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).

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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.

PacNet #9 – The Quad’s Future is Tied to Soft Security

This piece is based on authors’ presentations/views at the SPF NUS-ISAS Joint Seminar on “Institutionalizing the Quad: Can it Seize the Momentum for the Future?” held on January 20, 2021.

There has been much dialogue over the future of the Quadrilateral process (Quad 2.0) involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific, with many envisioning a militarization of the Quad or a securitization of the Indo-Pacific through security-centric agreements. Such debates extend to the extreme of proposing an Asian equivalent to NATO in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China.

Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contended in October 2020 that formalizing the Quad could help build a “true security framework” to meet the challenges posed by Beijing. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has asserted that the Atlantic Alliance “must become global” and departing US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun affirmed that some speculative discussions on the prospects of forming an “Indo-Pacific NATO” had taken place on the sidelines of the US-India Strategic Dialogue. Such remarks further fuel discussions of a potential militarized Quad, a grand coalition in the Indo-Pacific to contain an increasingly assertive China.

Notwithstanding the merits of such a debate, it is worth exploring how the Quad can be institutionalized in the region, instead of only instigating a competitive power framework. This holds utmost importance, with new US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan aiming to “carry forward” the Quad format as a “fundamental foundational” aspect of America’s Indo-Pacific policy, further highlighted with the Biden administration’s recent proposal to hold a leadership summit of Quad members. For more than a decade and a half, the idea of Quad has survived in Indo-Pacific, starting with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” in the Indian Parliament in 2007, which triggered the debate over the Quad process. Since the mechanism’s revival in 2017, Quad member states have held several high-level and high-profile ministerial meetings, symbolizing the significance of the grouping in their foreign outlooks. While Chinese expansionism is the central motivating factor, a lack of commonality over whether to “contain China” or, instead, manage China’s influence and rise remains among Quad members, evidenced by the lack of a joint statement. How can member states institutionalize the Quad process while building a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific?

Above all, an attempt to institutionalize the Quad must be drawn on a practical and soft security framework that can gradually transform into a cohesive security (and, perhaps subsequently, a military) unit, shaped by the changing geopolitical situation. The goal of the Quad process, as it appears in their respective official statements, is to preserve a “rules-based order” in Indo-Pacific; a soft security framework must be drawn on their political, economic and ideological commonality. More importantly, such a framework must have a non-military connotation even though it would imbibe some maritime security features. Alongside such a soft security apparatus, the institutionalization of the Quad will invariably depend on building an exclusive Indo-Pacific identity, drawing its strength from democratic ideas and norms. The Quad is a political process, tied to immense soft and hard security objectives. Therefore, before (or alongside) exercising its military-economic muscles, the Quad must initiate deeper cultural and ideological diplomacy tracks to build political synergy that could eventually—given the right strategic circumstances—translate to a tighter security, and eventually a military, arrangement in the Indo-Pacific. Like NATO, driven not only by the Soviet threat but also to promote European political integration, Quad states must seek to establish solidarity and synergy before militarization.

Extending such a soft power network to further an Asian NATO equivalent entails careful political, economic, strategic, and ideological maneuvering among Quad members, who have had a clear divide in their China policies in the last two decades. In the post-pandemic period all Quad states, including the US, continue to share strong economic or multilateral interactions with Beijing. The latest EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is a reminder that the “China connect” is a strategic reality in regional and global affairs—and Quad countries are no exceptions. Regardless whether the Quad becomes a formalized platform, all member states will need to deal with China in regional and global affairs. Although Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar military exercises undoubtedly strengthens arguments for a securitized (or even militarized) framework in the Indo-Pacific under the aegis of the Quad, Canberra’s addition does not necessarily imply creating a larger regional nexus aimed at managing China militarily. The Quad must have a value-driven approach, having drawn its strength from the “rule of law,” preserving freedom of navigation and aiming to implement democratic ideals with a “free and open” framework.

The Quad states must, firstly, invest in capability development efforts to create multi-layered networks among educational institutions, promote think tank forums in concert with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, and build scholarships or fellowship opportunities that promote ideological exchanges. Ultimately, the aim must be to build and sustain a stronger Indo-Pacific intellectual chorus challenging authoritarian and unilateral ideals and initiatives. The Quad countries need to promote a model for annual dialogues among think tanks, universities, and thinkers who could establish a platform for enhancing and amplifying such ideals. In this vein, an Indo-Pacific university or defense university in the region, with joint investment by Quad countries, could also boost intellectual exchanges and studies on how to strengthen Indo-Pacific security through coordinated political and economic engagement, while building an identity for the region and boosting purposeful maritime cooperation and effective maritime governance.

For instance, the evolution of BRICS from an abstract assembly to a concrete consortium of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa illustrates this effect. As a grouping of ambitious rising powers, BRICS has tried to influence global governance debates in its favor, even if India and China are not on the same frequency over a range of matters. More importantly, BRICS has emerged as a cohesive unit to promote the New Development Bank (NDB) as an institution the Indo-Pacific region needs. If Quad states can draw inferences from the BRICS’ model while promoting a rules-based, fair, and equitable banking culture within the Indo-Pacific, it can expedite and form overtures to a maritime nexus and connectivity-focused infrastructure development, eventually boosting and complementing supply chain networks.

The second critical variable for institutionalizing the Quad entails drawing lessons from the post-Cold War era, especially regarding creation of institutions. If China’s belligerence is the biggest motivator for the Quad to strengthen its guard in the Indo-Pacific, then China’s institution-building capabilities should merit equal deliberations and discussions among Quad countries. The gradual evolution and formalization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), from the informal, low-profile Shanghai Five to a well-established multilateral organization, is a successful example of Chinese enterprise in this area. The “Shanghai Five” was meant to address boundary disputes and cross-border terrorism between China and the Central Asian countries. Over time, Beijing systematically expanded the grouping’s canvas to include economic, political, and security objectives, thus building a cohesive multilateral institution in Eurasia. Today, such comprehensiveness has become the hallmark of China’s deepened and broadened security approach, aptly reflected in the SCO charter. Beijing defines security beyond expedient military terms, touching upon critical economic and political domains. To compete with China, let alone build a cohesive military unit to this effect, the Quad members must first find synergy within their own strategic objectives across the spectrum—to expedite a network of intellectual engagement commensurate with their objectives in the region.

Given the onset of a new administration in the White House, and the political uncertainty in Japan owing to its upcoming October 2021 election, the time has come to invest greater thought vis-à-vis the Quad process and guide its intellectual future. Rather than a mechanism aimed only at contesting China, the Quad must emerge as a soft and succinct regional cohesive grouping that promotes a culture of democratic ideals and links intellectual persuasion with the Indo-Pacific architecture to further its acceptance and institutionalization.

Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.” 

Ippeita Nishida is a Senior Research Fellow of the International Peace and Security Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF), Tokyo.

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 #8 – Rebooting the UN-US Partnership: Global Goals Require Indo-Pacific Focus

The Indo-Pacific region has seen a rise in political instability in recent years. The Trump administration and China have been at loggerheads, through the WHO, in formulating a global approach to slowing the spread of COVID-19. The region has experienced a rise in human rights violations, evidenced by the bitter treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian crackdowns in Thailand and Cambodia. The Indo-Pacific has also witnessed China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the Indo-China border, eliciting a defensive posture from regional powers such as Australia, Japan, and India.

In full view of political and human rights crises in the Indo-Pacific, the UN has remained silent. It has failed to enact reforms to its major organs, such as the Security Council. It has failed to bring meaningful reform to the Human Rights Council, which remains populated by serial violators, including China and Iran, as well as its inability to find its voice on rights violations against Muslim populations in China, Myanmar, and India. The UN has remained “concerned” over India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act and subsequent Hindu violence toward Muslims, China’s housing of Uyghur Muslims, or the plight of the Rohingya, but has not insisted through Special Procedures that independent investigators gain exclusive access to the most sensitive areas. China, like other autocratic regimes in the region, has repeatedly denied or stalled invitations to UN experts wanting to conduct official visits.

Despite these shortcomings, the incoming Biden administration represents an opportunity to reinvigorate ties between the US and the UN. Doing so could catalyze economic growth and provide stability in the Indo-Pacific. Regionwide, there is no shortage of challenges that need concrete solutions, including institutional reforms—both at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council—and a more robust climate change agenda.

Past and present American administrations have discussed reform at the United Nations, chiefly in the Security Council. Static since 1945, the aging body needs to be made fit for purpose in the modern era. To accomplish this, additional permanent members should be added—with two equally qualified candidates in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have lobbied for years with limited support. India has been an active participant in UN peacekeeping operations around the globe and Japan has been a leading contributor of development assistance (ODA) for decades. Their constant presence on the Security Council, combined with changes to veto powers, would add two vital allies capable of defending the international order and keeping the peace. Adding a third new permanent member from Africa would win concessions from the African continent—which has contributed proposals in the past that have received little recognition in the General Assembly. One of the principle strengths of the United Nations is its commitment to the equality of states, vested in Article 2 of the UN Charter. The Security Council is a forum where Great Powers exert influence on global affairs, yet to maintain that influence, the US needs a proactive Security Council that can both provide support to multilateral initiatives and advance its interests, as well as hold human rights violators and autocratic regimes accountable.

On the human rights front, the UN could facilitate reform proposals for the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration walked away from the Council in 2018, with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calling the body a “hypocritical and self-serving organization.” The Secretary-General António Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should advocate the reform of the Council by mandating the norm of taking into account the contribution of potential candidates to the Council, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments. While the US is sure to return to the Human Rights Council under a Biden administration, it should back a proposal that would help eliminate states with poor human rights records, such as limiting Council seats to just one term or increasing the threshold to win a seat from a simple plurality to a two-thirds majority. Abandoning the Human Rights Council, rather than advocating for its reform is short-sighted thinking—a decision that left American allies in the Indo-Pacific, like Japan and Australia, in the lurch.

Climate change is another area of cooperation where the United Nations can engage with the Biden administration. Biden has already signaled as much by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. While Asia’s economic engine now fuels the global economy, it is responsible for more than 50% of global greenhouse gasses through rapid industrialization. The Indo-Pacific needs to make climate change a higher priority, particularly in light of recent natural disasters. The US should address a number of climate vulnerabilities by dramatically upscaling humanitarian and disaster response exercises, as seen in the Cobra Gold and Tiger Triumph exercises with Thailand and India. Climate change needs to be viewed, including by the US as a security threat. Global temperature changes facilitate seawater rise, create storm surges, and strain fisheries. Climate change pressures put stress on bilateral relations, particularly in ASEAN, which are at risk of violent naval confrontations as a result of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Biden administration would be wise to adopt a coherent national strategy on climate change, a glaring hole in Trump’s anti-science doctrine, which ignored Department of Defense warnings, particularly on the Indo-Pacific in 2019.

A focus on environmental initiatives would not only bolster Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, but other states in the region such as Japan, Australia, and India with Free and Open Indo-Pacific visions and mutual environmental concerns. China need not be excluded from the group; the 2nd Belt Road Forum recently demonstrated Beijing is placing greater emphasis on the environment in BRI projects. Promoting crosswalks through the convening power of the UN can kill two birds with one stone, contributing to climate change cooperation in the Indo-Pacific while moving the China-US rivalry away from a zero-sum approach. The UN should avail itself of this opportunity. The UN could provide cooperation mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts in the Mekong Delta, the South China Sea and South Asia. Piggybacking on pre-existing initiatives such as the US-Mekong Partnership or Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery in ASEAN and the Southeast Asian region may be a template for expanded multilateral cooperation.

To reinvigorate its partnership, America and the UN must proactively adopt policies that resonate with the Biden administration’s multilateral and internationalist inclinations. Institutional reform, human rights, and climate change cooperation are key areas of synergy in the broader Indo-Pacific.

Mark S. Cogan (mscogan@kansaigaidai.ac.jp) is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka; and a communications consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Twitter handle:@markscogan.

Dr. Stephen Nagy (nagy@icu.ac.jp) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo; a distinguished fellow with Canada’s Asia Pacific Foundation; a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

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 #4 – 2021: A Year of Immense Frustration in and with Japan

The year ahead may prove to be one of the most frustrating in recent Japanese history. Despite an evolving and uncertain strategic environment, the future could be bright: Japan has unprecedented opportunities to shape that development. Unfortunately, however, structural and attitudinal constraints may slam the door on those options. It is possible to overcome these impediments, but it’s hard to have confidence that Japan will do so.

As Tokyo surveys the world beyond its shores, it should be optimistic. The Biden administration accepts and embraces core principles of Japan’s own foreign policy: multilateralism, institutionalism, a consultative process, and a commitment to rule of law. Most compelling, the new administration views Beijing with suspicion and is committed to multidimensional competition with China.

The Biden team sees alliances as critical to any strategy to engage China. Washington will applaud and encourage forward-leaning partners, especially given the need in the US to focus on domestic affairs (to rebuild national consensus) and reapportion burdens within security partnerships. This gives Tokyo ample space to promote and pursue its own foreign policy within an alliance framework. The end of the Trump administration will also shift the parameters of host nation support talks, which should reduce one source of tension in the relationship.

Tokyo has a reinvigorated and restructured national security bureaucracy that has enjoyed eight years of success. Japan has been modernizing its military—much more remains to be done—and promoting capacity-building among regional security forces. Resuscitation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other trade deals underscore Japan’s commitment to a rules-based global economic order and its ability to support it. All this has been done in the service of a strategic approach to regional security, one articulated in the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and which has been adopted by the US (even if the words may change) and other regional governments.

A new appreciation for national economic statecraft gives Tokyo a chance to focus on and address emerging 21st century challenges. A new National Security Strategy, due to be published this year, provides an opportunity for bilateral cooperation and coordination as Tokyo and Washington simultaneously craft their own versions of that document. Japan should be confident as it engages the new US administration and be ready to push the partnership forward in ways that respond to its own concerns and preferences.

Japan should call for consultations as soon as Biden’s Asia team is assembled, and plan for a Security Consultative Committee (SCC or “2+2”) meeting by year’s end. Host-nation support talks should reach a quick—even if short-term—solution so that alliance managers can consider new and creative apportionments of roles and missions to better fit current realities. Among the discussion items should be alignment of national security strategies. Integral to any talks is a candid assessment of deterrence and ways it can be strengthened. A blue-sky assessment of alliance options is in order. Given the dynamics and shifts in the regional security environment, creativity is at a premium.

That potential will likely go unrealized, however. Japan’s leadership is currently weak, divided and, preoccupied with the fate of the 2020 Olympic and ParaOlympic Games. Combined with enduring misgivings about Democratic administrations in the US, the result will likely be inertia, if not paralysis.

An absence of strong leadership is the first problem. Any successor to Abe Shinzo would likely suffer in comparison: Abe, the longest serving leader in Japanese history, had a vision for his country and the determination to realize it. Suga Yoshihide was the consensus candidate to succeed Abe after his surprise resignation last summer, but the promise of policy continuity has been overtaken by an absence of vision and foreign policy experience. Suga took up where Abe left off, promoting the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” pursuing closer security ties with like-minded governments like that of Australia, as well as key Southeast Asian partners like Indonesia and Vietnam. More visible and important to voters has been the return of scandals from the Abe era, a third wave of COVID-19 infections (the most severe yet), and Suga’s uninspiring performance in addressing them.

A weakened prime minister allowed faction leaders to reassert themselves and play a larger role in policy. An internal party struggle over how to deal with China now threatens the most important pillar of Tokyo’s foreign and security policies. LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro, who favors a softer line toward Beijing, is ascendant, and China hawks are retreating. A December survey of Japanese business reveals that the corporate sector too favors a softer approach toward China and would like the Biden administration to blunt the sharper edges of the Trump hard line. Insiders complain about a lack of leadership and the weakening of the Kantei when effective policy demands strong central authority to pursue a whole of government approach.

An additional distraction is the debate over the fate of the 2020 Summer Olympic and ParaOlympic Games, postponed from last summer because of the COVID outbreak and tentatively scheduled for this summer. Hosting the Games is a matter of tremendous prestige for the Japanese government—the public is far less enamored—and it weighs heavily on decision making in Tokyo. It will absorb considerable political capital of a government that may already be overdrawn, undermining the desire or capacity to push security policy or move forward on alliance issues. All countries must balance public health and economic needs as they respond to the COVID outbreak but the Olympics are a thumb on the scale in Japan, and have contributed to an erosion of trust in the Japanese government.

Polls offer a grim assessment. After taking office with some of the highest approval ratings in modern Japanese history, the Cabinet approval rating plummeted 32 points to 42% by the end of the year.

The second problem is longstanding suspicion in Tokyo of Democratic administrations in Washington. While the alliance with Japan enjoys bipartisan support in the United States, Japanese instinctively feel more comfortable with Republicans. This reflex will be complemented by nostalgia for the Trump years, during which Japan had a special relationship with the US president. Abe’s status as the “Trump whisperer” meant that Japan never felt the brunt of the president’s anger. Japan had space to pursue preferred policies and US rhetoric aligned with Japanese interests. There may have been some problems, but benefits outweighed costs. The departures of Trump and Abe have kindled fears that the alliance will be hobbled.

Combine a weak and divided leadership in Tokyo with suspicion of the new US administration and Japan will have little capacity or incentive for creative and entrepreneurial policy making. Instead, fearful of rejection or misinterpretation and eager to conserve precious political capital there will be an inclination to hunker down and cling to the status quo. This “shelter in place” mentality will do the alliance and Japan a disservice.

This outcome could change. A prime minister that is visionary and dynamic could alter Japan’s trajectory. Recent developments put that prospect within reach. As long as it remains a mere possibility, however, the gap between what could be and what is will widen. Frustration may be one of the better outcomes.

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 advisor (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 #3 – Getting China Policy Right

It should go without saying but I’ll start by saying it: to get China policy right we must first get China right. This means seeing China as it is, not as we would like it to be or as it claims to be. If one were to believe Chinese President Xi Jinping during his annual Davos and APEC speeches, China is today a bastion of free trade and open market access and the great defender of intellectual property rights and the rule of law; its rise is and will be peaceful. We know better. Under Xi’s leadership, China has changed significantly, but not for the better (from a US perspective, that is; whether things are better or worse from a Chinese perspective is for the Chinese people to decide).

For better or for worse, the China guided by Deng Xiaoping’s teaching—“hide your strength and bide your time”; “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”—is gone. The color of the cat still doesn’t matter, as long as it faithfully subscribes to Xi Jinping thought. “Hide your strength” has been replaced by Wolf Warrior diplomats stressing that “China is a big country … and you’re not.” Other Deng precepts—collective leadership, term limits, the phasing out of state-owned enterprises, and most recently, the “one country, two systems” Hong Kong formula—apparently have no place in the new “China dream.”

US policy has also evolved, in response to a changing China. With apologies for oversimplifying what was and remains a complicated and deliberate process, I would argue that the Obama administration was slow in picking up the change. It started out with the right policy, but for the wrong China. Deng would have seen Obama’s “outstretched hand” as an opportunity to be embraced. Xi saw it as a weakness to be exploited. As Xi’s power grew, first as vice president and then as the ultimate leader, his policies became more aggressive and assertive; dare we call it a “China first” policy? In return, US policy shifted (in my words, not Obama’s) from “cooperate with China whenever and wherever we can and confront and constrain when we must” to “confront and constrain whenever and wherever we must while cooperating if and when we can.” The two main elements of cooperation and confrontation were still there but the emphasis clearly changed, as Obama began his “pivot” to Asia.

To its credit, the Trump administration (although sadly not the president himself) initially got China and China policy right. His first foreign policy team, under National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (remember him?) saw China (along with Russia) as a revisionist power that was out to directly challenge US regional and global interests. While keeping the door open for cooperation, the key idea was “reciprocity.” While Trump focused on the trade deficit and saw a trade deal as the “solution” to the China problem, his national security team focused more on China’s challenge to US security interests. The focus was, correctly, on Chinese behavior.  Then along came Mike Pompeo. Aided and abetted by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Defense Secretary Mike Esper, Secretary of State Pompeo shifted the emphasis and blame to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), adding an ideological dimension that made cooperation virtually impossible, since it attacked the very source of Xi’s legitimacy.

To his credit, Pompeo did get one thing very right. He understood that “America first” could not mean “America alone” when it came to dealing with China. Trump’s grumbling notwithstanding, he strove to shore up US alliances; the incoming Biden administration has already indicated it will double down on this effort. Most importantly, Pompeo attached a high priority to formalizing the Quad, a coalition of “like-minded” states that includes Australia, India, and Japan, and building a possible Quad-plus (involving Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam); the latter was focused on fighting the pandemic but nonetheless helped build up multilateral cooperation.

As the Biden administration assembles its Asia team and starts to develop its China and broader Asia policy, it must see China for what it is: a near-peer competitor engaged in a battle for influence vis-a-vis Washington and the West.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still pro-engagement. Washington needs to properly balance cooperation (in areas like climate change and North Korea where a long-term solution is impossible without Chinese input), while being prepared to confront and constrain (vice contain) where necessary. The Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy needs to be retained in some form; sadly it’s likely too much to ask that the name be retained, even though it originated not in Washington but in Tokyo and would thus signal both continuity and respect for our critical Northeast Asia ally.

Top priority should be given to strengthening and expanding the Quad, to bring in additional like-minded states who subscribe to the Quad’s main operating principles: support for the rule of law, freedom of navigation, transparency, and respect for human rights in a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” Care must be given to avoid loaded terms like “league of democracies” (as put forth tentatively by Pompeo) or “an Asian NATO.” The former rules out essential players like Vietnam; the latter runs into the Asian allergy to all things European.

In their individual statements following the Quad Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Tokyo in October—there was no joint statement—three of the four ministers played down or avoided mentioning China; Pompeo (as usual but counterproductively) focused on the CCP threat. True, Beijing will see terms such as rule of law and freedom of navigation as code words aimed at China. The proper response in those instances should be “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Promoting an inclusive rules-based order is only anti-China if Beijing is bound and determined to not play by the rules. That’s China’s decision, for which it should expect consequences.

To date, Xi’s grand strategy has been tactically clever but strategically foolish. The new repressive national security law has been effective (thus far) in silencing democracy advocates in Hong Kong but has sent a clear signal to the rest of the world (and especially Taiwan) that Chinese promises, including legal agreements registered at the United Nations, are meaningless. Beijing’s heavy-handed reaction to Canberra’s request for a clear accounting of the origins of the pandemic may have hurt Australia’s wine sales (in direct violation of its World Trade Organization and bilateral trade commitments), but also clearly demonstrated that Beijing has no intention of separating politics from economics even while counseling others to do so. Beijing’s “14 demands” also reflect no hesitancy in interfering in another’s domestic affairs, a sacred principle when it comes to its own affairs. More importantly, China’s browbeating has also fortified Australia’s commitment to strengthening the Quad, just as aggressive Chinese behavior along the Indian border has prompted New Delhi to do the same.

Meanwhile, China’s recent law authorizing its Coast Guard to fire on ships entering what virtually every nation other than China considers international waters around its artificial islands and elsewhere in the South China Sea, is both tactically and strategically foolish. It’s never a good idea to be the first to challenge an incoming US administration. Biden will no doubt feel compelled to reinforce the long-standing dictum that “the US will sail and fly anywhere international law allows.” Passing this law at this time guarantees China’s relationship with the US administration will start off on the wrong foot.

The rush is on to develop—and name—a strategy that is right for the China we are dealing with today. I like “constrainment”; others have mentioned “competitive coexistence.” Regardless of what it is called, it must be a combination of cooperation and (gasp) compromise on the one hand, backed by firmness and a willingness to push back both unilaterally and multilaterally with like-minded states when appropriate. Maintaining and refining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, built upon an expanded and redefined Quad, should be the building blocks upon which any new strategy is formed.

Ralph Cossa (Ralph@pacforum.org) is Pacific Forum president emeritus and WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies.

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.

YL Blog #28: Alliance Thinking About Deterrence in the Pacific Islands Region

Introduction

When discussions regarding strategic competition between the United States and China invariably turn to potential sites or circumstances for military confrontation — if not deterring conflict in the first instance — few analysts or policymakers would nominate the Pacific Islands region (PIR) as a priority theatre. Yet it is fast becoming “a strategic frontline in a multi-nation contest for power and influence” in the Indo-Pacific, not least in the scheme of Great Power competition. Substantial analytical and journalistic reporting in recent years has been devoted to examining Chinese and US competition for regional political and economic influence. Questions over security and deterrence, however, have so far largely escaped closer analysis, even though there are significant mid-term “military and geopolitical advantages” at stake.

For the US, there is a growing need to consider these matters with greater urgency, not least considering that one of its closest treaty allies—Australia—is a resident power in the PIR. On the one hand, Australia is both advantageously and perilously located on the frontline of a relatively new theatre of strategic competition. On the other hand, the US-Australia Alliance has not been required to grapple with questions of deterrence and defense against powerful adversaries in the PIR for many years. Notwithstanding a long history of military cooperation, the PIR’s unique geography, complex geopolitical character and growing Chinese presence collectively present a new challenge for the US-Australia Alliance, and the serious chance that China could become a resident military power in the PIR should prompt a serious rethink of what collective regional deterrence should looks like in a new geostrategic context.

The Mismatch Between Interests and Resourcing

Historically, US regional interests have been most acute where Washington possesses sovereign territories or enjoys access, primarily across the northern arc of the PIR. Since the 19th century, locations across the PIR’s north—Hawaii, Guam, the Compact of Free Association States, and others—have helped sustain American commercial and political interests in Asia, while since the end of World War II, a robust regional military presence has allowed the US to maintain a favorable regional balance of power, protecting the freedom of movement of goods, ideas, and—should needs arise—American and/or allied forces to regional flash-points. Possession of or access to Pacific territories has also allowed America to deny these areas to potentially hostile powers who might seek to threaten the US homeland. Such concerns have largely lain dormant since Imperial Japan’s defeat in September 1945, but have risen again in the wake of China’s rise.

In fact, many argue that a growth in China’s influence in the PIR has occurred while Washington has been asleep at the wheel. For the purposes of this paper, America’s failure to adequately invest in regional security initiatives and local US force posture are of primary concern. The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalance to Asia’ did include some Pacific-relevant initiatives such as increasing aid, trade and investment links with the region, alongside the stated goal of shifting the bulk of US forces (including 60% of naval forces) into the Asia-Pacific by 2020. However, efforts to recalibrate regional force posture occurred in parallel with a general reduction in global force posture, meaning that US Pacific forces have essentially “remained static” since the Rebalance was announced. It is also unclear whether the administration of President Donald Trump regards the region as strategically important. Notwithstanding the adoption of the Indo-Pacific Strategy to address China’s regional designs, there is little in the way of official documentation that clarifies Washington’s core security interests in the PIR, or that sets forth a convincing strategy for addressing the challenges posed by China there. The PIR did not rate a single mention in the administration’s National Defense Strategy, while subsequent Department of Defense and Department of State documents outlining the Indo-Pacific Strategy read largely as lists of minor achievements and initiatives rather than long-term diplomatic or military blueprints for addressing pressing strategic challenges.

Symptomatic of America’s broader Indo-Pacific budgetary shortfall, US military assistance to the PIR has been negligible compared with investments made elsewhere, namely in the Middle East. In 2018, for example, the entire PIR received a quarter (approx. $1 million) of the International Military Education and Training funding extended to Jordan alone (approx. $4 million). Nor have Pacific Island states typically received much in the way of targeted Foreign Military Financing, funding which has typically fallen under an ill-defined ‘regional’ category. Notwithstanding some encouraging signs in the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act—including expansion of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative to include the PIR, $1.5 billion for Indo-Pacific security initiatives under ARIA, and a directive for US Defense and Intelligence authorities to compile a report on “foreign military activities in Pacific Island countries”—there remains much for the US to do to step-up its security footprint in the PIR consistent with its identification of the Indo-Pacific as its priority theatre.

Australia has also historically recognized the strategic significance of the PIR, but has not consistently invested the material and political resources to support that perception. To varying degrees of urgency, successive Defence White Papers have repeatedly articulated the imperative of a secure and stable PIR for Australian security. Realistically, however, since WWII Canberra has become accustomed to dealing with non-traditional security challenges such as failed states and natural disasters rather than state-based military threats or encroaching outside powers. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Australia’s policy posture towards the PIR over the years has oscillated between “crisis-driven interest” and neglect depending on the top security priorities of the day, which for the last two decades have primarily resided in the Middle East—nearly 73% (US $9 billion) of total operational spending since FY00/01 has gone towards distant Middle East campaigns.

In recent years, however, China’s growing power and influence have refocused Australian policymakers’ attention back on the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the PIR. Though the ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy may not be exclusively about addressing growing Chinese influence, that the policy has come largely in the wake of a growing Chinese profile in the region indicates that it is at least amongst its core drivers. Aside from expanding its diplomatic presence in the region, 35% of Australia’s (shrinking) aid budget now goes to the PIR (a number which could increase further), while Canberra could announce a range of new Pacific projects through the US $1.26 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility later this year. In the security space, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has also stepped up its engagements with the region, conducting the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise in the Pacific in 2018, sponsoring a program to deliver 19 maritime patrol vessels to 12 Pacific states, and standing up a Pacific Support Force to lead regional military training, among other initiatives.

China’s Growing Pacific Profile: Probing for Strategic Access?

Recent Australian and American initiatives in the PIR have undoubtedly been motivated by an uptick in Chinese activity and influence. In short, Beijing’s efforts to cultivate influence across the PIR could have serious strategic implications for both Australia and the United States—namely, should Chinese funding of critical infrastructure projects in the PIR ultimately pave the way for a regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence there. China has been criticized for using economic coercion and so-called ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ to secure strategically important facilities across the Indo-Pacific, most infamously in the case of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Many feared that the PIR would face a similar predicament (though recent research dispels these concerns), though its circumstances are somewhat different given the particular economic, political and security weaknesses afflicting many PIR states, and the region’s unique geography. In fact, the relatively small scale of the infrastructure required for small Pacific populations creates a favorable cost-benefit dynamic for China should it seek to generate strategic advantages over Australia and the US by cultivating strategic access in Pacific states.

China’s diplomatic battle with Taiwan has historically driven its interest in the region, but analysts worry that additional strategic considerations could also be entering China’s calculus. Some argue that recent diplomatic switches by Kiribati and the Solomon Islands from Taiwan to the People’s Republic could spark a chain of events resulting in “a crescent of Pacific island nations heavily influenced by China,” potentially allowing it to constrain US and Australian freedom of movement across the region. Others claim that military expansionism is in fact Beijing’s long-term goal, with low-return economic projects merely part of “a pre-conflict type of shadow game” of strategic positioning with the US. A regular military presence in the PIR could enhance the PLA’s regional logistics and communications networks, and allow it to surveil Australian and US military activities in peacetime, or even strike preemptively in the event of conflict in the South China Sea or East Asia.

Recent evidence adds weight to these concerns. Initial alarm was raised by an April 2018 story alleging that China and Vanuatu had held preliminary discussions regarding the establishment of a permanent PLA naval presence on the island nation, either in the form an initial access agreement permitting PLA vessels to refuel and resupply in Vanuatu, or even a purpose-built facility further down the track. Many pointed to the fact that Beijing had already provided development assistance for a new wharf on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, located close to a major international airport which China had also pledged to develop. The Australian government was quick to protest, and authorities in China and Vanuatu were just as quick to deny the reports, but the story nevertheless sparked significant anxiety within Alliance policy circles. Rory Medcalf distilled the Alliance’s core anxieties when he stated that such a base would “give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US… and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis.”

Vanuatu, however, was not a one-off. Additional reports indicated that China could be in line to co-develop four major port facilities in Papua New Guinea (PNG), including at the site of Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. These anxieties likely informed the Alliance’s decision, announced by US Vice President Mike Pence at the APEC 2018 Summit in Port Moresby, to partner with PNG in the redevelopment of Lombrum as a dedicated naval facility. In that same month, further reports spotlighted Chinese interest in assisting Samoa in developing a new port facility at Savai’i and, it later emerged, a second port site on Upolu¾both locations are adjacent to potential major airstrips. More recently, in October 2019 provincial authorities on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands signed an agreement to lease the entire island to Chinese state-owned company SAM Group, before the Solomons’ central government deemed the deal unlawful. Given the island’s historical significance as a Japanese deep-water naval base during World War II, Australian and US officialswere concerned that commercial facilities on the island could be converted to reprise such a role for Chinese forces. Before news of the deal’s cancellation had broken, some Australian analysts had speculated that a planned construction airfield there could eventually be outfitted to support Chinese J-10 fighter aircraft.

Thinking Through Options for Deterrence in the PIR

Though China has yet to secure strategic access in the PIR, its efforts still leave much for the Alliance to consider. The Allies’ responses thus far suggest that they are willing to expand their own regional strategic footprint in response, albeit in a rather reactive manner. Before launching into a larger coordinated response, however, policymakers in Canberra and Washington will need to develop a common understanding of the exact threat that a Chinese military presence would pose, whether or not these designs can be deterred in the first place, or if not, how best to deter, mitigate or eliminate the security challenges that a local PLA base could pose.

As a first step, the Allies should consider the range of Chinese actions that they seek to deter. Both partners obviously share an interest in preventing China from securing strategic access in the PIR. What is unclear, however, is whether that means a) the establishment of these facilities, and whether they are dedicated or dual-use facilities; b) the further development of existing commercial infrastructure to accommodate military assets; or c) the PLA’s actual use of these facilities in ways that undermine Alliance security interests, that would constitute the crossing of a ‘red line’ for the Allies. Despite a few close calls, none of these circumstances have yet materialized, but policymakers cannot wait until after the fact to reach a consensus on where Alliance red lines lie in the Pacific. In other words, the Alliance needs to establish a shared threshold for regional deterrence, beyond which Chinese activities would provoke a collective response.

One possibility is that the Alliance could seek to ‘beat Beijing to the punch’ by securing access to strategic real estate ahead of Chinese companies. In doing so the Alliance would be attempting to deter by denial, signaling a preparedness to outspend and out-politic China in the Pacific. Elements of such an approach are already apparent, for example, the Allies moved quickly to preempt Chinese interest in Lombrum Naval Base, the first stage of which was officially opened in August last year. Most recently, reports suggested that the Allies will seek to establish a deep-water port of their own in the Solomon Islands on the island of Malaita, only weeks after the China-Tulagi agreement was voided. Local authorities there, allegedly unhappy with the central government’s decision to abandon Taiwan, have also invited Australian and US forces to patrol the area. It is unclear whether this latter proposal will proceed given that Honiara has already overruled another recent agreement between local authorities and foreign powers. Regardless, the Allies will not always be as fortunate as they were with the 11th hour cancellation of the Tulagi agreement—the sheer scale of regional demand for infrastructure and the difficulty of competing with China’s largesse means that the risks of similar agreements being reached in the future cannot be ruled out. In the long-term, Australia and America—even in partnership with likeminded states—will struggle to sustain the financial and even political capital to preempt suspected Chinese strategic designs at every turn. Competing with Beijing on the basis of dollar figures alone does not advantage either Canberra or Washington going forward, meaning that one could effectively presume that China could not be deterred from seeking strategic access in the PIR in this manner.

A second option could be to confront or even punish China for establishing or even attempting establish an operating location, an idea which was the subject of some limited discussion at the second Australia-US Deterrence Dialogue. Following this concept, the Allies could consider blockading or sabotaging Chinese dual-use or dedicated military facilities in the PIR, whether in their completed forms or in their construction phase. China’s creation of ‘facts on the ground’ in the South China Sea (SCS) has already demonstrated the perils of allowing such projects to go ahead—in fact, some US voices have claimed that China is in fact applying the Go-like tactics mastered in the SCS to the PIR. As such, analysis suggesting that the conventional wisdom regarding China’s SCS bases—that they could be easily and efficiently neutralized in the event of conflict—is dangerously wrong could carry lessons for the Alliance in the PIR. China’s SCS facilities would in fact be “prohibitively costly” for the US and/or its Allies to neutralize in the early stages of a conflict, given that it is nearly impossible to “imagine a scenario in which the United States would be seriously considering kinetic strikes on Chinese bases in the South China Sea that would not also involve fighting in Northeast Asia.” In other words, a second-order consideration could attract outsized investments of military resources at the most pressing of moments, a situation which could be equally possible in the PIR. By providing control over strategically important waterways between Australian and US Pacific forces, Chinese Pacific bases could create additional headaches for the Alliance in wartime planning and practice, drawing resources away from more decisive theatres in north Asia.

Compared with the SCS, China’s deterrence calculations would be considerably different in the PIR. Its core interests reside squarely in and around the Chinese mainland, and would not necessarily be engaged by a distant conflict in the South Pacific should it remain locally confined. Sheer distance would also deny the PLA the same logistical advantages that it enjoys in the SCS, potentially reducing the mid-term efficacy of forces stationed there in a conflict. These factors suggest that the Alliance could minimize the risk of Chinese retaliation or escalation if it took only limited action against putative PLA facilities in the Pacific. Even so, it is questionable whether Australia or the US would be so overtly confrontational as to blockade or strike Chinese facilities in the Pacific. Blockading or striking military facilities built upon artificial islets is one thing. Doing the same to potentially commercial targets located within a third party’s sovereign territory is another matter entirely. In fact, were Beijing invited to establish a military presence by a Pacific nation’s central government, the long-term political costs of these sorts of action could be unpalatable.

Alternatively, rather than trying to deny China a permanent military presence in the PIR at great political and economic expense, it could “prove cheaper to build military capabilities that… could neutralize Chinese bases” through denial operations or, if necessary, kinetic strikes—classic deterrence by denial. Pursuing such a denial strategy would not necessarily preclude Chinese military outposts in the PIR, but would nevertheless allow both Alliance partners to preserve economic and political capital, avoid near-term actions that could see Pacific nations become collateral damage, and address wider-ranging strategic needs. For example, though much recent discussion regarding the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty has dealt with the utility of these capabilities in Asia, they would provide equal leverage over hypothetical Chinese facilities in the Pacific Islands. In fact, for Australia these capabilities make more sense in a Pacific context given the substantial distance between potential basing locations in the Northern Territory and likely targets in the South China Sea and beyond.

The US has already begun developing and testing new ground-based INF-range cruise and ballistic missiles for future deployments in Asia, but these plans are complicated by the limited number and great distance of US territories from likely targets, and the reluctance of regional partners (bar perhaps Japan) to host these capabilities at the risk of China’s wrath. Instead, Australia could be given the lead in developing a domestic land-based strike capability with practical technical support from the US. Such an initiative would be a positive step towards more equitable burden-sharing arrangements, and assist Washington’s efforts to address the significant fiscal, maintenance and political challenges associated with resourcing the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Long-range strike would also address operational requirements in other parts of Australia’s near-abroad, while jointly developing an operational doctrine for their deployment and use would also contribute to a tightening of Alliance strategic planning in the PIR. Relatedly, the PIR should more prominently feature in Alliance consultations over the division of labor in a range of possible contingencies across the Indo-Pacific. Even with these capabilities, Australia could not, beyond unreasonable doubt, deter or defeat Chinese aggression alone, and would still depend on US military support in the majority of imaginable scenarios where China is the chief adversary. Nevertheless, Washington will continue to expect Canberra to play a leading role in local joint operations, particularly if the Allies agree that the majority of possible contingencies in the PIR would be peripheral to more resource-demanding conflicts elsewhere. As such, developing a clearer sense of each partner’s expectations of the other in any given PIR contingency, and planning operational responses accordingly, should be a top priority.

Conclusion

In closing, this analysis barely addressed the agency of Pacific Island nations themselves, though not for lack of interest or importance. Rather, Australia and the US would be well-advised to approach the strategic challenge in the PIR by building trust rather than leaving these nations out of strategic planning altogether. After all, PIR states do not necessarily share the Alliance’s perceptions of China, and there is little evidence that Australia or the US are taking the region’s own security priority—climate change—seriously enough to foster the deep strategic partnerships required to build a regional order favorable to their interests. Nor is this analysis to suggest that military investments alone can solve the strategic challenges at hand, only that these considerations have remained largely peripheral until recently. Finally, this paper is far from exhaustive, and many of the ideas presented here are admittedly incomplete and worthy of further exploration. Hopefully, future US-Australia Deterrence Dialogues can unpack the complexities of strategic competition in the PIR in much more detail.

Tom Corben is a resident Vasey fellow at Pacific Forum.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 1 – Maritime Issues in the Indo-Pacific: Building a Shared Vision of “Free and Open”

Introduction

Pacific Forum, the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS), and Tama University’s Center for Rule-making Strategies, with support from the US Embassy in Japan, organized a conference discussing maritime issues in the Indo-Pacific as they relate to the “Free and Open” concept. The event was hosted by the Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo November 21-22, 2019. Approximately 35 senior officials, scholars, scientists, and security specialists attended in their personal capacity for an off-the-record discussion. The closed-door conference covered an array of maritime challenges including territorial conflicts, erosion of the rule of law, piracy and other criminal activities, unsustainable fishing practices, and environmental destruction. Synchronizing the efforts of uniquely qualified experts, this conference and its initiatives developed important messages for regional and global thinkers.

The conference provided a platform for professionals to address a multitude of growing concerns while creating an environment encouraging creative problem framing and problem solving. Following the conference, the experts in attendance were invited to submit short analytical commentaries for compilation into this volume. Key themes from this conference are outlined below.

There is an increasing pressure on the traditional US-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. This pressure stems from many factors, including evolving economic dynamics and maritime security challenges. Middle powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia will have an increasing level of responsibility in shaping the Indo-Pacific region by aligning in these two areas. Japan’s pragmatic approach focuses on strengthening the law enforcement capacities of other regional partners while relying on Official Development Assistance (ODA) to serve as an important foreign policy tool. On this theme, Dr. Stephen Nagy’s piece explores opportunities for maritime cooperation among middle powers in the Indo-Pacific. Dr. Raymond Yamamoto uses the changes in the distribution of Japan’s ODA to demonstrate the Abe administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision is not merely an update to previous ideas such as the Arch of Freedom Prosperity but a unique doctrine tailored to Japan’s current strategic needs. Dr. SATO Yoichiro explores Japan’s FOIP as a strategic approach employed by Japan’s leadership to advance its goals in a region under realignment in response to the People’s Republic of China’s growing economic heft and more threatening posture.

Much of the conversation focused on China maritime activities, which were generally seen as detrimental to a FOIP. In particular, the South China Sea came up as a “flashpoint” or tension front. Dr. OTA Fumio (VADM JMSDF ret.) contrasts Japan’s FOIP concept with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), arguing that—unlike FOIP—BRI is military-oriented, lacks rules, erodes the sovereignty of participants, imposes unsustainable financial burdens, and lacks transparency. Dr. ITO Go’s contribution focuses on Chinese activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as exemplifying that nation’s disruptive behavior.

Other discussions focused on the actions that states might take to address the range of regional maritime challenges. After examining China activities in the South China Sea through the lens of Chinese historical analogy, Vivian Ng argues that the US needs to take bold and unanticipated actions if it wants to disrupt current trajectories and seize the initiative. Dr. Asyurah Salleh points out that national competition exacerbates transnational maritime challenges such as environmental destruction. She unpacks the threats associated with fisheries mismanagement, arguing for a regional fishery management organization and other strategic actions while acknowledging international competition in the South China Sea restricts the range of options available. Finally, Margaret Jackson examines energy considerations for the US-Japan alliance in light of challenges to the flow of resources by sea and suggests the need for improved coordination in infrastructure investment and regional cooperation building.

The current approaches to the myriad of maritime concerns in the Indo-Pacific have been insufficient in securing a future in which the gathered experts are confident that a free and open system will be able to sustain regional peace and stability. Security, economics, environmental practices, and governance are fundamental considerations policymakers and the public must consider when developing a responsible maritime strategy. Reflecting the thoughtful discussion at the conference, the articles that follow provide an enlightened and expert perspective on the variety of themes addressed above. We hope our readers will consider new perspectives, revise their own perceptions appropriately, and engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue with other interested individuals.

YL Blog #24: Regions and Its Contestations

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The first plenary session of the Asia-Pacific roundtable, titled Asia Pacific vs. Indo Pacific: rationale, contestation and implications brought into light two fundamental questions of what a region is and why we are experiencing a shift in the terms.

To begin, are regions value-free or value-laden? Dr. Raja Mohan makes the argument that regions are continuously undergoing construction and deconstruction, reflecting changes in circumstance. He further argues that, resistance to the term ‘Indo Pacific’ is odd, as the term does not inherently oppose any other regional construct. Rather, the term ‘Indo Pacific’ describes the growing integration of a specific boundary of states. In fact, what is described as the Indo Pacific is not even a new concept. Dr. Mohan refers to this as the “restoration of old geographic descriptions, not a reinvention of new geography.” This point is made with reference to the fact that aspirations to connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans have long existed. Even China today aspires to achieve to connect the two Oceans through its Belt and Road Initiative.

The idea that regions are social constructs is agreeable, but it is arguable whether they are merely categorizations that are devoid of value judgement. For example, the phrase ‘Free and open Indo Pacific’ suggests that the Indo Pacific espouses certain values vis-à-vis other regional constructs which espouse contrary, or at least, conflicting ideals. Also, the hyphenated phrase Indo-Pacific, compared to the non-hyphenated Indo Pacific or slashed Indo/Pacific, hints at the conjoining of two strategically distinct regions, as well as a maritime-focused outlook. In this line of thought, that China resists the idea of an Indo Pacific construct is not odd at all. On the contrary, it is a natural reaction to a phrase that carries value-laden connotations.

Related to the above point, if regions are indeed social constructions, who is doing the constructing?  Early mention of the Indo Pacific construct can be found in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007. The speech, titled, Confluence of the Two Seas, highlighted Japan’s aspirations to promote an open and transparent Indo-Pacific zone. In Abe’s second inauguration, the Indo Pacific concept emerged in the Security Diamond strategy. However, more recently, the Indo Pacific construct has come to represent Japan’s regional vision, and not regional strategy. While a vision is an aspirational guide to help accomplish a long-term plan, a strategy denotes intent to employ political, economic, and military resources to achieve a specific end goal, with a clear success or failure outcome. The shift from strategy to vision is noteworthy, reflecting Japan’s sensitive position between China and the United States. Dr. Takahara’s presentation about how China’s BRI and Japan’s FOIP can complement each other is an optimistic outlook, but Japan will need to balance this with sensitivity towards its alliance with the US. For example, Japan will need to be vocal when China’s BRI and Japan’s FOIP face a fundamental clash over values (free trade, accountability, transparency, etc.).

For the United States, the Indo Pacific concept reflects a clear United States strategy towards the region. Mr. Elbridge Colby emphasized that while the US is not trying to seek dominance in the region or coerce regime change in China, it seeks to create positions of strength as to diminish China’s ability to coerce the region’s states. The message was clear: The United States is not asking countries, for example, in Southeast Asia to choose between China and the United States. However, it does want to make the region more resilient against China’s regional hegemonic goals. While US activities in the region, such as aiding infrastructure building in Southeast Asia, and carrying out freedom of navigation operations, are not targeted at China per se, it is understandable why China may think it is. This gap in perception calls for greater communication between the two states, focusing on areas of convergence, rather than divergence. Furthermore, as two architects of the Indo Pacific construct, the United States and Japan need to cooperate closely, with the support of other countries such as South Korea and ASEAN member states, on how to make it a durable construct. For example, what happens when Japan’s vision clashes with United States strategy?

To conclude, the plenary session highlighted the gap in view held by the United States, China, and to a lesser extent, Japan, regarding the ‘Indo Pacific.’ One could even make the observation that this message set the tone of the entire Asia Pacific Roundtable conference. Specifically, rather than seeking ways to bridge the gap, discussions throughout the entire conference focused on areas of contestation between the United States and China in the region. As the world enters a more multipolar order, the importance of regions will naturally increase. Thus, at least in the foreseeable future, regions and its contestations will become a recurring concern for scholars and practitioners of international relations.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.