TRUMP AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE INDO-PACIFIC: RHIZOMATIC POWER POLITICS AND COMPETING VISIONS FOR A XXI CENTURY REGIONAL SECURITY ARCHITECTURE
By Richard Javad Heydarian
The paper looks at how the United States under President Donald Trump along with China, India, and other key middle powers such as Australia, Japan, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) view, contest, and shape the discursive as well as material-power politics contestation in the Indo-Pacific. It looks at how the regional security architecture is evolving into a multi-centric, horizontalized network of relations similar to what philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattar described as “rhizomatic” as opposed to hierarchical, US- or China-centric arborescent order. Finally, it examines the specific ideational and geostrategic context within which the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” was conceptualized as a new cartography of power and influence in the world, with the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, along with critical chokepoints and seas in between, as its maritime heartland.
Key words: Indo-Pacific, China, India, Trump administration, middle powers
- THE NEW CARTOGRAPHY OF POWER
Reflecting on the future of the global order, the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew warned that the rise of China is so consequential that it will not only require tactical adjustment by its neighbors, but also an overhaul in the global security architecture. As the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the author: “The world has always been afraid of China because of [its]…enormous size.”[i] Only years after his demise, the Singaporean leader’s insights are congealing into an indubitable geopolitical reality. Today, China is the world’s largest exporting nation, largest consumer of basic goods, and increasingly also the leading source of investments, particularly in strategic infrastructure, not only in Asia, but also across the world. Meanwhile, economic vigor has translated into strategic assertiveness and military muscle, as China opens up overseas bases, beginning in Djibouti but more stealthily across the Indian Ocean, expands its blue water navy, and coercively transforms adjacent waters into its “blue national soil.”[ii] Above all, China’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, has completely discarded the low-key diplomacy of his predecessors in favor of an all-out bid for global primacy, going so far as promoting a “uniquely Chinese model”[iii] of development overseas and gradually establishing an ‘Asia for Asians’[iv] order across the Eurasian landmass to the exclusion of Western powers and Japan. Though packaged as ostensibly a trillion-dollar connectivity initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is, above all, about laying the foundation of a ‘Chinese world order.’[v]
Thus, the “Indo-Pacific,” a new geopolitical construct that reflects the strategic sensibilities of great powers as well as the ineluctable geo-economic integration from Canada to Cairo, is both about and beyond the rise of China. On one hand, it is all about the Asian behemoth. Or to put it in more stark terms, it is about “constrainment”[vi] of China’s ambitions in ways that gives greater voice to rising powers while discouraging coercively disruptive revisionism. No wonder then, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has derisively characterized the Indo-Pacific as an “attention-grabbing idea” that will “dissipate like ocean foam.”[vii] Yet, major powers have embraced the new geopolitical concept wholeheartedly.[viii] Beginning with the Manmohan Singh administration, India, the heartland of the Indian Ocean realm, facilitated the establishment of “a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” Under President Susilo Bambang, Yudhoyono Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nations, began discussing the “Indo-Pasifik” — a dynamic region, which, in the words of former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has turned into the “engine of global growth.” In fact, Australia became the first country to officially name its region as the Indo-Pacific, with former Foreign Minister Stephen spearheading the effort. In his words, “I was persuaded that the rise of India as a great power and the rise of Indonesia … would cause the geo-strategic design [of the future regional order] to be more than simply the US, China, the Pacific and North Asia.”[ix]
During her tenure as arguably the most high-profile American Foreign Secretary, Hillary Clinton often talked about the Washington as the anchor of peace and stability in the “Pacific Century,” though she often also discussed, along with her Assistant Secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell, the broader Indo-Pacific theatre as the main strategic focus of America. While reaching out to Indo-Chinese nations, Hillary’s successor, John Kerry, described Burma, then a liberalizing nation, as part of a crucial “Indo-Pacific economic corridor.” But it was the U.S. Navy Pacific Command, later renamed as the “Indo-Pacific” Command, which played a central role operationalizing the concept and embedding it in the Washington strategic lexicon. Former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, discussed the “Indo-Asia-Pacific,” while his successor, Harry Harris, incessantly mentioned the growing importance of a vast yet internally coherent geostrategic space from Alaska to Zanzibar. Even some Chinese strategists have reluctantly embraced the concept, transliterating it as Yin Tai.[x] As Australian strategist Rory Medcalf explains, the Indo-Pacific reflects “a conscious shift among thinkers and policy makers in multiple places, from Washington to New Delhi, Canberra to Jakarta,”[xi] and the need to “dilute China’s profile” and its “impact in a larger ocean, in a wider regional context.”[xii] As China aggressively pursues Mackinderean dominance in the Eurasian landmass – namely, the heartland stretching from Indo-China and South Asia to Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe — the U.S. and its allies still maintain Mahanian superiority in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
If there is a single figure, who has played the greatest role in bringing about the “Indo-Pacific” age, however, it is arguably the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Since his return to power in 2012, he has, with unmatched single-mindedness, dedicated himself to revamping not only his country’s post–World War II foreign policy, but also the emerging post–American world order. In an influential op-ed in 2012, entitled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” he laid down one of the most compelling expositions on the inseparability of the Pacific and Indian oceans as a geopolitical unit. “Peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean,” This was in fact a reiteration of his 2007 speech at the Indian Parliament, titled, “Confluence of the Two Seas, “[xiii] where spoke of a “broader Asia” and “dynamic coupling: between the two vast oceans as “seas of freedom and of prosperity.” Under his leadership, he vowed that Japan will “play a greater role in preserving the common good in both regions.[xiv] Less than a decade later, almost all relevant players across Asia, North America, and Oceana, have now embraced Abe’s vision as a geopolitical truism. Former U.S. Adm. Harry Harris, who is of Japanese descent through his mother and is currently the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, generated great buzz by memorably speaking of the Indo-Pacific as an indivisible strategic system extending “Hollywood to Bollywood.”[xv] Crucially, the Trump administration wholeheartedly embraced the ideological and normative underpinnings of Abe’s vision, which called for a concert of democratic powers, namely Australia, India, Japan and the United States, amid the rise of China, the preeminent revisionist power of the twenty-first century.[xvi] What Abe has vigorously advocated is the establishment of robust, yet nimble, Quadrilateral Alliance, the so-called “Quad,”[xvii] of likeminded powers to keep Chinese ambitions in check. It is fundamentally a ‘coalition of deterrence’ against China. With Singapore thrown into the mix, the “SQUAD” has become another potential geopolitical grouping. In many ways, it has become almost impossible to separate the Indo-Pacific from the QUAD, or SQUAD, and the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” order (FOIP).[xviii] What brings these “likeminded” countries (or the SQUAD) together are their capability (i.e., a robust naval force) as well as shared interests and norms, namely upholding a rule-based international order that ensures free access to Sea Lines of Communications through battling threats from non-state actors as well as constraining the revisionist tendencies of rising naval powers across the Indo-Pacific realm, China in particular, but to a lesser degree also Russia and Iran.[xix] But as Medcalf observes, “The Indo-Pacific is not simply a new term for the Asia-Pacific. Rather, it reflects changes in economics, strategic behavior and diplomatic institutions that are having real consequences regardless of who utters the words.”[xx]
The Indo-Pacific’s internal coherence and global significance is almost self-evident. Despite rapid advances in technology, much of the world’s trade is still conducted through the seas. Rising powers, ranging from Iran to India and China, are located across the Eurasian “Rimland,”[xxi] where there is precious access to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Today, 90 percent of global trade and up to two thirds of hydrocarbon shipments transit through oceans. Much of the activity is taking place in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where the bulk of global population, nuclear powers and booming economies reside. The Indian Ocean alone is responsible for almost half of the world’s total container traffic, and hosts for about 70 percent of hydrocarbon transshipments. Smallest of the oceans, it is a tinderbox of geopolitical tensions, economic vibrancy, and unremitting insecurity, hosting the major navigational chokepoints of global trade, namely the Straits of Hormuz, Bab el Mandeb, and Malacca. The Strait of Hormuz, which narrows down to only 21 miles at the precipice of US-Iranian geopolitical fault lines, hosts up to 40 percent of global seaborne oil shipments. The Strait of Malacca, squeezed among Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, hosts half of the world’s merchant fleet capacity, half of world oil shipment, and about a quarter of world trade.[xxii] And Southeast Asia, home to one of the world’s fastest growing economies and populations, lies squarely at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, further accentuating the growing influence of Indonesia, the other emerging giant of the 21st century. Thus, the Indian Ocean is at once about China but also a new security architecture that far exceeds the whims and wherewithal of a single power.
- THE NEW COLD WAR
During the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), which brought together defense officials and experts from across the globe, participating nations advocated for competing visions of an ideal order across the Asia-Pacific. In particular, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the event’s keynote speaker, effectively inaugurated the arrival of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ era. In a well-composed and confident speech, he marked the emergence of India as a global power and, crucially, a pillar of the Indo-Pacific theatre, which straddles the vast Indian and Pacific oceans. He presented India as a regional pivot state, committed to free market economics and political freedom at home, while deploying its naval prowess to preserve freedom across international waters.
Modi touted India’s long tradition of strategic non-alignment by underscoring New Delhi’s deft ability to navigate geopolitical fault lines and transcend superpower competition. He celebrated the “extraordinary breadth” of U.S.-Indian relations, the “maturity and wisdom” of Sino-Indian relations, and India’s “special and privileged” strategic partnership with Moscow.[xxiii] The Indian leader advocated a vision whereby the middle powers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea — collectively preserve a “free and open” Indo-Pacific order in the region. In Modi’s strategic paradigm, despite the vicissitudes of American influence in the region, liberal values of openness and freedom will continue to prevail, thanks to the existence of likeminded democratic partners. Even the ASEAN, which is composed of mostly authoritarian regimes, is founded on the liberal principles of dialogue, consensus, free trade, and political openness.
Thus, the world may be entering a post-American era, but the Indo-Pacific region will not necessarily be dominated and defined by the other global superpower: China. Modi’s middle- power-driven vision of shared order and collective prosperity, however, is just one of the three main narratives which are competing for political currency in the Indo-Pacific.
As for Indonesia, it has introduced some twists to the Indo-Pacific concept, putting forward an ASEAN-centric vision that recognizes China as a pillar of the emerging security architecture. This is in contrast to Modi’s vision (likely shared by Australia and, to a lesser degree, Japan), which favors selective engagement with China, or rather ‘congagement’ (simultaneous constrainment and engagement). For Indonesia, a perennially non-aligned nation, the ASEAN values of consultation, consensus, and peaceful exchanges of ideas and goods should continue to guide relations among regional states, including the great powers. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has recently unveiled a more inclusive version of the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ which promotes an “open, transparent and inclusive” order based on “the habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law.”[xxiv] For Indonesia, and much of the ASEAN, China is simply too big and important to be realistically excluded from any regional order.
The maritime element of the Indo-Pacific paradigm makes it a perfect counterpoise to China’s land-based march across Eurasia; a campaign that has been boosted by President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To the Trump administration, the heart of the Indo-Pacific paradigm is a U.S.-led Quadrilateral Alliance, also known as the “Quad”; a group made up of the U.S., India, Australia and Japan, to balance against China. [xxv] Harry Harris, former chief of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), has been a key advocate of this strategy. [xxvi] According to this more muscular conception of the Indo-Pacific, China is “dividing and conquering” the ASEAN using a mixture of coercion and diplomatic “carrots,” and major regional powers should step in to check Beijing’s revisionist ambitions in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific overall, but particularly in the East and South China Seas. In both the National Security Strategy (NSS)[xxvii] and National Defense Strategy (NDS) papers,[xxviii] the Trump administration embraced this second narrative for the Indo-Pacific. As the U.S. government currently sees it, we are leading up to a new Cold War, with China as the U.S.’ chief geopolitical rival. During the Shangri-La Dialogue, then U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis painted China as the main threat to the Indo-Pacific order.[xxix] He criticized “China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea” through the “deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island [in the Paracels].”
He also reiterated America’s indispensable role as the anchor of stability and prosperity in the region, particularly through ensuring “freedom of navigation for all nations” across the Pacific and Indian Oceans by leveraging U.S. naval might. Though divergent in many ways, Modi’s and the Trump administration’s conceptions of the Indo-Pacific have one crucial thing in common: they both view China as a threat to a “free and open” regional order. New Delhi would prefer to rely on democratic middle powers to ensure collective security, while keeping a wary eye on China without turning down economic engagement with its neighbor. Meanwhile, Washington is keen on assembling an anti-China alliance of regional powers to preserve its maritime primacy in the region. What drives Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, however, is the Trump doctrine.
- THE TRUMP DOCTRINE
In the acerbic wisdom of Gore Vidal, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail. [xxx] And this is how Trump more or less views the anarchy of international system. As British historian Niall Ferguson points out, practically the whole scholarly and think tank establishment has portrayed Trump, in varying shades, as an unhinged populist[xxxi], who is overseeing the destruction of the American-build liberal international order with gusto.[xxxii] In his latest book, arguably the first authoritative account of White House under Trump, veteran journalist Bob Woodward has characterized the White House as dominated by uncouth nationalists, who are “trying to make policy on a string of one-sentence clichés,” while the top generals in Trump’s cabinet, who would all later resign or be fired, reportedly see him either as “fifth or six grader” or “an idiot.”[xxxiii] As frightening as that image of a vindictive American unilateralism under Trump may look like, the U.S. president, however, has had, so far, three unexpectedly positive effects in the context of Asia, where China has embarked on an irrepressible march for domination.
The first positive impact of Trump’s unorthodox approach to global politics, particularly in Asia, has to do with China. So far, Trump has created an optimal margin of unpredictability, which has thrown off the leadership in Beijing.[xxxiv] In fact, the Chinese leadership has openly bemoaned “confusing” signals from the White House, reflecting their growing sense of vulnerability and desperation to get things right.[xxxv] While predictability matters in terms of long-term strategy, and is central to credible global leadership, a certain dose of unpredictability, if properly deployed, can bring about significant tactical advantages. This is better known as the Madman Theory, [xxxvi] or as Obama out it, the “crazy Nixon”[xxxvii] approach, given the former American president’s risky strategic gambles in Southeast Asia and vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union, which ultimately strengthened Washington’s hand by reshuffling the regional strategic configuration to Moscow’s utter shock. With Trump throwing in an unexpected level of unpredictability into the picture, the Chinese leadership has been forced to go back to the drawing table. Long accustomed to “fox” type of American leadership, particularly in the case of the cerebral Obama who was known for long pondering his every move often to verge of paralyzing indecision, China managed to correctly guess the coordinates of Washington’s strategic resolve.[xxxviii]
This was particularly the case in the South China Sea, where Chinese President Xi Jinping moved ahead, beginning in late-2013, with massive reclamation and militarization of disputed land features based on the correct assumption that the ever-cautious and calculating Obama administration would not risk a military escalation to draw the line in the waters.[xxxix] A year earlier, China also anticipated inaction by Washington when it moved ahead with ejecting the Philippines, an American treaty ally, from the Scarborough Shoal after a month-long naval standoff between Manila and Beijing.[xl] Under the Trump administration, however, Washington has shown growing resolve to confront China in adjacent waters, empowering the Pentagon to conduct more aggressive and frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Openly characterizing Beijing as a revisionist power[xli] in its National Security Strategy, Washington is also contemplating major war games in the area in a show of force against a revanchist China,[xlii] while expanding defense assistance to and strategic infrastructure investment initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region.[xliii] Under Trump’s watch, Washington has expanded its Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to key allies in East Asia, pushed ahead with the $60 billion BUILD initiative[xliv] for infrastructure investments in strategic markets (the U.S. Senate is considering doubling the global fund),[xlv] and the $1.5 billion Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which collectively seek to enhance American strategic footprint in the region amid China’s rise as a credible rival for leadership. What the Trump administration has brought to the table, so far, is a combination of (seeming) resolve and unpredictability, two missing elements that China was able to fully exploit in previous years. As a result, Washington is in a better position to pursue Reagan-like “peace through strength” approach vis-à-vis Chinese maritime assertiveness.
The Trump administration has not only stepped up military countermeasures against China, but it has also, despite the supposed Trump-Xi personal rapport, escalated its trade war with the Asian powerhouse in ways that few could have anticipated only a year earlier.[xlvi] In his second year in office, the Trump administration imposed punitive tariffs on up to $250 billion of Chinese products while greater restrictions have been placed on Chinese investments in America as well as technology exports to China.[xlvii] Some experts believe that the Trump administration is seeking nothing less than decoupling China from the global supply-chains,[xlviii] forcing Western companies to relocate operations to friendlier Asian territories such as Vietnam or/and onshore their overseas productions. Trump’s seeming unpredictability, and penchant for muscular showdown, has dramatically altered China’s risk calculations, forcing Beijing to constantly revisit its strategic assumptions. China’s leadership, as Henry Kissinger observed, broadly focuses on the element of Shi, which can be roughly translated as momentum or, in Soviet-Marxist lingo, the ‘overall correlation of forces’ in its strategic planning.[xlix] Right until Trump’s presidency, Beijing calculated that history was on its side, since time will only make it stronger relative to Washington, which, following Nixon’s China visit, seemed more intent on preserving vital economic ties than checking China’s revanchist ambitions. In fact, for a long time, the American business community and the Wall Street were seen as big advocates of stronger Sino-American relations.[l] Under Trump’s presidency, however, the table has turned. No less than former Goldman Sachs chief executive officer (CEO) and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, long regarded by Chinese elite as an “old friend”, has warned of “the prospect of an Economic Iron Curtain—one that throws up new walls on each side and unmaking the global economy, as we have known it.”[li] Along with other influential intermediaries and business elites, he has called for meaningful concessions, including structural economic reforms that put an end to China’s mercantilist trade practices and predatory policies towards foreign companies and their technology. The upshot is an emerging bipartisan consensus in Washington,[lii] where Trump’s toughening stance on China is largely welcomed as a long overdue policy recalibration between the world’s two superpowers.[liii]
Crucially, however, Trump’s seemingly unhinged leadership has forced other middle powers to step up to the plate. The upshot is a multi-centric network of relations, which philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattar described as “rhizomatic” as opposed to a hierarchical,[liv] US- or China-centric arborescent regional order.
- COALITION OF DETERRENCE
Nature abhors a vacuum and this is presently true in Asia, where regional states are fretting over the lack of reassuring leadership on the part of both the United States and China. Caught between a reckless America,[lv] led by an apparently unhinged populist, and a revanchist China, seemingly bent on recreating a neo-tributary system, [lvi] the middle powers have stepped into the fray. A new concert of middle powers,[lvii] including Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, and, more recently, even some European powers with Indo-Pacific territories, have stepped up their efforts to create a post-American order in Asia that isn’t dominated by China.
Even smaller powers such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam have been playing an increasingly influential role in shaping the regional post-American order.[lviii] While the Philippines, under Rodrigo Duterte, has pursued rapprochement with China at the expense of historically warm ties with China,[lix] Malaysia, under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, has taken up the cudgels to warn the world about the dangers of wholehearted embrace of China.[lx] As for Vietnam, it has quietly welcomed closer security cooperation with Washington, New Delhi, and Tokyo in order to reduce its economic dependence on and security threats from China.
The middle powers have also been pushing back against Trump’s trade protectionism and China’s predatory economics, including through “debt-trap” diplomacy, by pushing for sustainable and quality infrastructure investment initiatives as well as major multilateral free trade deals, particularly the TPP-11,[lxi] which is led by Japan, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, which is facilitated by Indonesia[lxii] and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Japan and the European Union also concluded the world’s biggest bilateral free trading agreement in hopes to dent the fallout from Trump’s protectionism.[lxiii]
While almost everyone welcomes Chinese largesse, few are oblivious to the risks that come with a more powerful and militarily assertive Beijing. From 2009 onwards, China was more offensive than charming, aggressively pushing its excessive territorial claims in adjacent waters, while indulging in predatory investment practices,[lxiv] which eventually brought small, poor states such as Sri Lanka to the brink of strategic servitude.[lxv] In recent years, independent-minded states such as Malaysia[lxvi] and regional powers such as Australia[lxvii] have begun to sour over Chinese investments, contemplating a fundamental reexamination of their previously warm relations with Beijing. Meanwhile, the Philippines successfully took China to international court for violating key provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through massive reclamation and militarization of disputed land features in the South China Sea.[lxviii]
Despite its best efforts, the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy was widely seen as more rhetorical than substantive. The rhetoric raised expectations of a highly engaged America, but the country was largely impotent in constraining Chinese maritime assertiveness and the creation of an expanding zone of Sino-centric economic dependency in developing Asia.[lxix] The Trump administration, which has become the new champion of trade protectionism and nativist anti-immigration policies, has only crystalized existing concerns over American decline. Abruptly dispensing with Barack Obama’s signature global economic policy – the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement – the Trump administration has yet to put forward any major economic initiative for Asia, while China forges ahead with its BRI across the entire Eurasian land mass.[lxx]
While America remains militarily supreme, the Trump administration has also yet to introduce an effective maritime strategy against China. Ongoing Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) have, so far, proved insufficient to constrain Beijing’s maritime appetite, but provocative enough to give its target nation the pretext to further militarize the disputes.[lxxi] It is not clear whether doing more of the same will be enough.[lxxii] While a brewing Sino-American cold war is a cause for worry, it is also encouraging other regional players to step up to preserve the best elements of the liberal international order. This is happening on both economic and geopolitical fronts. Through negotiating a TPP-11 (minus America),[lxxiii] the Asia-Pacific middle powers have moved closer to creating a truly post-American economic initiative, which is not dominated by China and preserves the ‘gold standard’ of trade liberalization. The TPP-11 nations hope to bring about a consequential economic bloc, which focuses on protection of intellectual property rights, opening up of excessively protected and inefficient sectors in places such as Japan, and expansion of intra-regional trade through removal of non-tariff barriers, economies of scale, and productivity enhancement brought about by easier flow of technology and capital. The middle powers have also sought to push back against China’s BRI due to concerns over debt sustainability, good governance, environmental standards, and predatory practices, including debt-for-equity arrangements.[lxxiv]
Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries are also playing a more proactive role in shaping the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in a truly inclusive way, i.e. so that it does not exclude China but, crucially, is not dominated by it.[lxxv] They are also working to streamline tariff rates and customs procedures across a region with many overlapping bilateral free trade agreements, and to address the developmental concerns of poorer Indo-Pacific nations. Through the RCEP, middle powers hope to augment global free trade regimes, halt China’s predatory trade practices[lxxvi] and push back against the Trump administration’s trade war.[lxxvii]
The middle powers have also invested vast sums into their own expansive infrastructure projects. Japan has formulated the multi-billion-dollar Connectivity Initiative,[lxxviii] which emphasizes sustainable infrastructure across Asia; India has forged ahead with the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC)[lxxix] railway and port projects to strengthen regional integration; South Korea has introduced the ‘New Southern Policy,’[lxxx] to focus on infrastructure development in key Southeast Asian countries; and Australia has recently signed an investment agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “develop a pipeline of high-quality infrastructure projects, to attract private and public investment.”[lxxxi]
Geopolitically, the middle powers have also been lending weight to America’s pressure campaign against Chinese maritime assertiveness. At the forefront of these parallel efforts is Japan, the country that is arguably the most perturbed by China’s rise. China’s revanchist claims in adjacent waters cover the East China Sea, where Japan occupies the contested Senkaku islands, and the South China Sea, where the bulk of Japan’s energy imports pass. In recent years, the Shinzo Abe administration has steadily increased defense spending and systematically chipped away at pacifist legal restrictions in order to make Japan a major military force.[lxxxii]
In the past year, Japan has engaged in many firsts. It deployed,[lxxxiii] for the first time ever, its gigantic Kaga helicopter carrier, which was accompanied by two guided-missile destroyers on high-profile port calls across the Indo-Pacific. Along the way, Japan’s Marine Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) armada conducted joint drills with the U.S. Navy’s[lxxxiv] USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group and the UK Royal Navy’s HMS Albion, reflecting growing interoperability and concerted pushback among like-minded nations against China.[lxxxv]
Japan also, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, deployed an armored vehicle to participate in joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises. During his recent meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Abe reiterated his commitment to assist[lxxxvi] ongoing efforts to preserve FONOPs and strengthen the maritime security capacity of Southeast Asian states.[lxxxvii] Japan is even expected to help Hanoi develop energy resources in areas contested by China.[lxxxviii] Earlier this year, the British, French[lxxxix] and Australian[xc] naval forces also conducted FONOPs close to Chinese-occupied land features in the South China Sea. Canada has also stepped up its participation in FONOPs as well as enforcement of sanctions against North Korea in East Asia, India and the U.K. have also announced plans for naval cooperation through carrier battle group operations, ahead of the UK’s deployment of its latest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Indo-Pacific. [xci] No longer relying on America alone, the middle powers of the Indo-Pacific are taking matters into their own hands in order to uphold free trade and freedom of navigation in the world’s most dynamic region. The Indo-Pacific is not simply a new theatre of superpower rivalry, but instead a highly fluid strategic chessboard that provides significant agency for middle powers to shape the future of the global order. It’s more like a botanical rhizome than an arboreal landscape.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Heydarian is incoming Research Fellow at the National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and previously served as Assistant Professor at De La Salle University. He is a regular contributor to Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and has written for leading global publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, among many others. His latest book is “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy” (Palgrave Macmillan). This paper is partly based on excerpts from his forthcoming book “The Indo-Pacific Age: Trump, China and the New Global Struggle for Mastery”. (Palgrave).
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