Strategic Space

China and the Shape of the Indo-Pacific

18 Jul, 2018    ·   5496

Dr Manpreet Sethi contends that China's behaviour will ultimately determine the future trajectory of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS

It is hardly surprising that China figures prominently in the idea of the Indo-Pacific. In fact, China’s behaviour and actions have provided the impetus and trigger for the revival of the Indo-Pacific, since the countries spearheading the concept have felt, if not threatened, then certainly uncomfortable, with what they see emerging. The US for sure, as the driver of this version of the Indo-Pacific, has not shied away from calling out China as an adversary in its National Security Strategy of 2017 and the Nuclear Posture Review of early 2018. In its formulation of the Indo-Pacific, Washington perceives one way of dealing with China. Nearly all other countries, big and small, that have shown interest in the Indo-Pacific are also animated by shared geopolitical concerns posed by China’s 'rise'.

In fact, the reason why the first avatar of the concept of Indo-Pacific faded away was largely because none of the participants felt the gravity of China’s power which, in 2007, was still quite muted. It may be recalled that India too celebrated a friendship year with China in 2006 that saw fairly large scale political, economic and cultural engagements. The bonhomie continued for a while and in 2008, China agreed to India’s exceptionalisation by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). But, within a couple of years of that, China’s nationalism and assertive behaviour had begun to be felt.

Eight years down the line, China seems to have had a brush of sorts with many countries of the Indo-Pacific. Japan has its issues with China on both the East and South China Seas; Australia is wary of its interference in its domestic arena; India has had a showdown at Doklam and differences over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), NSG, terrorism and Pakistan; and the US is engaged in a tug of war on trade issues as also expressing wariness at Beijing’s military activities in the South China Sea. China’s rapid military and nuclear modernisation is changing the balance of power and could have implications for its nuclear doctrine, which until now has been seen as inclined towards minimum and defensive deterrence. Changing capabilities could bring in new dimensions that appear threatening to others, not the least to India.

So, China is a factor in the formulation of concept of Indo-Pacific. For now, Beijing has refrained from expressing any strictly official view on the concept. But, it certainly has taken notice of the development. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in March 2018 dismissed the Quad and Indo-Pacific as a "headline grabbing idea," but which would dissipate like "foam on the sea." Several Chinese strategic analysts, too, have expressed scepticism over the sustainability of the ‘formless’ concept and have predicted that differences in capabilities of countries would cause coordination problems amongst them.

Meanwhile, editorials in Global Times have, on the one hand, been characteristically caustic of the prominence being accorded to India, and on the other hand, seem to be cautioning India from becoming a US pawn in its China containment strategy. They contend that US support for India’s rise as a global power is meant to help check China’s movements in the Indian Ocean since Washington has no reliable alliances here. Another editorial of 31 May 2018 called the Indo-Pacific a trap set by Washington to: one, "instigate China and India into long term infighting;" and two, to cope with the inevitable rise of India and to strengthen Washington’s control of the Indian Ocean. It warns India that its period of "smooth diplomacy" with the West will soon run its course, and like China, its rise will be perceived as a threat by the West. So, as per this Chinese view, the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US is meant to drive a wedge between China and India and drag them into a dispute that would delay the rise of both.

As far as India is concerned, it certainly does not want a zero-sum relationship with either China or the US. In fact, present day multi-polarity allows actors the ability and freedom to simultaneously engage in multiple relations of competition and cooperation. India would certainly not want to sharpen the threat with China. The Wuhan Summit was an indication of this and the fact that despite their differences, both do recognise each other’s presence as important players in the region.

China has chosen to launch the BRI to provide continued vitality for its economic growth and development through access to resources, creation of jobs and markets. Infrastructure development in under-developed but resource-rich countries in a manner that allows a cash- rich China to profit further is its chosen strategy. However, there has been a pushback from many places on the lack of transparency on the financing of these projects and the absence of actual benefits that it brings to the local population.

In the Indian formulation, the idea of the Indo-Pacific is an opportunity to offer an alternative model of infrastructure development that follows the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, financial transparency, environmental sustainability and mutually beneficial trade and investment. Therefore, without getting into a direct confrontation with China, the bilateral, trilateral or multilateral arrangements amongst countries of the Indo-Pacific are meant to present a starkly different approach to quality infrastructure development as compared to Chinese projects.

For India, the Indo-Pacific is not only a geographical space for politico-economic maritime partnerships and strengthening of regional frameworks, but also a platform to showcase an alternative development model in which countries are bound by a vision of shared prosperity underpinned by a common interest in maritime order and strategic stability. Whether this idea will remain a loose set of economic, maritime and political relationships or whether it would lead to the construction of a tight military alliance anchored in the Quad is wholly dependent on China’s own behaviour and actions in the future. These will determine the shape and trajectory that the Indo-Pacific and the Quad ultimately take.