Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.
The Indo-Pacific is emerging as the centre of global power and wealth, with security dynamics changing rapidly in the region. As speculation grows that the deep-water commercial port China is building at Koh Kong in Cambodia could become dual-purpose docks, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence has announced that Washington will partner with Australia to build a naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Two recent summits have also highlighted the changing power dynamics – between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing, and between Mr. Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan. As China has come under greater U.S. pressure on trade, technology and other fronts, it has sought to ease tensions with its geopolitical rivals, Japan and India.
Indeed, in response to the mounting American pressure, Mr. Xi this month emphasized his personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and called for “a plan that both can accept.” In recent days, Mr. Xi’s government has even submitted a list of concessions that Mr. Trump has rebuffed as inadequate.
This shows how active American pressure, as opposed to mere admonitions, can result in improving China’s behaviour or compel it to offer concessions.
Ending trade-distorting practices and a new Indo-Pacific strategy are two issues at the heart of the changing U.S. policy on China.
Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attempted to pivot to Asia. The pivot, unveiled in 2011, attracted a lot of international attention but had little effect in shaping the regional geostrategic landscape.
For example, it did nothing to tame China’s territorial and maritime revisionism. In fact, it was on Mr. Obama’s watch, after he had unveiled the pivot, that China created and militarized islands in the South China Sea, thereby fundamentally transforming the situation there. North Korea, for its part, made rapid nuclear and missile advances.
Against this background, the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, with its clearer vision and objectives, looks to be the true pivot to Asia. This is largely because of the paradigm shift under way in the United States' China policy.
The continuing shift in China policy has spawned the new strategy, which extends to the Indian Ocean – the new geostrategic focus of China. Indeed, the contest for regional influence pits the strategy against China’s Belt and Road Tnitiative, which Mr. Pence has mocked as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.”
The economic and security objectives of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy are being influenced by the evolving shift in its China policy.
Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy faces some tough challenges, not least because of the hedging policies of some U.S. allies. Caught between an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration and an arrogant and pushy China, some U.S. friends find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Moreover, some U.S. allies, including Australia and South Korea, view their economic relations with China to be as important as their security ties with the United States. The last thing they want is for American policy to force them to choose between the United States and China. America’s own neutrality on disputes between China and its neighbours, including in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas, encourages its friends to hedge their bets.
Another challenge for Washington relates specifically to the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. How can the Indo-Pacific be free and open when its most important sea corridor is neither free nor open?
To be sure, this is a difficult challenge. At this stage, how could the United States undo what China has done in the South China Sea without provoking a war? The Trump team inherited this problem from the Obama administration. Mr. Trump recently accused the Obama administration of having been “impotent” on the South China Sea issue.
The Trump administration, to be sure, has stepped up freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. But let’s be clear: Such operations neither credibly deter China nor reassure the United States’ regional allies.
Without a clear plan to deal with the changing status quo there, the South China Sea will remain a critical missing link in Washington’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy.
Meanwhile, the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad,” despite the hype, has yet to live up to its promise. Since the Quad was revived a year ago, its member-states have met at the level of senior bureaucrats, including for the third time last week in Singapore. But no ministerial-level meeting has been held thus far. This may explain why the quad’s institutionalization has yet to take off.
Quad members must start co-ordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy. And they need to build broader collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, as well as with strategically located small countries.
More fundamentally, progress on building a rules-based Indo-Pacific order is linked to addressing the regional imperative for strategic equilibrium. Playing by international rules and not seeking to redraw borders by force are also central to peace and security.