QUAD AND THE INDO-PACIFIC
The People’s Republic acts; the rest issue statements
In order to rectify the above state of affairs, it is becoming imperative for the members of the Quad to move from issuing statements to taking action. Further, the focus of action should be on security and strategic economics. Without this, the initiative risks losing credibility. With these guideposts, some of the actions needed are listed at the start of this note.
Urgent measures required:
Clarity on Taiwan – from the 1952 San Francisco Treaty, the issue of sovereignty has been unclear. Time to take a clear stand in favour of its sovereignty, with adequate military preparation; in return, Taiwan has to take certain steps, discussed below.
Take an agreed position on 9-Dash line – Taiwan has an important role in debunking this line as its originator. But it is not willing to deny the validity of its original 11-Dash Line, from which the PRC derives its claim line.
Take an agreed stand on Indian territorial claims vis-à-vis PRC - again, Taiwan [as the Republic of China], as the signatory of the Simla Convention of 1914, can retrospectively accept the validity of the McMahon Line. All Quad partners must also accept Indian claims in the western sector [Aksai Chin].
Step up concerted military preparations and exercises, both on land and at sea – the exclusive attention so far to the maritime dimension ignored India’s concerns on its land borders.
Settle the Russia problem - the Kuriles could be settled as per the 1956 agreement between Japan and the USSR; on Ukraine, Crimea would have to go to Russia, couple that with NATO membership for Ukraine in its 2022 borders, Minsk Agreements implemented on an updated basis, with stronger central authority for Kiev, limited autonomy for Donbass.
Persuade ASEAN involvement, even of individual countries - though it is not clear how this can be easily achieved. Some countries, such as Vietnam, and Philippines could be open to involvement in some form, particularly on the security side.
Economic pressure from Quad partners on PRC - trade and investment are potent points of pressure, especially as the PRC economy weakens and its dependence on global markets grows.
Re-examine the role and future of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - India has not joined, some of the other countries that have should consider diluting their participation. Australia and Japan in particular, can use Chinese trade restrictions on them to re-open their participation. Give substance to either IPEF or CP-TPP – and let Taiwan join. It is a member of the World Trade Organization, so there should be no difficulty in accepting it as a member of IPEF
Above all is the need for action. As the opening blurb says, so far the reality has been – the PRC acts, the rest issue statements. There is a famous Russian fable about a cook who left his cat to watch over some provisions he had bought. Not surprisingly, the cat began to eat the provisions; the cook lectures the cat, but the cat goes on eating: the Russian saying goes as follows: “A Vaska [the cat] slushaet, da est” – Vaska listens, but doesn’t stop eating.
Clearing the air on India’s approach
The history of the Quad is well-known, as are its recent activities at the summit level, a development welcomed in most of the Quad members, and in parts of the wider Indo-Pacific, indeed, the wider world, though probably more in the latter than the former. Doubts have been raised about India’s commitment to the strategy, so it is important to clarify where the Indian consensus is.
The point of departure for India is that it is the only member of the Quad that has land borders with the PRC. Moreover, this land border is a hot one, where military confrontation has been on the rise in recent years, especially from 2017. Any action that India takes in the maritime area will certainly be countered by PRC action on the land border. In addition, Pakistan is closely allied with the PRC and will willingly act in concert with the latter in case of hostilities.
This is the real reason for India’s cautious approach to the Quad, not some sense of the legacy of nonalignment. Hence the need for reassurance for India on its land frontier. Unfortunately, the focus of the Quad is increasingly, and narrowly, on maritime issues alone, and on the western Pacific to boot. The truth is that India has few stakes in the western Pacific; contrary to the popular trope, India’s trade with the region is a third of its total trade, and mutual investments are limited, and, moreover, the trade balance with the region is largely in deficit.
Even on Taiwan, with all the sympathy many Indians feel for the plucky islanders, Indian interests are few. Of course, the breaching of the first island chain in the western Pacific will be a serious negative for the entire Indo-Pacific region, but such a development will add but little to Indian security concerns. Taiwan needs to make some moves, as indicated above, on the issues of concern to its near and distant neighbours to enlist more active engagement from them.
None of this is meant to dilute the importance of the non-security aspects of Indo-Pacific cooperation: in fact, substantive economic engagement on a wider scale is essential. That can be an effective counter to the growing influence of the PRC in the region, and in ASEAN the more so. But here, too, the need is for action: most countries in the region have Free Trade Agreements with the PRC, and the US [as well as the EU] have been the overall enablers of this arrangement, by providing the export markets for the goods produced by the PRC in conjunction with the ASEAN region as provider of intermediate goods. The proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework established at the Tokyo Summit in May this year is a good beginning, and its members must now seize the day and move forward to adding content and implementation.
ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific
All the countries in the region are agreed on the centrality of ASEAN, and that includes the PRC. That organisation’s attitude to the Indo-Pacific is therefore the logical place to start. After some internal churning, the members of ASEAN released their Outlook on Indo-Pacific in June 2019. It was, by committee standards, a clear-cut endorsement of the concerns expressed about the conduct of the PRC, though couched in phrases that did not point directly at that country.
To begin with, it endorsed the term “Indo-Pacific”, though it also retained the older “Asia-Pacific”. But it did express the
perspective of viewing the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, not as contiguous territorial spaces but as a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role
The Outlook also upheld many of the principles that the PRC opposes, such as the role of UNCLOS [UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] 1982, as one of the pillars of international law that governs activity in the region. It also called for upholding the freedom of navigation and overflights, as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes, all in accordance with international law, specifically reiterating UNCLOS. None of this would be welcome in Beijing.
However, as sweeteners, the Outlook included the idea of ASEAN being an honest broker among competing interests in the strategic region; it also duly mentioned the key word “inclusivity”.
On the economic side, while ASEAN is the driver, at least nominally, of the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership], which entered into force this year, seven members of the organisation have also joined the IPEF [Indo-Pacific Economic Framework] announced by the US in May this year; four of the members – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – are also members of the CP-TPP [Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership], formed after the US pulled out of the original TPP.
The seven who joined in the IPEF from ASEAN are the four mentioned above, plus Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Thus, the ASEAN Original Five are now in the IPEF, and that also covers the overwhelming bulk of the ASEAN economy. There is promise here that needs to be developed with care. It has to work to the benefit of the members, or else it will fail; one must also hope that there is a US consensus behind the move, so that it does not meet the same fate as the original TPP.
The sense one gets from the ASEAN Outlook is that they are largely supportive of the proposal, but need to tread carefully because of PRC sensitivities. In point of fact, the PRC has, for the first time, endorsed the term “Indo-Pacific” – duly hedged - in November 2021. In the document published to mark the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue, the latter accepted the concept, while insisting that the concept was an independent ASEAN initiative, aimed at raising inclusive cooperation, and not aimed at creating a new mechanism.
The challenge posed by the PRC
As is well-known, the PRC has already made a good deal of headway with a combination of economic engagement and military threats. It has, on the one hand, put forward concepts like the Community of Common Destiny [also translated as “of Shared Future”] and the Maritime Silk Road; it also has, at the same time, moved to give substance to its claim to the South China Sea under the 9-Dash Line by occupying islands in the Sea and militarily threatening the other claimants, and forcing them away from territory it claims. It has even driven the Russian company Rosneft out of Vietnamese waters, notwithstanding the close ties between Russia and the PRC.
This is where the Taiwan claim to the South China Sea under its original 11-Dash Line becomes important: the PRC Line is derived from the 1947 Line put forward by the then-Republic of China [also called Formosa in the archives, still later Taiwan]. When the Philippines moved the Permanent Court of Arbitration against PRC claims, the latter boycotted the process. But it did issue its own justification, in 12,000-word Position Paper by way of defending its claims. The burden of its defence was that it derived its sovereign claims from the fact that the Chinese had explored and named the islands two thousand years ago, and had issued in 1948 “an official map which displayed a dotted line in the South China Sea” – carefully avoiding mentioning either 11 or 9 dashes. It further argued that sovereignty over land was not within the competence of UNCLOS to determine, and hence the arbitration sought by the Philippines under UNCLOS Article 287 and the VII Annexe was invalid. The PRC took no part in the proceedings, and duly rejected the final outcome of July 2016, which found in favour of the Philippines.
The noteworthy features of this Position Paper are, firstly, that the basic claim derives from the map issued by the Republic of China [Taiwan], since it refers to the map issued in 1947. And secondly, it makes no reference to the alleged voyages of the super-Admiral Zheng He in the early 15th Century – a curious omission, seeing that western writers have pointed out how the PRC has used this history to buttress its claims. They did not do so presumably because the evidence of any such voyages and super-ships is non-existent.
Of course, the PRC’s assertiveness goes further. It was Yang Jiechi, current Politburo member, who told his ASEAN counterparts “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” It was to counter the implication of this kind of assertiveness that the Trump Administration formally endorsed the findings of the Arbitration and supported the positions of the ASEAN members concerned – the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and even Indonesia, over the Natuna Regency. This change was announced by Secretary of State Pompeo only in July 2020, by which time it was too late to follow up on this.
However, Taiwan, as the progenitor of the claim, can play a helpful role in debunking this claim, but so far, has resisted doing so. It seems to be concerned over the implication of any such disowning on its claim to the Taiping Island in the Spratlys, where it maintains a garrison; it should be possible to find some way out of this difficulty. The beneficial effects of such a move on the part of Taiwan would repay the island with significant movement in the approach of ASEAN, if coupled with other measures mentioned in the package.
The PRC has, however, been wielding not just the stick; it has done a lot in terms of diplomacy and economic engagement to assuage the grievances born of the territorial grab. The diplomatic initiatives began with the Declaration of Conduct of Parties [DOC} in 2002. This actually ruled out precisely the kind of land grab that the PRC has been indulging in since the document was signed, including occupying and militarising disputed islands in the South China Sea. It also called for finalising a Code of Conduct, but two decades on, there has been little movement on this.
An egregious example of how Chinese leaders violate their pledges is the militarisation of the islands in the South China Sea. After President Xi assured the world in 2015 there would be no such moves, the PLA has in fact militarised three reefs – Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross – as shown in the map below, which also shows the 9-Dash Line.
The PRC has also formulated grander diplomatic overtures. The first one was the idea of a Community of Common Destiny. This was originally meant to embrace the PRC and its neighbours, but has over time, become wider in scope, as the country’s ambitions expand. This has been replaced by a new proposal this year – the Global Security Initiative.
These initiatives come and go, get picked up by the media including in the west and drummed up, then forgotten. The reason is that the PRC does not live up to the grand pronouncements – on matters like respect for sovereign equality [as Yang Jiechi’s remark quoted above], win-win cooperation, indivisible security; they remain slogans, and the real aim is to extract concessions from the west on this basis, never to give concessions to their weaker, smaller neighbours, particularly in ASEAN.
If the stick and diplomacy are yielding limited returns, the economic side of the relations is making up for the deficit. Since 2009, the PRC has been the largest trade partner of ASEAN, and since 2020, ASEAN has become the PRC’s largest trading partner.
The serious economic engagement began with the PRC-ASEAN Free Trade Area agreement in 2002. This led to a rapid growth in trade exchanges, but the real take-off point was after the financial crisis of 2008. From 2013 to 2021, the trade turnover went from US$ 340 billion to US$878 billion in 2021. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership adds other regional countries to the list – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – to the list. These additional countries were ones that the PRC was also negotiating FTA’s with, but little progress was being made. This agreement provides a back door for the PRC to these countries. India pulled out of the agreement, for both economic and security reasons; Australia and Japan would have similar reasons, but decided to go forward with the agreement all the same.
On the investment side, the situation is not quite so much in the PRC’s favour. Over the past decade, the US, Japan and the EU have regularly featured among the top five investors into ASEAN; between them, the three sources cover approximately 40% of total FDI into ASEAN. The PRC share ranges between 5% and 8%. The One-Belt-One-Road has not made much of a difference in this regard.
The Table below provides the details for the period 2018-20.
To sum up, the PRC has rested its approach to ASEAN on military strength and enforcement, plus diplomatic moves, and economic cooperation. Of them, the first has alienated important member-states, its diplomacy lacks credibility, but the weight of economic benefits keeps the organisation from voicing its fears and negative feelings bottled up. This is shown in a recent survey of Southeast Asian elites by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, which showed that “China was the least trusted country in the region. The same survey lauded the U.S. as the second-most trusted partner, after Japan.” A lack of solidarity within ASEAN also makes it easy for the PRC to pick off one member-state at a time.
Relations between ASEAN and the democracies
This, then, defines the challenge posed by the PRC. In spite of the mixed record of PRC activities in the ASEAN region [and beyond as well], ASEAN members have been either supportive, or guardedly neutral in their approach to the PRC; some, like the Philippines have swung from one extreme to the other. As a result, opinion polls across the region show that trust in the PRC is low, as compared to countries like Japan and the US.
Nonetheless, this situation of distrust coupled with guarded neutrality is likely to persist unless some actions are taken by the other partners to overcome this hesitation. The policies of the democracies – India, the US, Japan, the EU, and others – have clearly not been effective.
What needs to be done has been spelt out at the beginning of this essay. The challenges to actually doing them need to be examined. It goes without saying that the lead has to be taken by the US. There is a question mark on whether they will actually lead. The current team is not likely to do much on the security side, as they are bogged down over Ukraine and their own economic revival – and that’s assuming they would be willing to confront the PRC anyway. It therefore makes sense to break down policy action into immediate and longer-term options.
Since the principal reason for the reluctance of the ASEAN members to take a more forthright stand is the economic relationship, that is where the countervailing action could safely begin. The centrality of the PRC in the value chain is a reflection of the strategy adopted by the US in the late 1990’s. this was done both for geopolitical reasons and to curb the Japanese challenge. In both cases, ie, of Japan and the PRC, these countries became the hub for finishing goods before exporting them to the high-consumption centres of the US and the EU; in both Japan [in its days of high growth] and the PRC, domestic consumption, especially private [household] consumption, has traditionally been low – and declining, as the graph below shows.
Source: China Household consumption, percent of GDP - data, chart | TheGlobalEconomy.com [LHS is percentage of GDP]
This is why the PRC needs export markets to keep up some amount of growth. It has been trying since 2007 to raise its domestic household consumption: that was when Premier Wen Jiabao observed that the economic structure was “unbalanced, uncoordinated, unstable and unsustainable”. More recently, President Xi has raised the slogan of “Dual Circulation” – meaning both exports and domestic consumption. And yet, the situation has not improved: household consumption remains stuck at around 40% of GDP, while household debt heads towards 62% of GDP.
Addressing the PRC actions, exploiting its weaknesses
The main sources of the PRC’s trade surplus are the US [US$ 353 billion], the EU [US$208 billion], ASEAN [US$ 76 billion] and India [US$70 billion]; all the figures are for 2021, except for ASEAN, which relates to 2020. This is the first weakness that can be exploited to good effect – the total trade surplus of the PRC in 2021 of US$ 676 billion almost exactly mirrors the surpluses with the four trading partners mentioned above. This implies that with the rest of the world, its trade is more or less in balance.
Cutting down trade with the PRC will require restructuring the supply chains in the region. It should be clear that ASEAN will only follow the shift in purchases from the other three; and, of these three, the most important is the US. President Trump had made moves in this direction, but the messy election of 2020 changed that dynamic. In Trump’s final year in office, the trade surplus the PRC ran was US$ 308 billion; it was up to US$ 353 billion in 2021. The deficit in the first five months of 2022 is higher by 20% over the corresponding period in 2021, so the trend is upward.
Shifting value chains is not easy or rapid. And the other countries involved in the strategy need to play their role by raising their infrastructure level, and generally working to raise production efficiency. This is something India and leading ASEAN members have to focus their efforts.
The recently-proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a good place to start. At present, there are few details available to the public, but it has already got thirteen countries to sign on. Among them are seven ASEAN members, a good start. Supply chain resilience seems to be a priority focus of the Framework, and should be fleshed out and implemented quickly.
Mention should also be made of the proposal of the G7 to spend US$ 600 billion on infrastructure over the next ten years. This has been duly slagged off as nothing compared to the PRC’s One-Belt-One-Road, where fevered commentaries have pitched the outlay as high as US$ 4 trillion.
The reality is very different. As recently as mid-2021, foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that their total outlay on the project has amounted to US$ 130 billion. Assessing things honestly, the proposed outlay from G7 is a significant contribution to the need for infrastructure around the world.
On the military side, as mentioned at the beginning, India and Taiwan must be the focus of joint work. If Taiwan is willing to make the changes in its long-standing postures, it will meet with greater sympathy in India and ASEAN. These are not difficult decisions for that country to make, and perhaps a package of incentives – if it makes the required changes – could smooth the decision-making process.
In the meantime, there are noteworthy changes in the formulations used by the US leadership with regard to Taiwan, welcome changes. The Indo-Pacific Strategy published in February 2022 contains unusual terms to describe the position on Taiwan, though wrapped in the emollient phrases of the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Communiqués, and the Six Assurances. The unusual feature of the paper is to be found in the following words:
[We will] maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people.
There are two significant changes here to the usual US words. The first is the obvious one about the wishes of the people as to the future of Taiwan. The second is the mention of Taiwan’s people. In the past, they have tended to use the term “people on Taiwan”, as for instance, in the Taiwan Relations Act. These are positive changes, but need to be backed up by action, else it will be like Ukraine all over again – provoke, but without adequate preparation for the inevitable riposte.
And time presses.
It must also be noted that President Biden has now thrice referred to being willing to defend Taiwan, only to have his colleagues undo the statements, although a careful reading of the Taiwan Relations Act will show that Biden is right in claiming that the US is committed to defend Taiwan from any form of coercion.
At the same time, there remains some lack of clarity on the PRC. Secretary of State Blinken also made a speech on relations with the PRC a bit later, in May 2022. There were two major internal contradictions in that presentation of US policy. The first was simultaneously claiming that the US is determined to avoid conflict and a Cold War with the PRC, but, at the same time, would defend the existing order of international law, agreements and institutions. How can both be done, in the face of the PRC’s increasingly open and frequently violent challenge to these principles, he does not clarify.
Similarly, he identifies the Communist Party as the source of the troubles the country is creating [and is right to do so], and accepts that PRC will not “change its trajectory”, but then adds that the US has no intention of undermining their system. Again, it does not seem possible to have it both ways.
No less important for an Indian audience, he makes no mention of Indian concerns vis-à-vis the PRC. As has been noted above, India has its reservations about the way the Quad is evolving, with an exclusive focus on maritime issues, and then too, only looking at the western Pacific. Blinken’s speech does nothing to allay these apprehensions. The State Department needs to address this, especially given the past, when State tended to lean towards India’s adversaries. [The US Indo-Pacific Strategy paper 2022 does rectify this to some extent, with an explicit mention of the PRC “spur[ring] conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India”.]
At the same time, two positive references redeem Blinken’s speech and the policy being expounded. The first is the strong criticism of the PRC’s actions in Tibet; in recent years this issue has been frequently overlooked in the commentaries on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. There is also a forthright rejection in the speech on the PRC’s averment that these are internal issues.
The second positive reference is the following quote from the Taiwan Relations Act:
We’ll continue to uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability – and, as indicated in the TRA, to “maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system, of Taiwan.”
This comes close to what President Biden himself has been saying – to wit, that the US is committed to defending Taiwan in the event of attack. So that is where the US stands as far as the security of Taiwan is concerned. The full membership of the Quad needs to coordinate positions on this, provided Taiwan also makes the changes it needs to make.
One noteworthy event in recent weeks has been the involvement of NATO in the Indo-Pacific region. The new Strategic Concept states that “the Indo-Pacific is important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security”. It goes further to describe PRC actions as a challenge to NATO security in the following words:
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.
The Madrid Summit Declaration echoed similar sentiments, while welcoming Heads of State or Government from the “Asia-Pacific region” [these were from Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and New Zealand], added that the Alliance would reach out to new interlocutors beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.
NATO went “out of area” as early as 2003, when it took over the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] in Afghanistan in August that year, so as to ensure more effective functioning of ISAF. With thee latest summit Declaration, NATO has effectively made itself a global organisation; the presence of the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, the focus on the western Pacific has become sharper. How and when this translates into action is an open question; presumably, not much will happen while the war in Ukraine lasts.
The Russian approach to the Indo-Pacific has varied over the last decade. In 2012, President Putin, freshly re-elected to the Presidency, agreed to detailed treatment of the subject in the Joint Statement with his Indian counterpart, though without agreeing to the term “Indo-Pacific”. Instead, the Russian side agreed to the term “regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans”. With that usage, the Indo-Russian summit joint statement included all the terms one would wish for, including “universally agreed principles of international law” as well as to maritime security as per international law.
All this changed after 2013, presumably because of PRC unhappiness at such language. By this time, Foreign Minister Lavrov had also begun to criticise the concept, later charging that the idea behind the concept was to drag India into a confrontation with the PRC. The Russian Defence Ministry was coming round to opposing the concept as well.
As a result, from 2013 to 2018, there were no, or brief passing references to the Asia and Pacific or Asia-Pacific regions. This changed once again in 2018, and the Russians agreed to more detailed mentions all the way to December 2021, the date of the last Joint Statement with India. The two additional thoughts included were ASEAN centrality, and that the security architecture was not to be aimed at any country.
It is worth remembering that it was in 2018 that Russian hydrocarbon companies were beginning to face difficulties in their operations in the territorial and EEZ waters of Vietnam, being warned away by the PRC Navy. In asserting their claims under the 9-Dash Line, the PRC was unwilling to make place even for Russian companies. One of the Russian companies involved was Rosneft, whose CEO, Igor Sechin, was particularly close to President Putin. Even this was not good enough to protect the company in its operations in areas illegally claimed by the PRC. This must be the explanation for the change in the Russian position on this issue.
As late as December 2021, this formulation was the Indo-Russian formulation. Whether it survives the Ukraine war and the subsequent greater dependence of Russia on the PRC remains an open question for now.
Russian-ASEAN relations were progressing evenly, though not rapidly since 2000. The economic relationship remained stunted, with Russia languishing as the ninth largest trade partner of ASEAN, with turnover of a little over US$13.5 billion, or less than 1% of total turnover for ASEAN. However, Russia was the largest arms supplier to the region over the period 2000-21, but with a declining trend. The Ukraine war will probably check this trend for some quite long.
Another aspect of the Russian approach is the difference between the President and the Foreign Minister on this issue. The latter has been harsher in his criticism of the Indo-Pacific approach than the President. The Defence Ministry is also none too pleased with the Quad and the Indo-Pacific approach. Nevertheless, Russia has been reaching out to ASEAN members, Vietnam in particular, though its primary relationship, eclipsing all others in the region [if not the world, at present], is with the PRC.
But when all is said and done, there can be no doubt that, in the short run, Russia will back the PRC in any action it chooses to take. Western pressure on Russia has ensured a tacit alliance between Russia and the PRC, and this will not change until some settlement is found for the complications arising out of the Ukraine war.xinjiang
EU and European countries
The EU’s position on the PRC has been evolving slowly, even reluctantly – and certainly contradictorily. By March 2019, the EU had decided that the PRC was a “systemic rival” because it challenged the existing model of governance in Europe. The full document itself, however, reflects the contradictory nature of the approach, because it also calls the PRC a partner especially in global issues, specifically mentioning climate issues, and regional problems like Iran’s nuclear programme and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Much of this is overtaken now by developments like the Russia-Ukraine war, the PRC’s own economic troubles, and its support for Russia in the war, which has soured the approach of the European public; there is also the changing global economic environment caused by the rising interest rates in the US.
Individual countries are also getting active. Most notable is the UK, which has entered the security dynamic with the launch of the AUKUS group [Australia, UK, US], with an overt military dimension, something all the other regional groupings have avoided. Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson has expressly stated that the “East of Suez” withdrawal was wrong then [in the late 1960’s] and has been abandoned now.
The AUKUS agreement on nuclear submarine transfer to Australia is running into some opposition. The PRC predictably opposed the scheme, dubbin it part of “Cold War mentality” on the part of the three member-states. For added effect, Global Times suggested that Australia could now be a target for PRC nuclear strikes. Russia was calmer in its response, for obvious reasons; it also hopes to supply its own submarines to other countries. But some ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced objections. Indonesia has even tabled its concerns regarding nuclear proliferation at the upcoming NPT Review Conference due this August.
But these are all marginal influences. The real confrontation and contestation is between the PRC on one side, and the Quad on the other. ASEAN is “central” only in the sense that they are caught in the middle, and are unable to decide how to tackle the challenge that the PRC is constantly throwing in their face. The US must lead, and provide a mix of economic incentives to the wider Indo-Pacific community, coupled with military deterrence against PRC – that alone will swing the balance towards a healthier dynamic in the region.
Notes and References:
The Position Paper incorrectly uses 1948 as the date of the original map.
US To China: You Do NOT Control South China Sea - Breaking Defense
Wang Yi: BRI Becomes the World's Broadest-based and Largest Platform for International Cooperation (mfa.gov.cn)
The Administration’s Approach to the People’s Republic of China - United States Department of State