China’s ambition to reshape the Asian order is no secret. From the “one belt, one road” scheme to the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, major Chinese initiatives are gradually but steadily advancing China’s strategic objective of fashioning a Sino-centric Asia. As China’s neighbors well know, the country’s quest for regional dominance could be damaging – and even dangerous. Yet other regional powers have done little to develop a coordinated strategy to thwart China’s hegemonic plans.
To be sure, other powers have laid out important policies. Notably, the United States initiated its much-touted strategic “pivot” toward Asia in 2012, when India also unveiled its “Act East” policy. Similarly, Australia has shifted its focus toward the Indian Ocean, and Japan has adopted a western-facing foreign-policy approach.
But coordinated action – or even agreement on broadly shared policy objectives – has remained elusive. In fact, a key element of America’s Asian pivot, the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, does not just exclude China; it also leaves out close US allies like India and South Korea.
That is not the only problem with the TPP. Once the lengthy process of ratifying the deal in national legislatures is complete and implementation begins, the impact will be gradual and modest. After all, six members already boast bilateral free-trade agreements with the US, meaning that the TPP’s main effect will be to create a free trade area (FTA) between Japan and the US, which together account for about 80% of the TPP countries’ combined GDP. The conclusion of the ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – which includes China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, but not the US – is likely to weaken the TPP’s impact further.
Compare this to the “one belt, one road” initiative, which aims to boost China’s financial leverage over other countries through trade and investment, while revising the maritime status quo, by establishing a Chinese presence in areas like the Indian Ocean. If President Xi Jinping achieves even half of what he has set out to do with this initiative, Asian geopolitics will be profoundly affected.
In this context, Asia’s future is highly uncertain. To ensure geopolitical stability, the interests of the region’s major players must be balanced. But with China eager to flex the political, financial, and military muscles that it has developed over the last few decades, negotiating such a balance will be no easy feat.
As it stands, no single power – not even the US – can offset China’s power and influence on its own. To secure a stable balance of power, likeminded countries must stand together in backing a rules-based regional order, thereby compelling China to embrace international norms, including dispute settlement through peaceful negotiation, rather than military intimidation or outright force. Without such cooperation, China’s ambitions would be constrained only by domestic factors, such as a faltering economy, rising social discontent, a worsening environmental crisis, or vicious politics.
Which countries should take the lead in constraining China’s revisionist ambitions? With the US distracted by other strategic challenges – not to mention its domestic presidential campaign – Asia’s other powers – in particular, an economically surging India and a more politically assertive Japan – are the best candidates for the job.
Both India and Japan are longstanding stakeholders in the US-led global order, emphasizing in their own international relations the values that America espouses, such as the need to maintain a stable balance of power, respect the territorial and maritime status quo, and preserve freedom of navigation. Moreover, they have demonstrated their shared desire to uphold the existing Asian order.
In 2014, while visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, took a veiled swipe at Chinese expansionism, criticizing the “eighteenth-century expansionist mindset” that was becoming apparent “everywhere around us.” Citing encroachment on other countries’ lands, intrusion into their waters, and even the capture of territory, Modi left little doubt about the target of his complaint.
Last month, Abe and Modi took a small step in the direction of cooperation. By jointly appealing to all countries to “avoid unilateral actions” in the South China Sea, they implicitly criticized China’s construction of artificial islands there, which they rightly regard as a blatant attempt to secure leverage in territorial disputes – and gain control over sea lanes of “critical importance” for the Indo-Pacific region.
Clearly, both Japan and India are well aware that China’s ambitions, if realized, would result in a regional order inimical to their interests. Yet, while they are committed to maintaining the status quo, they have failed to coordinate their policies and investments in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, both strategically located countries vulnerable to Chinese pressure. This must change.
Asia’s main powers – beginning with Japan and India, but also including the US – must work together to secure a broadly beneficial and stable regional balance of power. To this end, naval maneuvers, such as the annual US-India-Japan “Exercise Malabar,” are useful, as they strengthen military cooperation and reinforce maritime stability.
But no strategy will be complete without a major economic component. Asia’s powers should move beyond FTAs to initiate joint geo-economic projects that serve the core interests of smaller countries, which would then not have to rely on Chinese investments and initiatives to boost growth. As a result, more countries would be able to contribute to the effort to secure an inclusive, stable, rules-based order in which all countries, including China, can thrive.