China and Indo-Pacific QUAD

What’s in a name? So mused the 16th century bard in Romeo and Juliet. There were no Communists in that age. To them, words are the essence of ideology and the tools of their dialectic. Even the word “dialectic” is a tool and Communism does not assign it the Hegelian meaning in which argumentation and debate exclude subjective elements. Communism is a dogma that meticulously excludes the freedom to disagree. China bristles at the mention of “Indo-Pacific”, a coinage that has garnered huge currency in recent times. China blames its bugbear the USA, for popularising this phrase instead of Beijing’s preferred “Asia-Pacific”.

History dictates in favour of Indo-Pacific. The word Pacific emerged from explorations after establishing the sea route to India. Magellan found the ocean Pacifico, Pacific or peaceful as compared to the treacherous watersat the Cape of Good Hope. The term Indo-Pacific is older than Communist China and finds mention in the 1920 German work IndopazifischenRaum. Nature seems to desire this expanse of sea as a single marine entity as many species found in the Indo-Pacific are not found in the Atlantic. Since 2007, heads of states in India, Japan and Australia have been using this term with increasing frequency. The chorus was joined by the US in 2013 and Trump has made it the cornerstone of US policy in the region after he started the trade war with China in 2018. On 1st July 2019, The US Department of Defence brought out the “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region”. Four months later, in November 2019, the US State Department produced “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision”. In the same month, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its vision document, “Towards Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. In May 2018 the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command (PACOM) was renamed as the US Indo-Pacific Command (IPACOM).

It is no coincidence that this flurry of activity followed China’s refusal to accept the arbitration award in the South China Sea dispute and simultaneous feverish creation and militarization of islands in those waters. The tariff war with the US accelerated Chinese belligerence and wolf-warrior diplomacy towards Australia, Japan and India along with increased sabre rattling in the Taiwan straits. China did not remain silent to this rediscovered love for the term Indo-Pacific.In November 2017,China’s foreign ministry spokesperson GengShuang hoped that this strategy (he avoided saying the phrase, Indo-Pacific) would not be exclusionary and “would not target a third party” obviously meaning China.In March 2018, Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of China, when asked about the emergence of the idea of Indo-Pacific, said scornfully: “It seems there is never a shortage of headline-grabbing ideas. They are like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean. They may get some attention, but soon will dissipate.”

Yet, when in March 2019, Indonesia organized the “High-Level Dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation”, Le Yucheng,Deputy Foreign Minister of China, participated,though in his address he refrained from mentioning the term Indo-Pacific, the very theme of the conference.In August 2019, he said“For a long time the US has been grossly interfering in the affairs of regional countries in the Asia Pacific. Politically, it has tried to drive a wedge between them by promoting the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’”, thereby making it clear that China would rather use the term “Asia Pacific.”

China openly perceives the Indo-Pacific Strategy to be a threat to its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In September 2018, Le Yuchengsaid “What we are firmly against is attempts to use the Indo-Pacific strategy as a tool to counter the BRI or even contain China”. Why is China so wary of a regional cooperation arrangement, which till this month’s QUAD meeting at Tokyo had nothing concrete on the ground? Is it merely because the US is involved along with traditional rival Japan? It is becoming clear that the Indo-Pacific concept is not merely a reaction to the threat posed by China but is the seed for a wider economic and technology cooperation between the nations involved.

The gradual emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue usually referred to as QUAD, a combination that overlaps the Indo-Pacific concept involving the same four nations, did ring alarm bells in Beijing though the idea remained amorphous for a long time. Emerging at the initiative of Japan in 2007, it drew an immediate reaction from China, which sent diplomatic protest communications to the countries involved. As it happened, there were leadership changes in Japan and Australia and the new leaders were friendlier to China. Thus, QUAD went cold from 2008. Things soured further when the new Prime Minister of Australia refused to sell uranium to India.

QUADstirred again with the four countries showing fresh interest on the sidelines of the ASEAN meet at Manila in 2017. The Australians had meanwhile changed their stance and agreed to the uranium sale to India. China had become belligerent with its island building and militarization. The earlier pretense of QUAD not being about China was given up and the group met repeatedly during the next two years. Yet, the most fruitful meeting was the one in Tokyo on the 6th of this month. The earlier hesitation of Australia about QUAD affecting its trade with China and of India regarding the likely conflict of this arrangement with BRICS had evaporated with the open hostility of China to both these countries. China had already clamped down on imports from Australia and had heated the Himalayan borders and public sentiment in India with the killing of Indian soldiers. Arrests of multiple Chinese spies in India, in the US and in Australia had further increased wariness about China’s intentions.

An op-ed in March 2018 in China’s state-owned Global Times derisively referred to this arrangement as “the so-called Quad”. Yet, the economic heft of the nations involved in this strategy is formidable. Their combined GDP is more than twice that of China and their defence budget four times that of China. The difference is going to become starker in the coming years particularly because of the graying of China as a result of decades of one-child policy. Yet, it will be a mistake to see India, Japan and Australia, possibly joined later by Indonesia, as becoming allies of the US in something like an Asian version of NATO. In the next part of this article we shall show how these nations are joining hands with America only as a strategic balancing act between that nation and China.

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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