over the past decade. From Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra to the capitals of Southeast Asia, leaders and policymakers stress international law, as well as bilateral and multilateral cooperation to address maritime challenges. Year-after-year, ASEAN has repeated the same refrain regarding “the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” In April 2021 US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide also expressed shared opposition to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” and reiterated “shared interest in a free and open South China Sea governed by international law, in which freedom of navigation and overflight are guaranteed,” consistent with UNCLOS. Yet, a strong rules-based maritime order appears elusive.

Despite apparent regional consensus on the benefits of a rules-based maritime order, why do tensions keep rising and the applicability of international rules and norms to the region’s maritime spaces continue to weaken? Authors of “Advancing a Rules-based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific,” an Issues & Insights edited volume, provide three categories of answers: lack of good faith, inherent weaknesses in regional multilateral mechanisms, and the politics surrounding “great-power competition.”

First, some countries continue to insist on maritime claims already declared invalid or without basis under international law by a competent, authoritative international tribunal. There is, therefore, a lack of good faith vis-à-vis adherence to related international legal regimes. In the South China Sea, Beijing insists on its nine-dash line, a claim rejected in July 2016 by an arbitration tribunal constituted in The Hague under Annex VII of UNCLOS. China has also sought to reverse Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, not through peaceful means such as judicial procedures, but coercive maneuvers in the East China Sea.

This lack of good faith and blatant disregard for international law is evident in Beijing’s dispatch of fishing vessels with maritime militia to neighboring states’ exclusive economic zones that fall within the discredited nine-dash line. China has also used its Coast Guard and other government vessels to question the longstanding control and jurisdiction of many Indo-Pacific littoral states over their waters, and to change the status quo. In maritime security parlance, these actions are called gray-zone operations—activities not rising to the level of an armed attack but consequential enough to achieve security or political objectives.

Regional states struggle to respond to these types of activities. For US allies, Washington’s security commitment is triggered by an “armed attack,” not gray-zone challenges. Hence, deterrence through collective defense has been difficult. The Philippines, for instance, lost Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012 because of a failure to respond to Beijing’s gray-zone maneuvers. Many in Japan have expressed concerns about China’s intrusions into the waters of the Senkaku Islands as well. For instance, how to respond to Chinese government vessels, which under international law enjoy sovereign immunity, entering the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands and refusing to leave isn’t obvious. Some actions could very well trigger war. For other regional states, dealing with an increasing Chinese presence in their waters is more difficult owing to factors such as insufficient maritime domain awareness and weak offshore law enforcement capacity.

Second, while ASEAN-led institutions remain important to advancing a rules-based maritime order in the Indo-Pacific, they are not designed to address high-stakes security issues, especially involving the great powers. The “ASEAN Way” of non-interference and consensus in decision-making constrains regional mechanisms’ effectiveness in dealing with maritime disputes. They allow for discussions on some functional cooperative engagements, but do not shape the strategic environment in ways that strengthen the rule of law. For instance, the so-called South China Sea Code of Conduct never materialized despite countless meetings between ASEAN and China since 1995. Moreover, as Kyoko Hatakeyama discusses in her Issues & Insights piece, the Quad has struggled to achieve a united front necessary to prop up maritime rule of law because its four participating countries have different threat perceptions, priorities, and approaches vis-a-vis China.

Finally, the framing of maritime issues as part of the US-China “strategic rivalry” or “competition” has been counterproductive. Many regional states do not want to take part in that competition. More importantly, that framing has led to two narratives that prevent many states from taking stronger positions based on international law: 1) false equivalence that equates legitimate US maritime operations and regional presence as akin to China’s disruptive, illegal, and domineering behavior; and 2) an impression that Washington and Beijing are forcing Southeast Asians to take sides between them—hence strong pushback from regional leaders and decision-makers. As a result, when the United States or its allies and partners insist on adherence to international law, some regional states hear an anti-China push. Instead of “competition with China,” the United States and its allies and partners should focus on advancing a rules-based maritime order in which all countries, big and small, can benefit.

This volume dissects the multifaceted maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific from multiple perspectives, and explores policy options to advance a more rules-based maritime order. Shuxian Luo surveys six maritime crises between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and between Japan and the Republic of Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima, arguing that crisis prevention should be a priority.

Ishii Yurika’s paper explains how the unique structure of Japan’s national security law has created challenges by hampering seamless coordination between Japan Coast Guard and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and effective alliance between Japan and the United States. Kanehara Atsuko’s chapter contends that in the maritime security context, the “rule of law” consists of three principles: making and clarifying claims based on international law, not using force or coercion to drive claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means.

Nguyen Thi Lan Huong highlights the importance of international law vis-à-vis the use of force at sea. She assesses China’s new Coast Guard law and its conformity with international law. Hatakeyama Kyoko focuses on the Quad, arguing that its embrace of two contradictory goals—maintain a rules-based order based on international law and promote a prosperous region without excluding China—makes it difficult to develop a framework for cooperation and set a clear purpose.

Virginia Watson proposes several recommendations, arguing that the “intensification of China’s global efforts to hard-wire geopolitical and security conditions alongside its hefty economic influence” have made the traditional alliance approach of the United States ineffective. Finally, John Bradford argues that the key to addressing the Indo-Pacific’s multifaceted challenges is improved governance capacity among the region’s coastal states and that maritime governance capacity-building, in particular, should be a priority for the US-Japan Alliance.

Jeffrey Ordaniel (jeffrey@pacforum.org) is Director for Maritime Security at the Pacific Forum. Concurrently, he is Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at Tokyo International University in Japan.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #31 – The Structural Limits of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative

As a hub of global economic activity and great power tensions, the Indo-Pacific is home to an increasing number of minilateral arrangements shaping the future of the region. Groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), as well as the Japan-America-India, Australia-Japan-India, and France-Australia-India trilaterals demonstrate this trend. The Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), launched in April 2021 and complementing the Australia-Japan-India trilateral, is the latest such venture.

China’s deep integration in the international financial system and status as “factory of the world” make global supply chains unsustainably China-centric. COVID-19 revealed many states’ over-dependence on China-centered value chains, and the SCRI seeks to reconfigure global supply chain networks to overcome such vulnerabilities.

The SCRI seeks to ensure global supply chains remain resilient to future “black swan” events, such as pandemics and geopolitical tensions. With several states prioritizing supply chain risk diversification, the SCRI can also further Indo-Pacific economic security dialogue between like-minded nations. Importantly, the SCRI can help balance against China’s rapidly expanding influence, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Yet, despite its merits, the SCRI faces considerable structural limitations.

Firstly, although primarily a geo-economic mechanism, the SCRI risks losing focus amid the intensifying regional power rivalry. The initiative is a product of strategic necessity brought about by the pandemic, yet this emphasis on supply chain management is frequently ignored in media and scholarship in favor of strategic positioning vis-a-vis China. Yet, like Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and India’s Act East Policy, the SCRI is not necessarily an anti-China venture.

China-dependent supply chains are a major concern for both smaller and major powers across many critical sectors, including essential pharmaceutical products, food, and industrial raw materials. However, the SCRI does not aim to entirely re-route existing supply chains; this would require complete economic decoupling from China, an unfeasible (and undesirable) goal considering Beijing’s economic clout. Instead, it seeks to build alternative, resilient supply chains to reduce over-dependency, diversify risk, and enhance ability to absorb future market disruptions. Rather than isolating China, the aim is to ensure national economies can withstand adversity. The focus on enhancing cooperation with like-minded nations is drawn on the imperative of building “a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment.” The focus on inclusivity implies openness to dialogue (or participation) with all nations committed to similar ideals—even China.

Secondly, the SCRI remains far-fetched, even overly ambitious. Despite their broad-based synergy on China (or matters relating to China), the main proponents of the SCRI—Australia, India, and Japan—have gaps in their global multilateral practices, including trade and economic outlooks. This will limit the progress of the SCRI. For instance, Japan’s reluctance to support the expansion of the G7 to include India and Australia highlights how national interest considerations supersede any prospects of regional cooperation. Japan is a trading economy, and supply chains are critical to its growth. This is not true for India, which prioritizes manufacturing and innovation, even while aspiring to enhance integration with other economies before it can emerge as a trading nation. These differences could impact the SCRI’s direction and the importance each state gives it.

Thirdly, no clear vision currently exists among SCRI founders on how to shape their initiative. To succeed, a clear plan or charter is vital. The lack of a guiding document risks hampering cooperation, as has been the case with the Quad and Quad-plus, which has only picked up steam over the past year amid increased tensions with China. A similar problem emerged with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Although India and Australia became AIIB members, Japan and the United States opposed it. With RCEP, Japan and Australia could not continue engaging (or supporting) India, displaying a lack of coordination and resulting in New Delhi’s withdrawal from this mega-trade deal.

These examples show the need for a common understanding, agreed framework, and concentrated dialogue to shape and implement the initiative. A charter would be useful in laying down expectations and requirements for the SCRI. As founding members consider the SCRI’s expansion “based on consensus” and acknowledge the importance of business and academia in further developing it, a charter could be critical in coding and committing to an “inclusive” outlook. A formal document would also mitigate criticisms that the initiative is a cartel or “anti-China,” potentially opening the door to induction for Beijing (or even to countries aligned strongly with Beijing) and allowing the Australia-Japan-India trilateral a rulebook to regulate China’s actions.

Fourthly, the SCRI remains limited to its founding members. With its focus on recalibrating global supply chains, expansion to include the United States must be explored. This would make the SCRI a derivative of the Quad, strengthening the Indo-Pacific concept and furthering their supply chain goals. President Biden’s recent comprehensive supply chain review outlined Washington’s need to build “resilient, diverse, and secure” supply chains; SCRI integration could be a productive move forward.

Similarly, the SCRI must consider full/partial participation of key economies and economic blocs—including ASEAN, the European Union (especially France, given its Indo-Pacific focus), and the United Kingdom. Several such entities, including the United States and ASEAN, have sought to reconfigure supply chains to reduce dependence on China and increase resiliency, but made no concerted effort in this direction. While the SCRI might be an Asian exercise, its ambition to create diverse, expansive, inclusive, and resilient supply chains mandates involvement by other major and middle-ranked economies everywhere. Moreover, the participation of technologically advanced actors beyond Asia would prove crucial given the SCRI’s focus on digital technologies. 

The SCRI’s success will depend on inroads it can make with ASEAN. With Australia-Japan-India at its core, the SCRI promotes inclusivity and multipolarity, but also seeks to build Asia-driven (or Indo-Pacific-driven) supply chains. Japan and India are key East Asian and South Asian economic powers; Australia is a major Indo-Pacific actor closely connected to Asia. In relative comprehensive national power, the Lowy Institute’s 2020 Asia Index placed Japan third in the region, India fourth, Australia sixth, and the United States first (with China a close second). Connecting with ASEAN will be economically lucrative and promote the SCRI’s “Asian” vision.

Despite its merits, the SCRI is structurally limited right now. Yet with economic transformation and post-pandemic recovery shaping regional power distribution, the expectations for the SCRI are immense. To meet expectations, the Australia-Japan-India trilateral must acknowledge the challenges and shape the initiative adequately to overcome them.

Dr. Jagannath Panda (jppjagannath@gmail.com) is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.”

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #29 – Ideating an India-France-UK Trilateral for the Indo-Pacific

Multilateral modes of dialogue—in which regional powers lead and stakeholder states actively participate—are increasingly drawing the Indo-Pacific’s political map. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—India, Japan, the United States, and Australia—has gained tremendous importance while trilaterals, like India-Japan-Australia, Japan-US-Australia, and the recently established India-Australia-France dialogue have further expanded the region’s security outlook. As China’s power grows, an increasingly number of states have begun reorienting their strategies toward the Indo-Pacific. France and Germany have formally adopted the “Indo-Pacific” terminology; the Quad’s third ministerial even highlighted Europe’s increasing support.

In this context, India’s growing ties with the United Kingdom and France can potentially build a new trilateral that can shape the maritime future of the Indo-Pacific—politically, economically, and in the security realm.

France hopes to build a “stable, multipolar order” driven by rule of law, free and open movement, and practical multilateralism; it identifies the Indo-Pacific as the “heart” of this strategic vision. France’s €200 million (about $242 million) COVID-response fund for India, promise of armed forces support in the immediate aftermath of the Galwan clash, and speedy delivery of Rafale jets are evidence of New Delhi’s importance to Paris. In line with France’s growing focus on the Indo-Pacific and India—further highlighted by the India-Australia-France trilateral—the time to upgrade their strategic partnership to a “special” or “comprehensive” bilateral has arrived. France-India synergy is quickly gathering momentum and can shape the future of India’s maritime security, especially in the Western Indian Ocean, traditionally a key area of influence for France. Paris’ support of European engagement in the Indo-Pacific—highlighted by its contributions to an increased European Union presence in regional forums such as the strategic partnership with ASEAN—and the priority it gives to improving the regional military power balance makes France a novel choice as a trilateral partner.

Concurrently, amidst a tense post-Brexit geopolitical landscape, deteriorating ties with China, and the financial challenges of COVID-19, London realizes that previous alliances are “all in question.” London’s report Global Britain in a Competitive Age highlights how the United Kingdom wants “deeper engagement” in the Indo-Pacific and recognizes the “importance of [regional] powers” such as India. UK Secretary of State Dominic Raab’s 2020 visit to India saw the two states prioritize creating a decade-long “360 degree roadmap” for upgrading the India-UK partnership. They have also classified UK-India ties as a “global force for good” and upgraded them to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The United Kingdom also invited India to be part of the 2021 G7 meeting during its presidency.

India welcomes the Indo-Pacific-driven shift from both countries. France’s importance to India’s changing China policy has grown, while the United Kingdom is taking on a prominent role in India’s Indo-Pacific outlook. Furthermore, ties between the two European powers themselves have taken on a nuanced shape post-Brexit. While surface hostility translates into sparring on financial matters, both countries recognize the other’s political importance. Economically, both countries have major stakes in the other. In the security realm, they are Europe’s two most significant military powers, have veto power in the UN Security Council (where they have supported India’s bid for permanent membership), and agree on most foreign policy issues (except the European Union). China is a mutual concern, yet all three states share strong economic ties with Beijing that they would like to salvage, especially in the difficult post-pandemic fiscal recovery.

Potential Areas of Growth

India’s Act East Policy has built strong ties between New Delhi and East/Southeast Asian economies that the United Kingdom and France can exploit for trade and economic benefit. Cooperation in renewable energy, climate change, sustainable supply chain creation, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy operations could mark a natural evolution of the trilateral. France, like India, wants an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific while acting as an “inclusive and stabilizing mediating power”; the United Kingdom’s “commitment to a multi-polar world” ties well with this overture.

As maritime democracies, a UK-France-India trilateral can build on the common goal of developing the blue economy, while improving ties with littoral states in the Indo-Pacific. The United Kingdom’s “Commonwealth Blue Charter”—of which India, as a commonwealth nation, is a party—highlights Britain’s goals for “sustainable ocean development” and can build commonwealth-driven multilateral synergy. Owing to its overseas territories, France possesses the second-largest marine zone in the world, rendering oceanic resources pivotal to its overall economy. India has begun drafting an official Blue Economy Policy post identifying the potential for maritime resources to be the “next multiplier of GDP.”

The blue economy can also link with the Japan-India-Australia-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative. Including the United Kingdom and France in this initiative could help expand it into Europe, finding synergy on vaccine cold chains, trade routes, maritime resource-sharing, and linking island states, creating a cross-continental connection between Europe and Asia. Furthermore, with India and Australia as member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and France, the United States, and Japan as dialogue partners, greater synergy could help promote deeper engagement with small-island nations, especially with Western/African Indian Ocean nations.

The trilateral will also provide immense scope for third-country cooperation—the 2019 meeting between leaders of France, India, and the Vanilla Islands on a French overseas territory marked such cooperation between France and India in the Western Indian Ocean. UK inclusion in such third-country cooperation—via the British Indian Ocean Territory—can strengthen India’s ties in the Indian Ocean, where China’s influence is rapidly growing. Given the United Kingdom, France, and India’s strong ties with Japan—and their interest in countering China’s political and economic clout in Africa—the trilateral could also link with the “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa” to boost connectivity in the Indo-Pacific domain. Importantly, politicization of the India-France International Solar Alliance (ISA) could build a bilateral vaccine partnership by providing solar-powered logistics, also simultaneously fulfilling the Quad’s vaccine partnership goals. The United Kingdom joined the ISA in 2018; cooperation via the organization with African and Asian economies in creating sustainable energy with infrastructural aid from the West can make the ISA a major foreign policy tool for taking on China’s Belt and Road Initiative via a “One Sun One World One Grid.”

Cooperation in the defense and security sector must also be actively advocated. The United Kingdom is one of the world’s most successful defense exporters; however, production has become more expensive. Meanwhile, a thriving defense export sector is crucial for Paris’s post-COVID economic recovery. As India begins its “pointed-alignment” strategy, recognizing India as a “base for production of defense equipment” could build a structured defense partnership for the trilateral.

Existing bilateral maritime security collaboration between the three states can further grow into one of the most significant avenues of cooperation. The Indo-French bilateral military exercise Varuna began in 1993; recently, the two increased interoperability capacity via Samudra Setu and Resilience operations. India and the United Kingdom have established maritime exercises such as the “Konkan Exercise” and army exercises like “Ajeya Warrior.” The United Kingdom’s deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific region later in 2021 for maritime exercises with Japan provides scope for India to engage in a maritime trilateral with them; France’s inclusion can also be espoused. Beyond joint trilateral maritime exercises, the United Kingdom and France could also join with the Quad in Malabar, similar to the Quad’s recent inclusion in the French La Perouse exercise.

A trilateral with India—especially given Paris and London’s bilateral attempts at improving relations with New Delhi—can enhance cooperation and address shared interests. It will give the United Kingdom a link to the European Union via France in Indo-Pacific security outreach and aid India in promoting Europe’s deeper integration as a security and political player in the region. Its ideation as the Indo-Pacific’s next vital trilateral must receive urgent strategic focus.

Eerishika Pankaj (eerishikap@gmail.com) is an Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia. Ms. Pankaj was also selected as a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is also a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section. She can be reached @eerishika on Twitter.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #28 – Thanks to COVID and China, the Quad is a Sealed Deal

The first ever leaders meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on March 12 had more than symbolic import. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian PM Narendra Modi, Japanese PM Suga Yoshihide, and US President Biden took place in virtual mode. Nonetheless, it was significant in laying the tracks for the Indo-Pacific vision, as explained by the Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement. Reaffirming the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, the “spirit” is premised on a joint commitment to “a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond” and support “the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity.”

The joint declaration released by the four leaders laid the foundation of this “spirit.” Even before the summit, the leaders penned a joint op-ed where they clearly stated the “quest [is] for a region that is open and free.”

However, the precursor to this leaders-level meeting was set by the Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo in October 2020, which defied the norm of virtual meetings. The leaders’ meeting signaled the institutionalization of the Quad, clearly suggesting that the forum is here to stay. Some resonance can be drawn from former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement last October: “Once we’ve institutionalized what we’re doing—the four of us together—we can begin to build out a true security framework.” Furthermore, this Quad meeting also clarified the intentions of the new leadership in both the US and Japan under the respective Biden and Suga administrations. While there was anxiety over whether President Biden would follow the footsteps of his predecessor on the Indo-Pacific, Biden’s calling of the meeting alleviated such concerns, affirming America’s commitment to pursuing its Indo-Pacific vision.

And Biden is not alone in this commitment.

Growing Interest and Institutionalism

Having first met in 2007, the Quad quickly lost traction thereafter, only revived in 2017 when the four countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in Manila. Since then, the Quad countries have met twice a year. Additionally, in 2019, the grouping upgraded its dialogue to the level of foreign minister/secretary of state—with two meetings so far. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new boost to the Indo-Pacific vision, as exemplified by the upgrade to the “Quad Plus,” with the addition of New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam. Add to this the growing interest among countries, such as Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to become party to the Indo-Pacific vision. This expansion of interest exemplifies the growing need to maintain an open, free maritime corridor in the region.

Furthermore, the very idea of the grouping is rooted in maritime security and stability. For the Quad, initially launched in response to the devastating 2004 tsunami, the pandemic triggered an expansion of the security canvas enveloping both non-traditional and traditional security concerns. This is exemplified by the joint pledge of the Quad: “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains.”

This expansive portfolio demonstrates that China is mistaken to believe—and argue—that it is the “cause” behind the Quad. Yet, it is also true that the “China factor” cannot be discounted. The artificial island buildup in the South China Sea and the unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea have accentuated the PRC threat in the Indo-Pacific. Concomitantly, China’s increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) presents further complications. Specifically, PLA Navy activities, such as the deployment of submarines, anti-piracy operations, live-fire drills in the IOR, the establishment of an overseas military base in Djibouti and, finally, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—resulting in port activities and base facilities in the IOR—have raised red flags regarding whether China intends to become an expeditionary force, willing and able to intervene in matters beyond its borders. This has prompted further calls for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” based on a rules-based order “anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.”

How China Boosts the Quad

Such shared concerns constitute a binding factor for the Quad but also make Beijing anxious. Hours before the leaders’ meeting, Chinese China’s Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Zhao Lijian categorically remarked that “relevant countries” should “refrain from pursuing exclusive blocs.”

Yet, despite Beijing’s protests, the leaders’ summit only confirms that the Quad is here to stay. One can rightly posit that the old logic of alliance and containment has not changed, but is now taking the form of a multilateral framework. The more assertive China becomes in testing its adversaries’ resolve in a variety of quarters the more it lends credence to the Quad, thus causing a greater tilt among countries toward “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The primary outcome of this tilt is witnessed in that the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision is gaining currency among more countries who seek to become party to it. With security as the lynchpin, the vision will take a formal posture in the near future, and China’s expansionist policy under its Belt and Road Initiative will only provide greater momentum toward a potential security alliance.

Dr. Amrita Jash is Research Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. She can be reached at: @amritajash

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

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PacNet #22 – Russia and Myanmar: Moscow’s Expanding Influence?

An earlier version of this article was published at RSIS

In recent years, Russia’s relations with Myanmar have strengthened, particularly in the defense sector. Russia is the second largest source of weapons for Myanmar, slightly behind China, according to a March 18 analysis by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute; between 2000 and 2019, Myanmar purchased $1.7 billion worth of arms from China and $1.44 billion from Russia.

Not surprisingly, links between both countries’ military establishments are openly warm. In November 2020, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks via video link with the Myanmar military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. It was stated that Russia was ready to expand cooperation with Myanmar, including joint work in the framework of the “ADMM-Plus” expert working group on countering terrorism.

Supplying Myanmar with Missiles

Shoigu was quoted as saying that despite the pandemic, “we continue to implement military delegation exchange events, including with your personal participation.” Shoigu also congratulated General Min on being awarded an honorary doctorate from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He was given the title of “Honorary Professor of the Military University” of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as well as the medal “for distinction.” In turn, General Min noted that despite the geographical distance, “we keep in touch, and you support us in difficult moments.”

Regular visits by high-level Russian defense officials as well as Myanmar military officers to each other’s countries have unsurprisingly taken place. The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar publication reported on Jan. 25 that Shoigu’s January visit to Myanmar illustrated that both sides planned to expand military cooperation.

Russia agreed to supply Myanmar with Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones, and radar equipment, the publication added. Noteworthy is the publication’s quoting General Min as saying that “just like a loyal friend, Russia has always supported Myanmar in difficult moments, especially in the last four years.”

Mutual Political Support? 

General Min reportedly has visited Russia six times, the last having taken place in May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany—a very important and symbolic holiday in Russia.

Myanmar sends its officers to Russian military academies for training, as well as to China, India, Japan, and Israel. Its military also participated in some Russian military exercises.

Political support from Russia has not been found wanting. Russia, with China, ensured that the UN Security Council could not issue a statement condemning the military’s assumption of power in Myanmar in February. However, as the situation deteriorated, both countries supported a UNSC resolution in March which condemned the use of force, inter alia.

Nevertheless, the presence of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin at the March 27 Army Day in Naypyidaw was a clear signal of Moscow’s determination to pursue its interests there. Fomin was quoted as saying that Russia “adheres to a strategic line to intensify relations between the two countries.”

He added that Myanmar was considered a reliable ally and strategic partner in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific region. Fomin received a medal from General Min during his visit which he stressed was to reciprocate the Myanmar general’s visit to Moscow in May 2020. Myanmar also coincidentally approved Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in early February.

Russian Motivations

Russia’s most immediate consideration is obviously commercial. Myanmar is a good and welcome customer of Russian weapons. At this point in time, Russian weapons sales constitute the bulk of its economic interaction with Myanmar.

Second, Russia also seeks to raise its geopolitical profile in the region, and to signal to Myanmar (and its ASEAN neighbors) and the world at large, that Russia would not allow Western pressure on Myanmar to guide, let alone dictate its policy on the country.

In doing so, Russia is fully aware that in the face of Western sanctions and severe criticism of Myanmar’s military leadership, its support for Myanmar could become an additional apple of discord between Russia and the West.

Third, Russia wants to add weight to its long-stated stance that there should be no interference into the internal affairs of a sovereign state and in the process, indirectly cock another snook at the West. Syria was the first case in which Russia challenged Western attempts to change the status quo.

Fourth, its strong support for Myanmar also indirectly complements China’s backing of that country while ensuring that should Chinese influence wane, Russia’s might increase. Having the overall support of at least one of two UN Security Council Permanent Members is important to Myanmar.

Of late, China has become a target of Myanmar’s opposition forces. Some of its businesses were subjected to physical attacks in March. Moreover, Myanmar’s military itself is reportedly ambivalent about China’s growing influence in the country. China is a major investor and trade partner of Myanmar, unlike Russia.

Russia’s Southeast Asia Foothold Through Myanmar?

Russia’s actions have naturally been welcomed by Myanmar. There must be no doubt that it will remain a leading supplier of weapons as well as a reliable political supporter.

Overall, however, having a foothold in Myanmar does not automatically lead to Russia becoming a major player in the region, until and unless its economic interactions with the rest of ASEAN, including Myanmar itself, rises considerably and outside the military/defense sector.

At the same time, Russia must tread carefully in Myanmar, lest China become alarmed at any rapid and considerable increase in its influence, while China’s is lessened, for one reason or another.

Moreover, unlike China, Russia’s relatively exiguous resources are concentrated in its relations with the former Soviet republics and the West.

Ultimately, whether Russia becomes a major player in Myanmar and Southeast Asia is also dependent on whether it has the will and inclination to move away from its current and entrenched China-centric policy (towards the East) and devotes the necessary resources and energy to that end. As of now, that remains much in doubt.

Chris Cheang (iscacheang@ntu.edu.sg) is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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PacNet #17 – Japan and South Korea’s Alternative Paths in the Indo-Pacific

Following the first ever Quad Summit Meeting held virtually on March 12, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III travelled to Tokyo and Seoul to hold 2+2 meetings with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Although the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliance function as the “cornerstone” and “linchpin” behind US strategy in Northeast Asia, the two allies have significantly differed in their response to Washington’s call for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Nor have Tokyo and Seoul restored their fraught relationship since hitting a low point in 2019, as historical tensions triggered Japanese export controls and South Korean threats to pull out of an intelligence sharing agreement. As the Biden administration seeks to strengthen Indo-Pacific cooperation in light of growing competition with China, the gap between Japan and South Korea’s regional strategy opens the US and its allies to strategic vulnerability in a corridor of Asia that has traditionally represented the “core of US power and influence in Asia.”

Differing Indo-Pacific Pathways

When the Trump administration first unrolled the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy in 2017, Tokyo and Seoul offered contrasting responses. Japan had adopted its own Indo-Pacific strategy even before the US. As one of the originators of the concept, Japan readily embraced and aligned its Indo-Pacific strategy with the US.

As part of the 3+1 principles guiding FOIP, Trump and Abe reached an agreement in 2017 that would (1) promote and establish fundamental values, (2) pursue economic prosperity, and (3) work toward peace and stability. In addition, both leaders emphasized non-exclusivity—their willingness to work with any country sharing the same vision of FOIP. Tokyo and Washington thus coordinated their policies and projects over maritime security, energy, infrastructure, and digital connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. Enhancing a rules-based regional order has thus become the shared objective to address challenges emanating from China.

In contrast to Tokyo, Seoul showed little initial interest in FOIP. Only when it became diplomatically untenable did South Korea begin to acknowledge the Indo-Pacific narrative adopted by other regional players. Meanwhile, the Moon Jae-in government emphasized its own New Southern Policy (NSP), a strategy readily compatible with FOIP given its focus on deepening diplomatic and economic ties with ASEAN and India, but absent any robust defense or security commitments.

South Korea and Washington have since moved to explore synergies between the NSP and FOIP. The Biden administration also continues to endorse the principle of a free and open Pacific region. However, Seoul remains cautious in recognizing the strategic elements of FOIP. Most notably, despite its status as a consolidated democracy with a modernized military and advanced economy, South Korea has kept the Quad, a grouping former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo once described as “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” at arm’s length. Seoul’s involvement has been limited to “Quad-plus” dialogues addressing cybersecurity and COVID-19 issues.

Perceptions that the Indo-Pacific concept originated from Japan may have contributed to the Moon government’s lukewarm response to FOIP, especially during a period of escalating Korea-Japan tensions. More likely, however, Seoul has treaded lightly over FOIP and the Quad to avoid antagonizing China. South Korean businesses had already suffered from heavy financial loss as a direct result of Chinese economic coercion after Seoul accepted the deployment of a US missile defense system.

All regional actors, including Japan and South Korea, have at some point hedged vis-a-vis the two regional superpowers. Since Abe, however, Japan’s strategic posture of balancing has become more clear, even as it has diversified its foreign policy toolkit. Recognizing that the US influence in the region is in relative decline, Japan has adopted a two-pronged strategy to address its security needs against the backdrop of a more assertive China: beefing up the US-Japan alliance, and building security networks with “likeminded” countries in the region such as the Quad framework.

For historical and geopolitical reasons, however, Seoul perceives vulnerabilities from US-Sino competition much more acutely than Tokyo. Geopolitical rivalry between Russia, China, and Japan in the 19th century eventually resulted in Korea’s colonization by Japan. In the 20thcentury, Korea fell victim to superpower rivalry and the brewing Cold War that led to national division, and later the outbreak of a devastating war. Now, in the 21st century, South Korea seeks to avoid becoming collateral damage again as US-Sino rivalry intensifies.

While Tokyo has doubled down on US leadership and the US-Japan alliance, South Korea has tried its best to avoid getting entangled in US-Sino competition. The Moon government believes it can best navigate geopolitical tensions by standing firm on the US-South Korea alliance, but minimizing its participation in FOIP to maintain cordial relations with its largest trading partner and a major stakeholder in establishing inter-Korea peace. So far, the strategy seems to be working. US-South Korea relations remain robust. Meanwhile, Seoul and Beijing last November announced their own “2+2” dialogue covering security and diplomatic issues as part of their 10-point consensus. However, it is unclear if Seoul’s strategy is tenable if Beijing continues to challenge the existing regional order, ultimately undermining even South Korea’s long term regional interests.

Greater Indo-Pacific Convergence on the Horizon

Although Tokyo and Seoul have yet to move towards rapprochement, recent signs since President Biden has taken office suggest that the two US allies may at least be inching towards some convergence in their Indo-Pacific approach. President Moon shared his willingness to improve ties with Japan earlier this month. South Korea experts are also warming up to the idea of the Quad.

While Washington’s immediate goal is strengthening trilateral cooperation, a boost in South Korea-Japan relations will also enhance the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific order. Secretary of State Blinken, who championed US-Japan-Korea trilateral relations during his tenure as deputy secretary of state in the Obama White House, may also prove to be a persuasive interlocutor in drawing Seoul and Tokyo towards a truce. The US is particularly eager to take advantage of trilateral relations with respect to addressing Korean peace and denuclearization, and also strengthening Indo-Pacific initiatives such as cybersecurity, infrastructure development, climate change, and most recently, COVID-19 vaccination strategies. Through Japan’s FOIP and South Korea’s NSP, both countries also have an interest in supporting economic development, sustainable growth, and human capacity-building in Southeast Asia, a region that has grown in importance in the Indo-Pacific era.

Conclusion: Seize the Opportunity

Of course, any convergence in Indo-Pacific strategies brings us back to the question of regional order. At the tactical level, it may be tempting to equate the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy with the degree of policy coordination among US allies and partners. Drawing South Korea more tightly into FOIP and improving US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation would certainly count as a win for the Biden administration. However, the success of FOIP will ultimately depend on how well it can protect and promote the rule of law, democratic values, free trade, regional governance, and maritime security—the public goods that South Korea and Japan both desire and benefit from. The Biden administration has opened an opportunity for allies and partners to collaborate toward that goal. Japan and South Korea should seize that moment to work together.

Andrew Yeo (YEO@cua.edu) is Professor of Politics and Director of Asian Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. He is the author of Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century. 

Kei Koga (kkei@ntu.edu.sg) is Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). His recent publications include Japan’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ question: countering China or shaping a new regional order? (International Affairs, 2020).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #14 – Biden vs Trump on China Policy: Similar Substance, but Style Matters

The following is the second in a two-part series on the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China. Click here for part one on the expected continuities from the Trump administration.

Having examined several key aspects of the US-China relationship that will likely see more continuity than change under President Joe Biden’s administration, I will now examine some areas of expected divergence.

To begin with the most obvious point, former President Donald Trump and Biden have different profiles and personalities along almost every conceivable dimension. Whereas Trump was inexperienced, Biden has been operating at the top levels of US foreign policy for almost a half-century, including as a leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Whereas Trump preferred to fly by the seat of his pants, Biden prefers meticulous preparation in consultation with experienced advisors. Whereas Trump had a fraught relationship with many US allies and partners, Biden has already demonstrated a core commitment to leading a more consultative strategic policy. And where Trump often relied on superficialities in his personal relationships with foreign leaders—think of the exchanges of letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or the attempts at flattery with Russian President Vladimir Putin—Biden actually gets to know them and develops genuine rapport, the importance of which should not be underestimated in the world of diplomacy. This applies not only to Biden’s deep relationships with many US allies and partners, but his long association with more adversarial competitors like Chinese President Xi Jinping as well.

Biden, who has known Xi for almost a decade, had dozens of hours of private meetings with him, traveled thousands of miles with him, and will almost certainly have more cordial and candid personal interactions with the Chinese leader, which may contribute to a better read of his intentions and more effective bilateral communication. Following their first exchange on Feb. 10, Chinese state media said it showed “in-depth communication” and remarked that it was a “very positive” sign that the call lasted for more than two hours.

Another key difference will be greater interagency coordination within the US government, as many inexperienced officials and Trump loyalists have been replaced with policy experts. Longtime State Department official James Dobbins noted that during the Trump administration “many outsiders were recruited, far more than normal, but few had even a modicum of relevant experience. Those who did, for instance the individuals charged with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear portfolios, could never overcome the obstacle posed by flawed presidential policy.”

By contrast, most of Biden’s senior foreign policy officials have deep experience in government, as well as (in Dobbins’ words) a “reputation for competence and collegiality.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, for example, had earlier served as a top aide to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Secretary of State Antony Blinken first joined the NSC under the Clinton administration in 1994, serving in a succession of senior foreign policy positions ever since. And the officials operating at lower levels of the ladder within the various key bureaucracies—the undersecretaries, deputy secretaries, ambassadors, and so forth—are similarly versed in their areas of responsibility. Expertise on China in particular is impressive, with well-known experts like Rush Doshi, Michael Chase, and Laura Rosenberger given prominent posts at the Defense Department and NSC. All of which should contribute to fewer unforced errors in the new administration; if and when President Biden takes a phone call from the president of Taiwan, for example, as President-elect Trump did in December 2016, few in the China-watching community will be scratching their heads and questioning whether it was a considered decision or one made on the fly.

A final key difference between the old and new administrations will be a greater emphasis by Biden on coalition-building, a necessary element of any China policy yet one that was constantly neglected by virtue of personal style during the Trump years. Given the current size and projected growth trajectory of the Chinese economy, Washington does not have sufficient leverage to compel any changes in Beijing unilaterally; buy-in from our allies and partners will be necessary for there to be any hope on that front. Nevertheless, Trump repeatedly picked unnecessary fights with key Indo-Pacific allies over isolated matters such as South Korean alliance contributions and US-Japanese trade negotiations, stoking resentment and concerns about Washington’s reliability. Having served as a senior Korea analyst for the US military during the first several years of the Trump administration, I can testify to how much hair was pulled out by policymakers during these sorts of diplomatic scuffles, and the costs to our reputation were real and severe.

Given enough time, though, Biden may be able to heal some of this damage and restore at least some confidence in American leadership among our traditional allies. Biden will likely also seek to expand this counter-China effort to newer partners like India, capitalizing on preexisting border tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. There is also increasing US pressure on NATO allies to become more engaged on the China portfolio, as witnessed in recent years as Washington lobbied various European nations to block installation of Huawei communications infrastructure or risk compromising intelligence cooperation. Somewhat surprisingly, Europe has begun to show positive signs in this direction. Earlier this month, France deployed two naval vessels, including a nuclear attack submarine to the South China Sea to show solidarity with the US, Australia, and Japan, and the UK has made similar moves in the recent past. China analysts continue watching to see if these initial moves are followed up over time with a more sustained campaign.

In short, the new Biden administration will offer sharp changes for the US on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, and China will see some changes as well as outlined above. In keeping with the thesis of my earlier article, however, it is important to put these changes in perspective and note how they are generally more stylistic than substantive. In aggregate, our China policy will almost certainly be one of the areas that experiences the least modification in the Biden White House. The former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously called for his nation to “hide its strength and bide its time” rather than make a blatant dash for superpower status. But as Secretary Blinken remarkedduring his confirmation hearings last month,

what we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since the rise of Xi Jinping as the leader, has been that the hiding and biding has gone away. They are much more assertive in making clear that they seek to become in effect the leading country in the world, the country that sets the norms, that sets the standards, and to put forward a model they hope other countries and people will ascribe to.

As this realization has become less and less debatable, it has driven China hands from different ideological persuasions to set aside their disagreements and come together to focus on this emerging and systemic global challenge. Given that US-China relations will arguably be the most important strategic issue of our time, preserving this consensus will be essential, especially in an age where so little else in Washington is bipartisan any longer.

Eric Feinberg (eric.m.feinberg@jhu.edu) is a postgraduate student in the Strategic Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and a Young Leader at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. Prior to SAIS, he was a senior Asia analyst at US Special Operations Command Pacific and a military intelligence analyst at US Army Pacific in Honolulu.

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