As China flexes its might, mid-size powers regroup

New alliances in the Pacific are designed to provide a counterweight to the growing power of China, writes Harsh V Pant.

Alliances such as between India and Japan are about creating a counterweight to Chinese dominance. Toru Hanai / EPA
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New configurations in Asian geopolitics are emerging thick and fast. In June, a new relationship involving India, Japan and Australia emerged when the Indian foreign minister met his Australian counterpart and the Japanese deputy foreign minister. It has also been announced that Japan will be a part of Malabar, the annual India-US naval exercises to be held over the next few months. Although Japan has participated in similar exercises in the past, this will be only the second time it has taken part in war games in the geostrategically critical Indian Ocean region.

Proposed first by Japan and adopted with enthusiasm by the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, the Indo-Pacific strategic relationship framework has gained considerable currency as the best way forward for Asia, with even the US now increasingly articulating the need for it.

Though Beijing views the relationship with suspicion, many in China are acknowledging that that country needs to synchronise its policies across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

These developments underscore a changing regional configuration in the Indo-Pacific in response to China’s aggressive foreign policy posture as well as a new seriousness in India’s own China policy.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to Japan and Australia has been a significant part of his government’s foreign policy. Strong security ties with Tokyo and Canberra are now viewed as vital by Delhi. China’s increasing diplomatic and economic influence, coupled with domestic nationalistic demands, has led to an adjustment of its military power and the adoption of a bolder and more proactive foreign policy.

Initiatives include China’s unilateral decision in 2013 to extend its “air defence identification zone” over the contested maritime area in the East China Sea – overlapping with the existing Japanese one – and new fishing regulations, announced in January last year, that require foreign vessels in more than half of the South China Sea to obtain fishing permits from authorities in Hainan province.

China’s land-reclamation work in the disputed Spratly Islands has been the most dramatic affirmation of Beijing’s desire to change the ground realities in the region in its favour. This has generated apprehensions about a void in the region to balance Beijing’s growing dominance.

With the US consumed by its own domestic vulnerabilities and crises in the Middle East, regional powers such as India, Japan and Australia are becoming more proactive in managing this turbulence.

The new trilaterals emerging in Asia go beyond past attempts at rudimentary joint military exercises. In December 2013, the Japanese navy conducted its first joint maritime exercise with India in the Indian Ocean. The growing strategic convergence between the two countries led to India inviting the Japanese to participate in the 2014 Malabar exercises with the US in the Pacific.

India and Japan have an institutionalised dialogue partnership with the United States that was begun in 2011. Maintaining a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as maritime security in the Indo-Pacific waters, has become an important element of this dialogue. A similar dialogue exists between the US, Japan and Australia. And now a new relationship between India, Japan and Australia has joined these initiatives which could potentially transform into a “quad” of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region.

The roots of this potential partnership were laid in 2004, when navies from the US, India, Japan and Australia collaborated in tsunami relief operations all across the Indian Ocean.

Japan was one of the earliest vocal supporters of these initiatives. In 2007, Shinzo Abe, during his first stint as prime minister, lobbied for Asia’s democracies to come together. This was also actively supported by the US.

The initiative resulted in a five-nation naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007. However, perceiving a possible ganging-up of Asia’s democracies, China issued demarches to New Delhi and Canberra, causing this initiative to lose steam, since both Australia and New Delhi felt it unwise to provoke China.

However, as China becomes more aggressive in the region, there are signs that India and Australia may be warming to the idea again.

Uncertainty about Chinese power and intentions in the region – and of future American commitment to maintaining the balance of power in Asia – ranks high in the strategic thinking of other regional powers. Rapidly evolving regional geopolitics is forcing Asia’s middle powers – India, Japan and Australia – to devise alternative strategies for balancing China. While continuing their security partnerships with the US, these countries are actively hedging against the possibility of America’s eventual failure to balance China’s growing power.

Asia’s geopolitical space is undergoing a transformation. While China’s rise is the biggest story – one that is still unfolding – other powers are also recalibrating and they will be of equal, if not greater, consequence in shaping the future of global politics.

Harsh V Pant is a professor of international relations at King’s College London