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Changing Indo-Pacific power dynamics

by Brahma Chellaney

China’s two main Asian rivals, Japan and India, are seeking to mend their relations with it at a time of greater unpredictability in U.S. policy under President Donald Trump’s administration. This development carries significant implications for geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region and could strengthen Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hand just when he has made himself China’s absolute ruler by dismantling the collective-leadership system that Deng Xiaoping helped institutionalize.

Add to the picture Australia’s hedging of its bets, despite a national furor there over China’s interference in its internal affairs, and America’s persistently cautious approach toward Beijing, seeking neither overt competition nor confrontation. All this gives Xi the strategic space to carry on with his muscular and revisionist foreign policy, reflected in China’s growing military assertiveness in the vast Indo-Pacific region stretching from the Pacific to the Horn of Africa.

An intense pace of top-level meetings is setting the stage for improving Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s Japan visit this week follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s April 27-28 “informal” summit meeting with Xi in Wuhan, China. The Wuhan summit came just days after Wang Yi became the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Japan for bilateral talks since 2009.

After his summit with Modi, Xi spoke with Abe by telephone and appreciated Tokyo’s moves to improve relations with China. Tokyo and Beijing are working to arrange respective visits by Abe to China and Xi to Japan. Abe could visit China in the coming months and then host Xi in Tokyo next year.

While the United States remains a central factor in influencing the regional geopolitical landscape, China, Japan and India constitute Asia’s strategic triangle. They form a scalene triangle with three unequal sides, with China representing the longest side, side A, Japan side B and India side C. In this triangle, if B and C gang up, A cannot hope to gain preeminence in Asia.

The relationship between Japan and India is growing fast, yet each of them feels a strategic imperative to try to improve strained ties with China.

Deteriorating ties with Beijing make Tokyo and New Delhi more dependent on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all U.S. allies and strategic partners. If Japan and India can mend their troubled relations with China, they will be able to inject greater flexibility and maneuverability in their foreign-policy strategies.

Beijing has its own strategic reasons to ease tensions with New Delhi and Tokyo, including preventing the formation of a broader anti-China front and muting or lowering Indian and Japanese criticisms of its policies and moves. While Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the Trump administration is now pushing, Modi’s government was the global leader in denouncing Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative as opaque, predatory and neocolonial — a description that has gained wide international currency.

In seeking better relations with Beijing, Japan and India appear to have separately acknowledged the broader regional trend of countries hedging their bets on China’s rise. Through hedging, countries are seeking to ensure their strategic choices are not narrowed or crimped.

For example, South Korea, treading a tightrope between Washington and Beijing despite being slapped with informal Chinese economic sanctions for agreeing to America’s THAAD deployment, has declined to endorse Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Or take Vietnam, which uses close party-to-party ties with China to smooth political relations, even when they are roiled by aggressive Chinese moves.

To propitiate Beijing, Australia withdrew from the annual Indian-initiated Malabar naval exercise a decade ago, although such drills help to strengthen military cooperation and maritime interoperability in the Indo-Pacific. Four months ago, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said discussions on Australia’s return to the India-Japan-U.S. Exercise Malabar were “progressing well.” Yet this year’s naval exercise will be held off Guam without Australian participation.

Australia asked to be an official “observer” at the 2017 Exercise Malabar, which featured aircraft carriers from the U.S. and India, and Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier in the Bay of Bengal. Australia’s request to be an “observer” at a large and complex exercise — the equivalent of wanting to be half-pregnant — found little favor with India, which saw it as part of Canberra’s continued hedging strategy. Canberra has not clarified whether today it still seeks observer status or is ready to rejoin as a full-fledged member. But accommodating Australia at this stage will run counter to India’s effort to repair relations with China.

U.S. policy has unwittingly encouraged hedging strategies in the Indo-Pacific. For example, while using the China threat to win new strategic partners and strengthen existing alliances, the U.S. has been reluctant to resourcefully push back against Beijing’s territorial and maritime revisionism or take concrete steps to help rein in its military assertiveness. Washington’s kid-glove treatment has emboldened China to step up its creeping aggression to change the status quo in its favor.

Just like it stayed silent when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, Washington did not side with India but stayed neutral during last summer’s Sino-Indian military standoff, triggered by a Chinese move to change the status quo on the Doklam Plateau. A more powerful example is the South China Sea.

On President Barack Obama’s watch, China created and militarized seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, incurring no international costs. Now, on Trump’s watch, it has embarked on the next phase of its strategy there by installing with impunity surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles and other lethal systems, even though militarization of seized features in international waters directly violates international law.

In the joint statement following last month’s Mar-a-Lago summit with Abe, Trump’s reluctance to single out Beijing for criticism resulted in a false equivalency being created between China and other South China Sea claimant-states. The statement said all “South China Sea claimants, including China, should halt their militarization of disputed features” and that “China and other claimants should manage and resolve disputes peacefully.”

On trade issues, Trump is treating allies and China alike. He has gone to the extent of publicly shaming Japan, India and South Korea, although their combined trade surplus with the U.S. — $95.6 billion in 2017 — pales in comparison to China’s $337.2 billion trade surplus, according to official U.S. data. Trump has made South Korea accept a revamped trade deal, squeezed India’s information-technology industry and forced Abe to agree to new trade dialogue despite Tokyo’s aversion to bilateral trade agreement negotiations with Washington.

Abe, besides being instrumental in shaping the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, has been in the lead to shore up the liberal economic order. Yet Trump has sprung nasty surprises on Abe but repeatedly lavished praise on “my good friend” Xi. Indeed, despite raising the ominous specter of a potential trade war with Beijing, Trump has yet to impose a sweeping trade sanction against China.

Against this backdrop, it is scarcely a surprise that Washington has still to provide strategic heft to its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy or that the U.S., Japan, India and Australia have yet to take concrete steps to institutionalize or even crystallize the “Quad,” which remains just an initiative for dialogue among their bureaucrats.

However, the Japanese and Indian efforts to improve relations with Beijing work to China’s advantage.

The mere semblance of better relations with Tokyo and New Delhi increases Xi’s strategic space to advance his grand strategy of making China great again — a goal that implies keeping China’s potential peer competitors like Japan and India in check. Without making any concessions to India and Japan or even easing China’s revisionist activities in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, Xi’s appreciation of Indian and Japanese overtures and positive Chinese statements could help instill greater caution and reluctance in New Delhi and Tokyo to openly challenge China.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.