In spite of the five decades of engagement that have strengthened China and weakened the relative position of the US, the latter has not given up on the hope of a working relationship with China. In hindsight, every US policy of engagement with China has failed to yield the desired outcome. Nixon was attracted towards the potentially large Chinese market but it all ended up with American consumers becoming dependent on Chinese products. As China became richer, the Communist leaders became more arrogant. The wealth gave them the means to reassert their might on the international stage and to buy the silence of the world to the atrocities being committed on the minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Thus, the American hope that affluence would bring China any closer to democracy was also belied. Yet, even as expensive American missiles destroyed cheap Chinese balloons, the US vainly seeks assurances from China that it will not supply weapons to Russia and will rein in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. The US belief in its capability to modulate the behaviour of China is so strong that it is not willing to consider the inclusion of South Korea in the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) in spite of the latter’s keen desire to be a part of it.
Irrespective of the state of Sino-US relations, the threats to democracies in the Asia-Pacific have been rising with China threatening not only its neighbors but also the US airforce planes and naval ships in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Yet, even in the unlikely event of a détente between these two major powers, the Chinese threat to use force against Taiwan, India and even Japan will not decrease. The potential for the economic coercion of Australia and for subverting its democratic institutions by China will continue even if relations between China and the US thaw. The existential threat to South Korea emanating from a North Korea supported by China and Russia will also not abate. Perhaps, it is time that these five democracies of Asia, while maintaining close ties with the US, chart an independent defensive strategy to counter the looming Chinese hegemony. The strategy should be convincing enough to deter China from considering the use of force in the region to annexe Taiwan and to change the boundaries in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and on the Sino-Indian border.
A look at the areas of strength of these five countries will show that these are highly complementary. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have financial strength and are strong in high-tech semiconductor research and manufacture. The three together have virtual dominance of high-end chip production, with China hugely dependent on them. Japan and South Korea have a credible military hardware manufacturing and ship-building base with the former emerging as a major exporter of advanced artillery pieces and ammunition. Australia has substantial mineral wealth and high quality coal on which Chinese dependence was demonstrated when China, for a short period, decided to block Australian coal and immediately suffered power outages. India has a huge pool of technically qualified manpower, a large part of which emigrates to the US and they hold senior positions in research and production there. India has a million and a half strong army and still has potential for recruitment from its large population with substantial groups supported by a hoary martial history and a family tradition of being a soldier. This offsets the limitations imposed by the lower and declining populations of South Korea and Japan. Both India and Australia have some thinly populated areas and have openings on island-free oceans that permit safe testing of weapons on land and sea and undisturbed joint military drills.
The defence budgets of these five nations exceed a total of $200 billion, coming closer to China’s $230 billion with the former rising rapidly because of Japan’s goal of doubling its defense spending. Many believe the official Chinese figure to be an undercount but simultaneously, it includes expenditure on internal security like that of the People’s Armed Police, which is very high in China as compared to democratic countries. The Chinese economy at $18 trillion is bigger than the total of these five at $12 trillion but again, there are question marks over the official Chinese figure. Real estate and infrastructure contribute about one-fourth of China’s GDP and in spite of the sharp decline in these sectors, the official GDP figures have been showing growth.
The synergy created by a Japan, Australia , India, South Korea, (JAIS) alliance for defence cooperation has the potential of substantially boosting research and development in the defence sector while utilising each country’s comparative advantage in production. Even without a mutual defence treaty, the armed forces of these countries can benefit substantially from cooperation in the fields of defence research and production and this will have a strong deterrent effect on a malignant power like China. Their cooperation in the manufacturing sector can easily surpass the advantages so far enjoyed by China that made it the ‘factory of the world.” For involving Taiwan in this matrix, these five countries can create a joint corporation JAISCOR that can have a formal presence in Taiwan without violating the one-China policy. The combined heft of these five democracies has the potential of reducing their dependence on China in foreign trade while strengthening their defence and deterrent capability. They could also act as a counterweight to the increasing influence of China in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.
One obstacle to involving South Korea in this venture was its traditional bad blood with Japan stemming from the atrocities committed by the latter during the occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Yet, during March 2023, under the weight of the combined threat of China, North Korea and Russia, these two democracies have taken substantial steps towards reconciliation. South Korea ‘s new President Yoon has taken the bold step of accepting the idea that the compensation to Korean workers, who were exploited during the Japanese occupation, shall be paid by South Korean corporations, thus settling an issue that has bedevilled for decades any cooperation with Japan. Yoon is sticking to his guns in spite of severe opposition to the move at home. Immediately thereafter, Yoon flew to Tokyo on March 16 to meet Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida, the first such visit in 12 years. They completely restored the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between their countries thus ensuring that intelligence shall be fully shared between the two. Kishida announced an end to controls on export to South Korea of raw materials used for making chips and to “open a new chapter” in the bilateral relations. Both these countries have strong trade with Taiwan and their synergy has the potential of diluting South Korea’s trade dependence on China.
The fact remains that the presence of the US in any alliance in this region brings in a lot of salvos from China even as the US remains reluctant to infuriate China by any steps like including South Korea in the QUAD. These four democratic nations, Japan, Australia, India and South Korea, should consider forming a group of their own with ties to Taiwan through a joint corporate entity to mutually reinforce their individual strengths without getting involved too thickly in the toxic Sino-US rivalry.