Asia’s new entente
6 Nov 2017|

US President Donald Trump is arriving in Asia at a moment when the region’s security situation is practically white-hot. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognising that the world’s ‘center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific’, called on the region’s democratic powers to pursue ‘greater engagement and cooperation’. They—including Trump’s US—should heed that call. In fact, only an alliance of democracies can ensure the emergence of a strong rules-based order and a stable balance of power in the world’s most economically dynamic region.

In recent years, as Tillerson acknowledged, China has taken ‘provocative actions’, such as in the South China Sea, that challenge international law and norms. And this behaviour is set to continue, if not escalate. Last month’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China effectively crowned President Xi Jinping—who has spearheaded a more muscular foreign policy, in service of his goal of establishing China as a global superpower—as the country’s emperor.

Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to World War I spurred a ‘triple entente’ among France, Russia and the United Kingdom, China’s increasingly assertive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia–Pacific democracies to build a more powerful coalition. After all, as recent experience in the South China Sea has made clear, no single power can impose sufficient costs on China for its maritime and territorial revisionism, much less compel Chinese leaders to change course.

This is not to say that no country has been able to challenge China. Just this summer, India stood up to its muscle-flexing neighbour in a 10-week border standoff. China has been using construction projects to change the status quo on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, just as it has so often done in the South China Sea. India intervened, stalling China’s building activity. Had US President Barack Obama’s administration shown similar resolve in the South China Sea, perhaps China would not now be in possession of seven militarised artificial islands there.

In any case, securing a broader shift in China’s foreign policy and stabilising the Asia–Pacific region’s power dynamics will require more than one country holding the line on any one issue. A US that is willing to employ new tools, a more confident Japan and India, and an Australia vexed by China’s meddling in its domestic affairs must work together to constrain Chinese behavior.

The good news is that an entente has already begun to emerge among the region’s key democracies. America’s relationship with India, in particular, has been undergoing what Tillerson called a ‘profound transformation’, as the two countries become ‘increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence’. The US now holds more joint defence exercises with India than with any other country. Such cooperation puts the two countries in a strong position to fulfill Tillerson’s vision of serving ‘as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific’.

Engagement with Japan, too, has deepened. This year’s Malabar exercise—an annual naval exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the US, India and Japan—was the largest and most complex since it began a quarter-century ago. Focused on destroying enemy submarines, it involved more than 7,000 personnel from the US alone, and featured for the first time aircraft carriers from all three navies: America’s nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier, and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.

As Tillerson pointed out, this trilateral engagement among the US, India and Japan is already bringing important benefits. But ‘there is room to invite others, including Australia, to build on the shared objectives and initiatives’.

So far, Australia has sought to avoid having to choose between its security ally, the US, and its main economic partner, China. Despite Defence Minister Marise Payne’s recent declaration that ‘Australia is very interested in a quadrilateral engagement with India, Japan and the United States’, the government seems to be hedging its bets. For example, while it sought this year to rejoin the Malabar exercise—from which it withdrew a decade ago to appease China—it sought to do so only as an ‘observer’.

This approach is untenable. If Australia is to free itself of Chinese meddling, it will need to go beyond implementing new domestic safeguards to take a more active role in defending rules and norms beyond its borders, both on land and at sea.

In the coming years, the Indo-Pacific power balance will be determined, first and foremost, by events in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Containing China will therefore require, first, efforts to restrict the country’s maritime activities—such as measures to safeguard vital sea lines and build maritime domain awareness—and, second, geo-economic initiatives to counter China’s coercive leverage over smaller countries. All of Asia’s democratic powers must be on board.

Calls by the US for closer cooperation bode well for this process, though the US still needs to focus more on the globally ascendant and aggressive China than on a declining Russia. The overwhelming victory of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who has touted the idea of establishing a ‘democratic security diamond’ in the Asia–Pacific—in his country’s recent general election is also likely to help to drive cooperation forward.

To be sure, any entente among Asian democracies is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. Rather, the objective should be for democratic powers to reach a broad strategic understanding, based on shared values. It is those values, after all, that set them apart: as Tillerson recognised, while Trump’s upcoming visit to Beijing will undoubtedly draw much global attention, the US cannot have the kind of relationship with non-democratic China that it can have with a major democracy.

By pursuing cooperation, the Indo-Pacific’s democratic powers can shore up an inclusive, rules-based order that underpins peace, prosperity, stability and freedom of navigation in the region. That is the only way to thwart China’s effort to establish itself as the hegemon of an illiberal regional order.