BY ERIK KHZMALYAN & ARMEN V. SAHAKYAN
For the first time in its history, the United States is facing a situation where it has to deal with three simultaneously rising powers in Asia – India, China, and Japan. America’s future in the region will be determined by how it positions itself in the emerging new geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific. More specifically, the U.S. will have to accomplish two main objectives: (a) prevent the Finlandization of established security treaty allies in the region by China (e.g. Philippines, Australia) (b) boost closer alignment with countries sensitive about their strategic autonomy, most importantly India.
The collapse of the USSR and the evident bankruptcy of communist ideology led many to predict the looming and inevitable democratization of China. This viewpoint was further solidified by the predominant paradigm of the burgeoning middle classes producing some sort of political change. In China’s case, many hoped that this would catalyze Beijing’s political liberalization. Additionally, the West’s strategic faith was backed by China’s muted stance regarding territorial demands vis-à-vis Taiwan during the waning days of the Soviet Union. These hopes, however, did not materialize.
The first major sign of China’s nonconformity manifested itself in 1995 with the occupation of the Mischief Reef followed by massive military drills to protest Taiwan’s democratic elections. This being said, the Chinese policymakers continued to convince the world of Beijing’s peaceful rise. It was not up until 2008 when China’s foreign policy began shifting dramatically with Xi Jinping’s ascend to power.
The subsequent years witnessed a number of incidents between Beijing and its neighbors. The naval standoff between China and the Philippines in 2012; the continuous militarization of the South China Sea; the border tensions with India; and the harassment of American warships all served as signs of China’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. Within three decades, America’s view of Beijing shifted from the 1990s’ optimism to Pentagon calling out China as an outright threat to the U.S. national security in 2017.
In light of these developments, Western alliance/partnership structure will face mounting pressure from Beijing, potentially forcing Washington’s allies to reconsider their roles as the spokes of American power. This is not to suggest that allies will necessarily side with Beijing, but maintaining neutrality may become the new reality and prove to be no less harmful to the American interests.
Asia’s complex security structure as well as the historic lack of proper intraregional engagement due to states’ mismatching strategic outlooks have prevented the U.S. from forming a cohesive bloc akin to NATO in Europe. As is acknowledged, the U.S.-Japan alliance has served as the primary Western security pillar in the region since the end of WWII. Though Japan has been pursuing an increasingly more independent foreign policy, its security is still very much intertwined with Washington. Moreover, Tokyo’s fears of China’s territorial claims and the latter’s increased military activities in Japan’s adjacent waters have further cemented this security arrangement.
The situation is rather different with one of America’s traditional regional allies, Australia. Canberra’s perception of global security has historically evolved around British and American strategic prominence in Asia. Hence, Australia has been shielded from major geopolitical choices thus far, always bandwagoning with the Anglophone powers. Australian troops have fought alongside the U.S. in all wars waged during the past century. Washington, too, has taken the alliance with Australia for granted. This may be bound to change.
China’s masterful infiltration of the political, academic, and business elite circles in Australia stands to throw Canberra off its established orbit. Beijing has replaced Tokyo as Australia’s main economic lifeline, creating a major geopolitical dilemma for Canberra. Should China’s clout continue to grow over Australia, this strategy would effectively Finlandize one of America’s steadfast mates in the Indo-Pacific.
The increased Chinese leverage has already yielded some worrisome outcomes. For instance, in 2008 Australia – led by Kevin Rudd –withdrew from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) for the purpose of not upsetting Beijing. Additionally, Canberra also suspended the sale of uranium to India in 2008. Although the sale was eventually resumed in 2011 and Australia ultimately joined the Quad, its relationship with India has suffered a major drawback. This is best manifested by New Delhi’s continual rejection of Canberra’s participation in annual Malabar naval exercise, which includes the U.S., India, and Japan.
The India-Australia case brings to light the far-reaching risks posed at America’s regional partnership network by allowing a component state to be neutralized. Not only can such a scenario erode America’s bilateral arrangements, but also compromise the overall regional network.
Despite its territorial dispute with China, Philippines could also find itself in an analogous situation where picking a side would be too costly, leaving neutrality as the most viable option. America’s inadequate response to the 2012 naval standoff between Beijing and Manilla not only emboldened China, but also sent the wrong signal to Philippines. Today, the U.S. may be taken aback by the mercurial Philippine leader, but this should not metastasize into the security realm.
When it comes to India, the U.S. must pursue a policy of cautious realism. Firstly, it should not neglect one of India’s major foreign policy pillars, that being strategic autonomy. While engaging with New Delhi militarily – such as enhancing the naval interoperability – it should positively reinforce India’s entente with Japan. The Tokyo-New Delhi cooperation has the potential to become the unofficial second layer of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
India has made it clear that it will not put all its eggs in one basket and will engage with all countries it views central to its national interests. In such scenario America’s best way forward is to leverage the convergent interest of the two countries to keep China at bay. The U.S. – parallel to developing equitable relations with India – should quietly enhance its defense cooperation with the aim of increasingly synchronizing New Delhi’s calculations with Washington.
More broadly, Washington’s ill-advised decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) created further vacuum for China to fill. Entrenched economic dependence of states on China would inevitably come at the expense of diminished U.S. influence in the region. Given this reality, the U.S. must also aim to significantly boost its economic presence on the bilateral and multilateral basis. Although quite obvious, there has not been much proactive measures stemming from Washington to remedy this situation.
America is still the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific propelled by its regional allies that have welcomed Washington’s consistent presence. Should this support wither and America’s traditional partners become less willing to side with Washington, the United States will be eventually forced not only to fully accommodate Beijing’s demands, but run the risk of losing its major foothold in this strategically important region. In the words of Winston Churchill, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”
Image Source: nikkei.com
About the Authors
Erik Khzmalyan is an M.A. candidate in Statecraft and National Security Affairs at the Institute of World Politics (IWP). Mr. Khzmalyan is a Senior Fellow at the ERA Institute. His research primarily focuses on U.S. national security and foreign policy.
Armen V. Sahakyan is the executive director of the ERA Institute. Mr. Sahakyan holds M.A. degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University SAIS. His research interests include international political economy and Eurasian affairs.
This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan e-think tank. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).