PacNet #3 Abe was key to the Indo-Pacific’s evolution

This is a transitional moment for the Indo-Pacific. Regional governments are forging new security relationships—the Japan-Australia partnership is the leading edge, as various European governments jostle for inclusion—and new institutions are emerging—from AUKUS to the Quad in the security sphere and at the same time, economic configurations include CPTPP and RCEP.

How did we get here? There are several explanations. Realists insist that rising powers create instability, triggered either by their ambition or the hegemon’s insecurity. For others, the unraveling of the architecture of coexistence, in which China provided markets and the US provided security, was the problem. To my mind, there are still more basic explanations.

First, you need a threat, a source of instability big enough to motivate states to act. With all due respect to John Mearsheimer, China doesn’t fit the bill—at least, not until recently. China has been rising for decades and while that created concern, there wasn’t concerted action to balance against it until Xi Jinping took power. He inherited a powerhouse economy and a modernizing military and married them to ambition and vision—a Belt and Road Initiative that girdled the globe—to pursue the China dream. His ascension and his muscular foreign policy unnerved governments worldwide. If the dream belonged to the nation, it is Xi who acted to make it real: The elimination of rivals, the consolidation of power, and efforts to entrench himself in office make plain that he is a singular world-historical individual who drives decision making in Beijing.

That security threat has been magnified by perceived unreliability on the United States. It’s tempting to blame Donald Trump for this. He created considerable unease with his disdain for alliances, contempt for multilateralism, and narrowly defined view of US national interests, but concern predates his administration. The US refusal to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a strategic agreement masquerading as a trade deal that Washington was instrumental in negotiating, is the most glaring example, and that was President Obama’s fault. The failure to ensure that China honored the purported agreement to withdraw its forces from Scarborough Shoal was another blow to US credibility.

Trump’s mercurial and transactional approach to policy crystalized fears and left allies and partners wondering what might be next. While the worst predictions did not come true, the damage was done. Governments around the region know that even if Trump departed, Trumpism remains, and his foreign policy mindset could reassert itself in Washington even if he did not return to power.

More alarming, though, is a realization that a “mainstream,” traditionally minded president like Joe Biden can still unsettle the status quo. The withdrawal from Afghanistan rattled even those allies who approved of the decision but were alarmed by the incompetence of its execution and the lack of consultation. The persistence of Trump’s thinking about economic security, manifest most plainly in tariffs that remain in place against allies, is another source of concern. Other moves, such as the abrupt cancellation of the France-Australian submarine agreement and the substitution of a UK-US deal, reinforce a belief that Washington’s field of vision is narrowing and that allies and partners play increasingly bit roles.

A third factor that shaped the region’s evolution was the tenure of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. His was one of the most remarkable second acts in world politics. After a brutal failure during his first term as prime minister, he returned to the Kantei for a period of stability, energy, and creativity unrivaled in Japan’s modern history.

The fact that Abe stayed in office as long as he did—he claimed the record for the longest-serving PM in the country’s history—transformed perceptions of Japan. His determination to modernize the country’s national security bureaucracy and subsequent commitment to using that power and purpose to support a wobbling regional order yielded institutions—the CPTPP and the Quad, to name but two—pillars of the emerging architecture.

A fourth and final key factor is a conceptual framework, the Indo-Pacific. Abe championed this concept, but it deserves recognition on its own. While the idea of an Indo-Pacific strategic space had been employed by US Pacific Command combatant commanders from the late 1980s, Abe elevated that idea to a guiding principle in his 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament in which he spoke of “the confluence of two seas.” Obama’s “rebalance” incorporated the concept, but it didn’t assume prominence until the Trump administration adopted the framework in 2017.

The Indo-Pacific is a curious geographical space. China is physically in the middle, but it’s bracketed between two democratic powers. The inclusion of India as a geopolitical counterweight to China is one of the most obvious intentions of its proponents. More important, that Indo-Pacific frame is a predominately maritime domain and links the strategic space to the trade routes that run through its heart. In addition, the inclusion of the Indian Ocean invites European countries with an African presence to be engaged. These considerations expand the number of countries that can claim an interest in events within that region. It is thus an inherently inclusive framework, which allows more countries to participate in regional security affairs.

The key variable appears to have been Abe—which means that our current moment may well result from considerable luck. Abe was a break with history, and Japan appears to be resorting to kind. His successor was in office for just a year. His successor, Kishida Fumio, is popular, but he is a traditional Japanese politician who mediates among factions and plays down his own opinions. There is mounting evidence that the Japanese public is increasingly inward-focused, cautious, and risk-averse. It can be led, but Kishida will have to have vision, charisma, competence, and luck, especially given the challenging circumstances—COVID, China, and a distracted ally.

Still, trajectories have been set, and that will allow bureaucracies to follow through. Headwinds will grow, but there is enough momentum and energy to believe that a genuine regional security architecture will emerge.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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 #49 – Xi Jinping’s top five foreign policy mistakes

Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy is stimulating increased international opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda, undoing years of effort by Chinese officials to assure regional governments that a stronger China will be peaceful and non-domineering. Here are five examples of Xi’s self-defeating decision-making in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) foreign relations.

Wolf Warriorism

Xi has ordered his diplomats to demonstrate “fighting spirit” and to “dare to show their swords.” Accordingly, over the past two years Chinese diplomats have aimed jarring insults and threats at various countries, not just Western democracies, but also Brazil, Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Thailand, and South Korea. The result is unsurprising. Public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center and other pollsters show a marked increase in negative feeling toward China since 2019 in Europe, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other countries. Former Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilihari Kausikan said “China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.” Chinese diplomats could defend their country’s actions differently. Instead, Wolf Warriorism acts as an extension of domestic politics, with little regard for harm done to China’s international prestige and relationships.

Galwan Valley skirmish

According to Indian sources, this June 2020 battle on the disputed Sino-Indian border began when Chinese troops ambushed and killed an Indian colonel who had approached the Chinese unarmed and in good faith to negotiate de-escalation. Whether or not Beijing ordered this particular act, a PRC policy of creeping expansionism made an eventual confrontation almost inevitable absent a tacit Indian surrender. For years the Chinese have built infrastructure to facilitate quick military mobilization in disputed areas. The Chinese government found it intolerable when the Indian side started to do the same in response.

The clash caused a long-term hardening of Indian attitudes and policy toward China. The Indian government cancelled several infrastructure construction deals with China, halted the purchase of Huawei information technology equipment, and sought to economically decouple from China in other important sectors. New Delhi re-committed itself to blocking Chinese expansion into disputed areas. India has signaled a deeper commitment to the Quad, was quick to express support for the AUKUS agreement, and now sends warships into the South China Sea—acts that Beijing finds threatening.

South China Sea policy

Having already distinguished itself as the most aggressive of the South China Sea claimants, Beijing started building sizeable artificial islands in 2013. China has now installed military facilities, including runways, docks, barracks, and missile batteries, on at least three reefs in the Spratly group. The PRC’s South China Sea policy highlights Beijing choosing to impose its will upon weaker neighbors rather than seeking a mutually acceptable compromise. It is also another example of the Chinese government disregarding an international agreement to which China was a signatory. Beijing has argued that China’s “historic rights” to the South China Sea take precedence over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and contemptuously rejected the 2016 ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The upside of these outposts, located far from mainland China, is uncertain. They might be more liability than asset to the PRC in a time of conflict. As for the downside: more than any other single Chinese policy, the new bases convinced international observers that PRC foreign policy under Xi was taking an aggressive turn, with more emphasis on winning rather than managing strategic disputes, and less effort to avoid alarming other governments in the Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan

Rather than blazing a creative new solution to the cross-Strait dispute, the man celebrated for “Xi Jinping Thought” has simply doubled-down on his predecessors’ demonstrably failed policies. Xi maintains that unification is essential to China’s “rejuvenation,” although the PRC is abundantly prosperous and secure without controlling Taiwan. He has continued to insist that Taiwan’s destiny is “one country, two systems” (1C2S). Taiwan’s people, however, never supported 1C2S, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties has thoroughly discredited the concept. That Xi would still speak of 1C2S in a message to Taiwan as recently as Oct. 9 indicates a stunning intellectual and political sclerosis.

Finally, Xi has increased military pressure on Taiwan. This has deepened resentment on the island toward China and bolsters support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which now holds both the presidency and a legislative majority. The heightened sense of danger has prodded Taiwan to implement asymmetric defense, which will make it more capable of fighting off an attempted PRC invasion. The Biden administration has reaffirmed US support for Taiwan as “rock solid.” Even Japanese leaders are now openly discussingthe increasing likelihood that Japan would help defend Taiwan.

Xi’s Taiwan policy works to eliminate possible solutions other than a war that, even in the best-case scenario, would be disastrous for China.

Economic coercion against Australia

In April 2020, Canberra displeased Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. The PRC retaliated by cutting importsof 10 Australian products. As in previous cases, Chinese officials implausibly denied that the restrictions were politically motivated, a gratuitous show of duplicity.

The consequences of this Chinese policy were worse for China than for Australia. Canberra did not accommodate the 14 political demandsmade by the Chinese embassy in November 2020. Australia suffered little from the import bans, finding other buyers for much of the supply turned away by China. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently described the damage done to Australia’s economy as “relatively modest.” In addition to the reputation cost to Beijing, the Chinese government’s campaign against Australia drew greater international attention to the dangers of doing business with China. Power shortages in China during autumn 2021 are partly due to a coal shortage, worsened by the sanction against Australian coal imports. The attempt to punish Australia has increased momentum for addressing China’s systematic violation of both the spirit and the letter of its World Trade Organization obligations. Canberra’s refusal to capitulate may serve as an inspiration for other governments under Chinese economic pressure over a political disagreement, diminishing the usefulness of this tactic.

What drives Xi? First, he has relied heavily on pandering to Chinese nationalism. Appearing to defend China’s interests against challenges by foreigners makes the Xi regime more popular and implicitly makes opposing Xi seem unpatriotic.

Second, Xi rules during a period of Chinese hubris. By 2012, when Xi assumed leadership, China was the world’s second-largest economy and on track to surpass the United States for the top spot. Beijing had hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, China’s coming-out party as a world power, while the financial crisis in 2007-2008 convinced Chinese observers that America was in rapid decline even as China surged ahead.

A third contributing factor is hyper-authoritarianism. Xi has concentrated numerous decision-making powers in himself, built up a personality cult, and prioritized political correctness over pragmatic analysis. The resulting political climate is not conducive to advisors warning Xi that he is making mistakes.

Xi’s goals include increasing China’s international stature and quashing international criticism. He says he wants to cultivate the image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China.” Xi seeks to maximize China’s access to global markets and technology. He wants to hasten the withdrawal of US strategic influence from the region. He wants the world to believe “China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.”

Xi’s major foreign policy errors, however, have undermined these goals. The PRC government under Xi has indulged nationalistic domestic public opinion at the risk of sabotaging the important longer-term national objectives that Xi has specified as central to his “China dream.”

A PRC that other states perceive as aggressive is engendering coordinated strategic opposition. This will make it harder for China to become a regional and global leader. If other governments believe China is expansionist, they will believe every strategic gain by China emboldens Beijing to strive for more. During Xi’s tenure this logic has become commonplace in discussions about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan and the South China Sea. There is also an important economic and technological cost to China, as worried trade partners decouple to reduce their vulnerability to PRC coercion and to avoid selling China the rope that China might hang them with.

Chinese remember Mao’s leadership as 70% good. Xi may have difficulty reaching even that modest standard.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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 #40 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2021

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- SEPTEMBER 2021 ISSUE

 

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
EUROPE “DISCOVERS” ASIA AND WASHINGTON “DISCOVERS” SEA, AMID AFGHAN ANXIETY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy at it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUMMER TAKES AN UNEXPECTED TURN
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
By the end of spring, the US-Japan relationship was centerstage in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy. From the first Quad (virtual) Summit to the visit of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to Washington, DC, relations between Tokyo and Washington could not have been better. A full calendar of follow-up meetings for the fall suggested even further deepening of the partnership. And on Aug. 20, President Joe Biden announced that he intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Obama, as ambassador to Japan. Throughout the summer, the US and Japan continued to deepen and expand the global coalition for Indo-Pacific cooperation. The UK, France, and even Germany crafted their own Indo-Pacific visions, as did the EU. Maritime cooperation grew as more navies joined in regional exercises. Taiwan featured prominently in US-Japan diplomacy, and in May the G7 echoed US-Japan concerns about rising tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Japanese political leaders also spoke out on the need for Japan to be ready to support the US in case tensions rose to the level of military conflict.

US-CHINA RELATIONS
THE DESCENT CONTINUES
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US
The downward slide in US-China relations continued as the two countries wrangled over Hong Kong, COVID-19, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and cyberattacks. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese officials met in Tianjin but appeared to make no progress toward managing intensifying competition between the two countries. The US rolled out a series of measures against alleged Chinese forced labor practices and strengthened the prohibition against US investments in the PRC’s military industrial complex. Deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong prompted the Biden administration to impose more sanctions on Chinese officials and issue a business advisory warning US companies of growing risks to their activities in Hong Kong.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
STIR NOT MURKY WATERS
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
US relations with both South and North Korea were—with a few notable exceptions—uneventful during the May-August 2021 reporting period. If US-Korea relations displayed some excitement, it was largely along the Washington-Seoul axis. An inaugural leader summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in took place in Washington, producing significant deliverables for the short, medium, and long term. Biden and Moon then participated in the June G7 summit in Great Britain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also provided South Korea with challenges and ponderables. Washington-Pyongyang communication was subdued, aside from standard North Korean criticism of US-South Korea joint military exercises. Even when the US and North Korea addressed each other with respect to dialogue, it was usually to underline for the other party how Washington or Pyongyang is willing to talk under the right circumstances, but capable of waiting out the other side. Late August added some spice, however, as the IAEA issued a credible report confirming what many had expected: North Korea has likely re-started fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex. Finally, outside the reporting period, Pyongyang tested a potentially nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile on Sept. 11. Are these signs that sleeping dogs are stirring?

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
WASHINGTON FINDS ITS FEET IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
In the months immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy, but in May the administration heeded calls for a stronger voice and more active role in the region with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region in her role as vice president. The cumulative impact remains to be seen, but one key “deliverable”—the renewal of the US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success. More broadly, the administration responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making considerable strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
PUSHING REGIONAL ADVANTAGES AMID HEIGHTENED US RIVALRY
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
China’s recognition of the strategic challenge posed by close Biden administration relations with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India, and Japan reinforced Beijing’s strong efforts to preserve and expand its advantageous position in Southeast Asia in the face of rising competition with the United States. Beijing used uniformly critical coverage of US withdrawal from Afghanistan to highlight US unreliability, and attempted to discredit Vice President Kamala Harris’ Aug. 22-26 visit to the region, the highpoint of Biden government engagement with Southeast Asia. It also widely publicized evidence of China’s influence in the competition with the United States in Southeast Asia, even among governments long wary of China, like Vietnam. That effort underlined the lengths Vietnam would go to avoid offending China in reporting that Hanoi allowed the Chinese ambassador to publicly meet the Vietnamese prime minister and donate vaccines, upstaging Vice President Harris, who hours later began her visit and offered vaccines.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
CROSS-STRAIT TENSION INCREASING BENEATH A SURFACE CALM
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Cross-Strait tensions intensified between May and August 2021, despite the superficial calm that generally prevailed after the dramatic confrontations earlier in the year. China again blocked Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA), and Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Communist Party’s commitment to the peaceful reunification of Taiwan at the Party’s 100th anniversary. Chinese military flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone were almost routine until China launched 28 sorties in a single day to protest the G7 summit’s endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Biden administration announced its first arms sales to Taiwan. Several countries, most notably Japan and Australia, made their strongest statements ever in support of Taiwan. Lithuania announced it would permit the opening of an unofficial “Taiwanese” representative office. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania and told Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador from Beijing. The US dismissed fears that its withdrawal from Afghanistan might portend abandonment of Taiwan. In coming months, Taiwan faces three potential turning points: Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party will elect a new chair; a referendum could overturn the opening of Taiwan’s market to US pork; and the US has signaled it will invite Taiwan to President Biden’s democracy summit despite threats of military retaliation by China.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
SUMMER FALSE DAWN: ON/OFF COMMUNICATIONS
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high—aren’t they always?—that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the US. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the US and ROK began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
ALLIANCE RESTORATION AND SUMMIT COMMEMORATIONS
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
A CHILLY SUMMER
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
China and Japan continued to vie over a wide variety of issues including economic competitiveness, jurisdiction over territorial waters, World War II responsibilities, representation in international organizations, and even Olympic and Paralympic medals. The Japanese government expressed concern with the increasingly obvious presence of Chinese ships and planes in and around areas under its jurisdiction, with Chinese sources accusing Japan of a Cold War mentality. Nothing was heard of Xi Jinping’s long-planned and often postponed official visit to Tokyo. Also, Chinese admonitions that Japan recognize that its best interests lay not with a declining United States but in joining forces with a rising China were conspicuous by their absence.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
UNREALIZED OLYMPIC DIPLOMACY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
In the summer months of 2021, the big question for many observers was whether Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon Jae-in would hold their first summit meeting during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Cautious hope was in the air, especially on the South Korean side. However, by the time the Olympics opened in late July, any such hope was dashed amid a series of unhelpful spats. Seoul and Tokyo decided that they would not gain much—at least not what they wanted from the other—by holding a summit this summer. With Suga’s announcement of his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the end of September, barring any sudden turn of events, his tenure as Japanese prime minister will be recorded as one that did not have a summit with a South Korean president.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
AFGHAN ENDGAME AND GUNS OF AUGUST
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
The summer of 2021 may be the best and worst time for Russia-China relations. There was much to celebrate as the two powers moved into the third decade of stable and friendly relations, symbolized by the 20th anniversary of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the “friendship treaty” (The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation). This historical moment, however, paralleled a hasty and chaotic end to the 20-year US interlude in Afghanistan with at least two unpleasant consequences for Beijing and Moscow: a war-torn Afghanistan in their backyard with an uncertain future and worse, a United States now ready to exclusively focus on the two large Eurasian powers 30 years after the end of the Cold War. As the Afghan endgame rapidly unfolded in August, both sides were conducting large exercises across and around Eurasia. While Afgthanistan may not again serve as the “graveyard of empires” in the 21st century, but then end of the US engagement there, however, will usher in an era of competition, if not clashes, between rival empires.

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS
COVID AND CHINA CHILL, ALLIANCE ANNIVERSARY AND AFGHANISTAN
BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE
Australia closed its borders to confront COVID-19 and rode out recession, while China shut off key markets to punish Australia. The short recession caused by pandemic ended Australia’s record run of nearly three decades of continuous economic growth; Beijing’s coercion crunched the optimism of three decades of economic enmeshment. However, Australia’s economy rebounded while the China crunch continues, causing Australia to question its status as the most China-dependent economy in the developed world. The Canberra–Beijing iciness has built over five years, marking the lowest period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972. In 2021, the language of “strategic partnership” died and the “strategic economic dialogue” was suspended by China. The Biden administration promised not to abandon Australia, saying that US–China relations would not improve while an ally faced coercion. Australia embraced Washington’s assurance, along with the elevation of the Quad with the US, Japan, and India.

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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 #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 #26 –Why Australia Needs an Indo-Pacific National Strategy

An earlier version of this article was published in The Australian.

The events of the past few years have demonstrated that Australia’s strategy for dealing with the rise of China is out of date. It requires a serious and systematic rethink. We cannot go back to the halcyon days of Whitlam, Hawke, and Howard. We can’t go on improvising in an ad hoc manner. Nor can we move forward safely on the lines urged by those, such as Hugh White, who assert that China’s dominance is inevitable and the end of American hegemony in East Asia at hand. Rather, we need to reframe our strategic planning and diplomacy in Indo-Pacific terms.

Xi Jinping has demonstrated that misgivings about of his regime and his overweening strategic ambitions are warranted. He has shown that China under his aegis is not our friend. A trusting relationship with Xi’s China is next to impossible. He requires acquiescence and submission. That’s the context for Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo’s remarks about the drums of war. We don’t want and won’t accept subordination to Beijing. None of our substantial Asian neighbors, from Delhi to Tokyo, wants subordination either.

We handled relations with China well over the past 40 to 50 years, including disagreements over various things. We have profited handsomely from its long boom. We are still so profiting. Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox urges that we bear this in mind and tread carefully.

But Xi’s China is at a profound watershed economically, politically, and geopolitically. We need a strategy for hedging against possible turbulence. The elements of such a strategy are at hand, but it needs far better articulation. It hasn’t yet been thought through, much less institutionalized as our strategy for the China boom largely was, under Hawke, Keating and Howard.

China under Xi is menacing, but also brittle, not rising relentlessly. The immense expenditure it is putting into surveillance, repression, censorship, indoctrination, trolling, and propaganda shows how insecure it is. Its attempts to corrupt or coerce many foreign governments betray a lack of ease or self-assurance, rather than a mastery of the game. It seeks to bully because it lacks the capacity to lead. Our strategy must play on these things.

Audrye Wong, of the Harvard Grand Strategy, Security and Statecraft program, points out, in her essay “How not to win allies and influence geopolitics” that wherever transparency and accountable government rule, China’s attempts to suborn or corrupt foreign states are floundering. We’ve begun to show that in this country. Beijing needs to learn that leadership must be earned, not brusquely asserted. Its assertiveness is alienating many, not buttressing the case for a Chinese-led order. That’s why there’s the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—between the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

In a long front-page piece for the Saturday Paper a few weeks ago, Hugh White reiterated his familiar mantra that China will soon be the largest economy in the world; that, therefore, its will can’t be thwarted and a new Chinese-dominated order is inevitable. He concedes this would be much less to our liking than the US-led order. What he doesn’t allow is that most other countries in Asia feel the same about this. Some favor a rebalancing. Almost none favor Chinese hegemony.

White concluded that coping with the looming Chinese hegemony would require “hard work, deep thought and subtle execution.” Unfortunately, he’s never spelled out the nature of that work, the “deep thought” required or how “subtle execution” would handle a domineering China. Those inclined to his strategic outlook fail to allow that it is only in coordination with our Asian neighbors (especially the heavyweights among them) backed by the still formidable power of the United States, that we could possibly conduct a “subtle” relationship with China. There is, after all, nothing subtle about the way Xi Jinping does business—at home or abroad.

It needs to be made clear to Xi and his Party colleagues that his approach to international affairs is counterproductive. It should be indicated diplomatically, but clearly and firmly, that should China resort to force against its neighbors, including Taiwan, this would set off a chain reaction. That would itself be very costly to China’s own enduring interests—regardless of whether it prevailed in the immediate instance. This is what the Quad is all about—not ill-will towards China, but growing concern about its assertiveness and military build-up.

Should the time come when the rest of Asia, from India to Japan, felt at ease with China’s wealth and power, the American military presence in the Indo-Pacific might become redundant. For as long as China hectors and bullies the rest of us, this is unlikely and undesirable. The clearest index of Beijing’s failure in this regard has been its escalating threats to use force against Taiwan, a self-governing and prosperous state four times the size of Singapore.

Certainly, deep thought and subtle execution are demanded in rethinking and readjusting our strategic and foreign policies. Where White and those like him are in serious error is in their apparent belief that we could successfully do this in bilateral relations with China after the United States had withdrawn its military presence and security guarantees from East Asia and the Indo-Pacific. We need those things precisely in order to induce Beijing to see a slow and equitable rebalancing as preferrable to any attempt to force a radical revision of global order.

The problem is not China’s wealth. It’s an assertive dictatorship in Beijing. Xi’s actions and ambitions have rendered long-cherished assumptions about China invalid. Talk about the “drums of war” is symptomatic of growing alarm. However, our foreign and strategic policy responses had been rather reactive, well before COVID-19 precipitated confrontation.

Disarray concerning the Darwin port, Huawei, and the Victorian Belt and Road agreement betrayed an underlying lack of strategic cohesion. That is not serving us well. The federal government needs to reframe the strategic narrative from first principles.

This isn’t a matter of a white paper or green paper. More than three decades ago the Hawke government released Ross Garnaut’s epochal report Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy. Thirty years on, we need an authoritative report of comparable scope on Australia, commerce, diplomacy, and security in the future of the Indo-Pacific.

Rory Medcalf, Director of the National Security College at the ANU, in his book Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future (2020), set the stage. What’s now needed is a report on Australia and the Indo-Pacific future based on probing questions of Medcalf’s reasonings—to inform public debate and the deliberations of the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

Paul Monk (paulmonk@gmail.comwas the head of the China desk in the Defence Intelligence Organization in 1994-95, has lectured on modern Chinese politics and is the author of Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018) among other books.

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 #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 #11 – The US Indo–Pacific Strategy: Don’t Overlook the Pacific Islands Region

This article summarizes the key recommendations found in his broader study of The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region.

If the past is precedent, as the Biden administration puts the finishing touches on its own Indo-Pacific strategy, one area will be largely overlooked: the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). The region has, in the past, been viewed as a tranquil backwater with little need for attention. Traditionally, the attention Washington did give the region was exclusively focused on Micronesia—a vast region containing both the Freely Associated States (FAS) and US territories such as Guam. The remainder of the PIR was often left in the hands of close US partners such as Australia and New Zealand. Washington’s strategic neglect of the PIR needs to end. While the United States has focused its attention elsewhere, China has established itself as a strong economic partner with a growing diplomatic network. If the Biden administration is serious about addressing China’s growing challenge to US interests across the world, it should not disregard a region where a little bit of attention, coupled with cooperation with like-minded partners, can go a long way.

My recent study on The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region provides an analysis of both US and Chinese influence in the PIR along with the important and growing role of regional friends and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and others. It argues that the PIR is just as crucial to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as is the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or the Indian Ocean. Any continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy must not neglect the PIR. The Biden administration must focus on denying the use of the PIR to “unfriendly powers” for military purposes, as well as denying the ability of external powers to interdict vital sea lines of communication from the continental United States to Asia.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Washington must—as part of its broader Indo–Pacific Strategy—embrace the increasing multipolarity of the region and look past the traditional division of labor between just Australia, New Zealand, and itself. The Biden administration must partner with like-minded nations of all sizes such as Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan  to reinforce broadly held international values conducive to a FOIP. To do this, the Biden administration should:

  • Go beyond its focus on the FAS and ensure its diplomatic engagement with the entire PIR is more consistent. An emphasis on the FAS, whilst warranted, has come at the detriment of Washington’s relationships in Melanesia and Polynesia. Raising the US delegation lead to the PIF to Secretary of State level or higher would demonstrate a positive step towards consistency.
  • Better acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR. The 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR within its conceptualisation of a FOIP. Washington’s approaches thus far have given many in the PIR the impression that they are an “afterthought” or simply being “tacked onto the end” of the strategy.
  • Harness its key strengths: soft power and military relationships. The United States’ key strengths in the PIR are rooted in its strong historical, cultural, and linguistic connections to the region, as well as its military relationships. Washington can enhance these strengths through establishing:
  • Labor mobility schemes. Washington should consider expanding its existing arrangements with the FAS—which allows FAS citizens to work in the United States under special visa arrangements—to other PIR states. A similar model, called the Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme, has been employed successfully in Australia.
  • Military training, education, and joint–exercises. The United States should expand the number of joint exercises and training opportunities for PIR militaries. Furthermore, Washington should seek to expand its joint exercises and training opportunities to PIR states with security forces, but no standing militaries, such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
  • Habitual military-to-island relationships. The United States should expand the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program in the PIR. With relationships already established between the Nevada National Guard and Tonga and Fiji, this should be expanded to include partnerships in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
  • Expanding the US Defence Attaché network. The United States currently only has one USDAO for the entire PIR, located in Suva, Fiji. The number of USDAOs in the PIR should be expanded, with a particular focus on PNG and Tonga. An alternative option may be supporting PIR states with militaries to establish Defence Attachés in Washington.
  • Expanding VOA presence into the PIR. The lack of VOA broadcasting in the PIR presents an opportunity for Washington to double-down on its strengths in the information domain. This should be a joint venture with PIR countries to develop local language broadcasting on Pacific-focused issues.
  • Expand its diplomatic footprint. The United States’ six embassies in the PIR—three of which are within the FAS—give an unfortunate impression of the low level of strategic weight Washington places on the region. Washington must expand its diplomatic footprint, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.
  • Focus heavily on targeted engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the PIR. Both nations have the highest GDP and populations, and field the region’s two largest militaries. Although PNG and Fiji have certainly explored more independent foreign policies and international activism in recent decades—making them somewhat harder to influence—this also makes them effective vectors of influence in the PIR.
  • Avoid a “False Dichotomy” Trap in the PIR. The PIR has made it clear that the region does not want engagement to be framed within the context of competition with China. Although strategic competition may serve as one rationale for engagement, it should not drive engagement. Rather than focusing on countering China in the PIR, the focus should be on encouraging, facilitating, and cooperating with like–minded partners to engage with the PIR—this serves to reinforce international values, naturally counterbalancing China’s undue influence. Encouraging multi-polarity will help avoid creating a “false dichotomy” in the PIR, whereby PIR countries are seen to be choosing between just the United States or China.
  • Revisit the division of labor in the PIR. The United States can no longer afford to rely on its informal “division of labour” with Australia and New Zealand in the PIR. As a self-declared “Pacific nation,” the US must take up greater responsibility in its own neighbourhood if its “revitalised engagement” is to go beyond maintaining its defence and security arrangements in the FAS. The passing of the BLUE Pacific Act should be a priority for the Biden Administration’s approach to the PIR.
  • Engage like-minded partners.  Encouraging several like-minded—not necessarily strategically aligned—partners to pursue a concerted FOIP strategy will make it more difficult for Pacific Island leaders to play the “China Card” by diluting any perceived China-US strategic dichotomy in the region and crowding Beijing’s engagement. Ultimately, PIR states are sovereign states with their own respective agency; however, harnessing like-minded small and middle powers will help in filling gaps that Washington cannot commit to.
  • Ensure good governance and engaging Taiwan. Unlike many of the aforementioned like-minded powers, Taiwan has been actively courting the PIR for decades in its “checkbook diplomacy” with China. Although much of this activity has subsided, Washington should continue to seek out joint or even multilateral cooperation activities with Taipei in the PIR to ensure good governance principles are being upheld.
  • Better incorporate emerging small and middle external powers into the existing regional architecture. Many of the aforementioned external powers are already increasing their engagement with the PIR under their own regional strategies. Washington must work with like-minded partners to ensure these strategies are not being engaged in competition with each other, but rather, in unison. Existing groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, and FRANZ provide a strong basis for such coordination.
Patrick Dupont (pdupont.au@gmail.com) is a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He is currently completing a Master of Security and Strategic Studies from Macquarie University.

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.