The world has witnessed the rapid rise of China over the last few years. The ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative (BRI) — launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 — has stretched China’s expansion policy to a grand level. So it is worth asking whether China has made friends along the way or managed to softly trigger a global divide?
The recently published National Security Strategy (NSS) under the new US administration highlighted the prominence of an ‘Indo-Pacific’, a term becoming increasingly interchangeable with the classification of countries under the ‘Asia Pacific’. The NSS prioritised the Indo-Pacific over all five regions, including Europe and the Middle East describing it as “the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world.” The Indo-Pacific brings together Japan, India, Australia and the US forming a quadrilateral alliance to encourage greater regional connectivity, much like the BRI’s ambitions. In hindsight, the strategy hopes to counterbalance China’s growing maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean vis-a-vis the BRI. The growing resentment towards China’s leverage in the region was blatantly evident in the head of US Pacific Command’s recent comment that “China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific.”
This move from engagement to competition with China has been accepted by Washington and welcomed by Tokyo whose policies are most in sync with the former, and Delhi has eagerly agreed to inculcate Japan’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ vision into its ‘Act East’ policy. The real catch remains whether the like-mindedness will offer the same level of coherence with which the BRI has sustained itself, after all China’s modern Silk Road is already backed by over a trillion US dollars, touches 70 nations and covers almost 65% of the global population.
In a speculative world anything is possible in the foreseeable future, tables may well turn and China’s recent roadblocks in several of its ambitious projects have only sparked such hopes amongst its counterparts. The failure of CPEC’s ‘Diamer-Bhasha’ dam managed to raise a few eyebrows since Pakistan has always endorsed its status as China’s ‘Iron Brother’ and as per Hong Kong-based analyst Robert Koepp, “for Pakistan to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to do this with you’, shows it’s not as ‘win-win’ as China says it is”. The year-end witnessed renegotiation or cancellation of many other key BRI projects stretching from Tanzania to Myanmar serving to reflect on the aggressiveness of China’s expansion policy which seems to be overtaking the greater good agenda it had established its foundations on.
Japan and India have emerged as frontrunners in their alliance to the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set his leadership rhetoric in pushing Japan forward in the Asia-Pacific geopolitics; in fact, the defence cooperation with Australia which was marked by Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit to Tokyo is a silent threat to China’s strategic growth. On the other hand, the Trump administration has placed India on a pedestal for its significance to South Asia, in particular Pakistan and Afghanistan and implications for CPEC. However, despite public exchange of sentiments there is some ambiguity to India’s and Australia’s stance with respect to China. India has not put itself up for competition just as yet, to them if China offers a more accommodative behaviour there is much more to gain from the BRI than loss.
Australia also recognises the BRI’s potential and offered the right protocol for engagement, like India, it is likely to heavily benefit from Chinese investments especially in light of the recent trade growth between the two. This proves to show that a strong sense of economic rationality will be at play in shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific framework.
The Indo-Pacific strategy relies on deep-rooted cooperation between the nations in its circumference. The concept itself is rather reassuring for its partners and allies, but promoting the strategy as a containment and counter-mechanism against China might be a race ahead of its time.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2018.
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