Changes on the Indo-Pacific’s Geopolitical Chessboard

Today, with the specter of Asian power disequilibrium looming, the China factor has gained greater salience in the equations between and among the major Indo-Pacific powers.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

downloadchessThe Indo-Pacific region’s geopolitical flux is being highlighted by several developments. The escalating U.S.-China trade war is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; South Korea’s weaponization of history is increasingly roiling its relations with Japan; Beijing appears to be inexorably moving to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; and the Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus is deepening. China, meanwhile, still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Add to the picture surging tensions over two Indo-Pacific hotspots: Taiwan, with the growing animosity between Beijing and Taipei increasing the risks of a shooting war; and the erstwhile kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, whose control is split among India, Pakistan and China.

If Hong Kong’s mass movement loses to Chinese authoritarianism, the implications will not be limited to that city. Indeed, it could embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan.

Another Tiananmen Square triggered by China’s unleashing of brute force would likely have far greater international geopolitical fallout than the 1989 massacre in Beijing. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Washington did not sustain sanctions against Beijing in the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalize economically and politically. But now a fundamental shift in America’s China policy is in progress.

To be sure, the larger challenges in the Indo-Pacific center on establishing a pluralistic and stable regional order, ensuring respect for existing borders, and safeguarding freedoms of navigation and overflight.

The Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical landscape will be shaped by five key powers: America, China, India, Japan and Russia. Equations within this strategic pentagon will profoundly influence Asian geopolitics in particular. As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against Japan and India — strategic containment.

A shared grand strategy to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In fact, the South China Sea, where China’s land reclamation and militarization persist, poses the biggest challenge for Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free and open” when, in its most-important sea corridor, China’s aggression continues?

As the U.S. government said on August 22, China’s coercion against Vietnam and other claimants “undermines regional peace and security,” imposes “economic costs” on them by “blocking their access to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources,” and demonstrates “China’s disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their EEZs, under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which China ratified in 1996.” Vietnam, to its credit, has thus far refused to buckle under Chinese intimidation over an oil exploration project at the Vietnamese-controlled Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands.

Although the Vanguard Bank project involves a Russian energy firm, the U.S. has stood out as the only important power to directly criticize China’s coercion against Vietnam. However, U.S. sanctions against Russia and tariffs against China have counterproductively fostered a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power and second-largest economy.

Russia and China, however, are not natural allies but natural competitors. China’s rise has paralleled Russia’s decline. Today, Chinese expansionism is bringing Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics under China’s sway and threatening Moscow’s interests in the Russian Far East. Russia, the world’s largest country by area and richest in natural resources, shares a long border with a resource-hungry China, whose population is 10 times larger.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called Russian President Vladimir Putin his “best and bosom friend.” Yet, beneath the surface, all is not well. Despite booming economic ties, the Russia-China relationship is marred by mutual suspicions and wariness in the political realm. In the Russia-India case, it is the reverse: Bilateral trade has shrunk noticeably but political ties remain genuinely warm.

An open secret in Moscow is that Russia’s main long-term geopolitical challenge centers on China. The marriage of convenience between the bear and the dragon is unlikely to last long, given their history of geopolitical rivalry, including Chinese-initiated military clashes in 1969.

When the rupture happens, it will have as profound an impact globally as the 1960s’ Sino-Soviet rift, which led to the U.S. rapprochement with China. Indeed, the U.S.-China strategic collusion since the 1970s contributed significantly to Soviet imperial overstretch and to the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War.

Today, however, the U.S., instead of establishing itself as a natural wedge between Russia and China, has become a bridge uniting them against it.

For India, the China factor has always been central to its strategic ties with Moscow. In 1971, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi skillfully engineered Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan by entering into a friendship treaty with Moscow. The treaty, with a mutual-security assistance clause, helped deter China from opening a second front against India. As the declassified Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger transcripts attested, this duo sought to egg on China to attack India when Indian forces intervened to end the East Pakistan genocide (in which up to 3 million people were killed and nearly 400,000 women were raped, with almost 10 million fleeing to India).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok from Thursday underscores that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate. Like Abe, Modi will be in Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum but he will also hold his annual summit with Putin. Modi’s visit will yield a military logistics pact with Russia of the kind that India has already concluded with America and France and is negotiating with Japan and Australia.

Today, with the specter of Asian power disequilibrium looming, the China factor has gained greater salience in the equations between and among the major Indo-Pacific powers. If the U.S., Russia, Japan and India were to work together, China would find itself boxed in from virtually all sides, extinguishing the prospect of a Sino-centric Asia.

Strategists both inside and outside the Trump administration have this logic in mind when pushing for rapprochement with Russia. But current American domestic politics will not allow that.

Moreover, Russo-Japanese relations have yet to be normalized, thus constituting a missing link in the strategic pentagon. Abe, however, has sought to court Putin to help rebalance power in Asia, while seeking Russia’s return of the resource-rich Northern Territories (which the Soviet Union seized just after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945).

The imperative in the Indo-Pacific today is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium.

Trump may have done little to build broader geostrategic collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, but his lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy — a shift that enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2019.