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What China could expect from a Global Britain

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The National Interest, with Rob Clark, 17 August, 2018

As India celebrates seventy-two years of Independence from the British Empire this week, a grand historical milestone for the ancient nation, it is notable to see the Royal Navy sailing in India’s waters once more—however this time it comes as an ally to India to sail together in an increasingly troubled world.

Pulled from its forty-two-year involvement in the European project, the United Kingdom has begun a major re-think of its global posture. What does Global Britain mean? Where might it best orient itself in relation to a growing Indo-Pacific region, where trade, rising powers, and naval grand strategies reveal a region that is increasingly a central part of the global economy and political center?

Stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean is vital to international trade and commerce, with 50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade passing through every day. It is a global market that the United Kingdom cannot afford to ignore. The global significance of this region has seen many vested naval powers transit this ocean to maintain their own interests.

But rather than coming as an imperial trading power—as it once did—the Royal Navy is coming to the region under a liberal democratic trading nation. The United Kingdom seeks to uphold an open and inclusive rules-based order, an order where all have rights—not simply great powers. And this commitment is more than just rhetoric.

Over the past year, London has committed to three separate missions across the Indo-Pacific region. HMS Albion, Sutherland and Argyll have all made their way through the Indo-Pacific region this year to carry out sanctions enforcement against North Korea and to conduct freedom of navigation operations to counter the growing Chinese naval activity. These missions have revealed the role the Royal Navy will play in a Global Britain strategy.

The sudden and rapid rise of Mahanian strategies among Asia’s powers has seen sea lane security re-emerge as a major geopolitical issue after three generations of U.S. naval preponderance. The most active driver of change in the Indian Ocean has been the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Far from its traditional sphere of influence of the first island and second island chains, the Chinese navy has rapidly established itself as a naval power in the Indian Ocean, and beyond into theMediterranean Sea . Beijing has done this by developing blue-water capabilities and a port strategy that secures its Beijing’s trade routes and energy supply line from the Middle East.

The emergence of China’s blue-water navy and greater power projection has complimented China’s long-term grand strategy of becoming the Asian hegemon, an ambition not lost on India’s ruling elite. Beijing has sought to ensure that “all roads lead to China,” with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Maritime Silk Road projects. Furthermore, China has encroached upon the territory and neighborhood of the region’s fastest-growing power—India—developing economic dependencies with nearly all of New Delhi’s neighbors.

As powers that are dependent on Indian Ocean trade routes, liberal democracies like Britain and India (and others) will have to learn to manage relations with Beijing. This will include balancing some of China’s more predatory behaviors such as the debt diplomacy.

The Royal Navy and Indian Navy will also have to learn to operate in close proximity to the PLAN, which has rapidly up-scaled its presence in the Indian Ocean, with recent estimates indicating a presence of at least fourteen PLA Navy ships throughout August 2017, including SSN class nuclear-powered submarines, with that number rising throughout 2018. There have already been positive examples of recent UK-Sino naval cooperation, including the arrival of two PLA Navy frigates in London last year for a ‘goodwill’ visit. It is precisely from these exchanges that the Royal Navy—respected for its long traditions—can impart best practices and norms to the still-young PLAN. Possible areas of planned cooperation might take place in the anti-piracy missions and with humanitarian responses to natural disasters.

As the Indo-Pacific once again takes center stage in global politics, we will see China and India each attempting to stamp their influence on the international order. This does not have to be confrontational, of course. As part of a wider Anglo-American security alliance which helped construct the current global order, the UK has a vested stake in seeing that these changes abide by the current norms underpinning the rules-based international system. This includes respect for national sovereignty, freedom of navigation, and free trade.

As Global Britain approaches the Indian Ocean, it will work closely with all navies, including the Indian Navy and the PLAN. No doubt, it will work more closely with some more than others. And, of course, it will have to ensure that its resources match its ambition. Should Beijing’s quasi-imperial approach toward the Indian Ocean continue, the UK and other European powers will begin to lend their support to the India-Japan-US-Australia Quad.

Regardless of geopolitical trends, the Royal Navy will seek to support joint naval drills and uphold the maritime principle of freedom-of-navigation. Bolstered by its own bases in Duqm and Singapore, the Royal Navy will seek to cooperate with all, including the United States, Australia, Singapore, and India. Global Britain as a philosophy will promote a collaborative approach toward Beijing while aligning carefully with like-minded friends and allies

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AUKMIN 2018: The Future of Global Britain?

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RUSI Commentary, with Milia Hau, 14 August, 2018

Britain and Australia face an uncertain strategic landscape. But there is much they can do together, as they deal with the two big powers which appear determined to change the current status quo: China and Russia.

The scene for the 10th annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN) earlier this summer was visually stunning. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne met with their British counterparts, Jeremy Hunt and Gavin Williamson, at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh for the AUKMIN meeting. While the visuals were good, it was clear that both liberal democracies came to these negotiations nurturing some very serious misgivings about their strategic environment.

For Australia, it has been an annus horriblis, as it has lurched from one diplomatic spat with Beijing to another, all of them driven by Canberra’s belief that Beijing has been meddling in its domestic affairs and waging an influence campaign among the Chinese diaspora, as well as Australia’s own political elite. For the UK – apart from the running sore of Brexit – the year has been dominated by the Skripal incident in Salisbury, which saw the use of a nerve agent on British soil, resulting in the expulsion of 23 diplomats, and a crackdown on Russian oligarch investments inside the City of London. As these two neo-authoritarian powers become increasingly bold, both London and Canberra have had to deal with a US that is seemingly less reliable, or perhaps more transactional.

It has been an odd time for Western liberal democracies, as they have slowly begun to react to the new geopolitical competition that has intensified in the wake of 2014, when China militarised islands in the South China Sea, and Russia invaded and occupied Ukrainian territory. As a result, the AUKMIN joint ministers’ statement resonated with concerns for the rules-based order with a noticeable emphasis on the Indo-Pacific ‘which is open, prosperous, and inclusive’.

While there is a sensible debate on how far the UK can extend its resources to the region, a Henry Jackson Society report sought to argue earlier this year that the Indo-Pacific presents economic opportunities as well as geopolitical challenges. The region accounts for 60% of the global population and accounts for nearly two-thirds of global economic growth; it is – according to the IMF – the world’s most dynamic region by a wide margin. The decision of the UK and Australia to strengthen their track 1.5 Asia Dialogue last year recognised these dynamics.

How Australia and the UK decide to interact in the Indo-Pacific will become an essential part of the Global Britain strategy. The two states already cooperate in the Five Powers Defence Arrangements and both have growing defence and intelligence ties to Japan. Additionally, they might develop other nodes of regional cooperation, such as a potential Australia–France–UK trilateral, or the already-existing US–Japan–India–Australia Quadrilateral.

While there are serious concerns about the UK’s budgetary capabilities – witness the searing disagreement between Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Prime Minister Theresa May about alleged proposed cuts to defence this past June – the Indo-Pacific region does at least present economic returns. The agreement by London and Canberra to pursue an ambitious bilateral free trade agreement once the UK has left the EU and its interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are both opportunities, as is the budding defence industrial relationship. The recent revelation that the two signed a £20-billion deal for nine UK-designed warships might well be an indication of such returns.

As the region is set to lead global economic growth over the next 30 years, it makes sense for the UK to invest in capabilities and diplomatic reach in-region.

While distance still offsets the warmth found in the AUKMIN 2018, the fact is that working together can help both overcome this. The Royal Navy already has one base in Singapore. Perhaps basing rights might be exchanged between both navies; if successful, rights might even be extended reciprocally with the French, which have bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In return, French and Australian marines may dock at British facilities in Singapore.

Another area that might be of mutual interest is that of the South Pacific. While it is a part of the world that few – if any – foreign secretaries think about, we could see this begin to change. Over the past few years, Beijing has been pouring money and developments into these tiny Pacific Island states. While development has traditionally been viewed as benign, the possibility of Chinese submarines docking at a recently built dock in Vanuatu – an island sitting on Australia’s shipping route to its ally, the US – has become a serious concern in Canberra this year. Britain’s decision to massively expand its economic and diplomatic footprint on Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tonga will be warmly welcomed in Australia.

While it is true that the ‘tyranny of distance’ will keep the UK from becoming an Indo-Pacific regional power, Britain can become a significant player. There are multiple nodes of access available, including the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, the Commonwealth and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing structure. One excellent bit of news from the AUKMIN Ministerial statement is the prospect that London and Canberra will begin coordinatingmuch more closely on foreign direct investment into sensitive digital infrastructure, hopefully avoiding another debacle similar to that which occurred when London allowed the sale of a British data cloud centre to a Chinese consortium in 2017, causing the Australian Department of Defence to remove its data from the company.

Looking into the future, we see that the traditional picture of a US-led Western alliance confronted by Russian and Chinese authoritarianism has returned to mainstream global politics. Only this time, it is not always clear that the US will be as willing to ‘bear any burden’. This requires those great powers and middle powers to band together all the more tightly.


Explaining the Japan–Australia security relationship: it’s complicated…

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International Affairs Blog, with Tomohiko Satake, 13 July, 2018

During the Cold War, Japan defined its security policy by the Yoshida Doctrine — maintaining a low profile security posture while relying on the United States for protection based on the US–Japan Security Treaty. There was little appetite within Japan’s government or military for military-to-military relationships with other regional states. Yet the past three decades have seen a steady diversification of Japanese security partnerships, including with South Korea, Australia and India as well as with some ASEAN and European countries. Notably, these relationships were not meant to replace the still-dominant security reliance on the US–Japan alliance, but instead were part of a strategy — carried out in tandem with the US — which saw the two states moving away from its strict bilateralism to what Michael J. Green calls ‘federated capabilities’.

The case of Japan and Australia — a ‘quasi-alliance’?

In our recent article for International Affairs, we looked specifically at this rapid diversification of Japanese security partnerships from the perspective of Japan–Australia security cooperation in both the bilateral and multilateral contexts, including the US and China. First of all, it was apparent that while some referred to Japan–Australia relations as ‘quasi-alliances’, they were not, in fact, alliances at all, but merely examples of what Thomas Wilkins called‘alignment’. While these groupings have systematically set about developing ‘alliance-like’ characteristics — such as military interoperability, strategic consultations and institutionalized intelligence-sharing — they have carefully avoided the primary ingredient of alliances: defence guarantees.

We asked why political leaders in Tokyo and Canberra went to the trouble of developing such complex security relationships — one need only look at the general security of information agreement (GSOMIA) and the acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA), for example — while simultaneously avoiding the primary benefit of a formal alliance commitment to each other? Neo-realist theory would have us believe that as authoritarian China rose in the region and expanded its military hard power capabilities across the maritime space and trade routes of both states, Australia and Japan would either balance Beijing’s ambitions or bandwagon behind them. However, the actual record is more complex and sees political leaders adopting elements of both strategies. At times, Australia and Japan developed very close ties and seemed on the verge of committing to the relationship — as when Prime Minister John Howard offered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a security treaty in 2007 or when, in 2015, both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Abe began promoting a submarine deal in strategic terms, labelling theirs a ‘special relationship’. Subsequently, however, caution seemed to reassert itself in both cases and domestic factors inside both countries halted further progress.

Drawing from Tomohiko Satake’s 2011 article on the origins of the trilateral relationship between the US, Japan and Australia and from John Hemmings’ doctoral research, we developed a model for explaining this apparent discrepancy. Faced, for example, with a triple security dilemma, that pits them between (1) a security dilemma with China, (2) an abandonment/entrapment dilemma with each other and (3) a quite separate abandonment/entrapment dilemma with their mutual ally, the United States, Japanese and Australian foreign policy elites simply cannot tell what the optimum policy choice is. What we found, through interviews and by analysing government policy documents, was how bureaucratic coalitions within Canberra or Tokyo would push for given policies, prioritizing one or another of these three drivers. This meant that in some cases the two would align more closely — such as when a pro-alliance group prioritizing the danger of abandonment was in control of the tools of foreign policy — only to pull back after new bureaucratic coalitions, which promoted policies that engage with China and emphasized the dangers of entrapment, took power. This was apparent, for example, after the 2008 election in Australia which saw Kevin Rudd replace John Howard as prime minister, as Australia unilaterally withdrew from the US–India–Japan–Australia Quadrilateral (QUAD) and warned against closer defence engagement with Japan.

What does this mean for the future?

This model explains both the specific pattern of Japan–Australia security ties as well as the historically atypical alignment policies that are rising across the region, in which states begin implementing multipronged strategies to pair balancing with engagement. We see these states building evermore institutionalized security relations, while continuing to closely monitor their relations with Beijing. In academia, this dual-approach has become known as ‘hedging’. As we look to the future, instability and threats to the rules-based order are discussed not only in terms of Chinese assertive behaviour, but also in terms of the Trump administration’s challenge to the liberal international order. Given these circumstances, we must also ask whether our model will see even more non-committal alignments — particularly between medium-sized regional states — or whether China will be able to successfully restrain states from forming balancing alliances. Examples of these alignment patterns are to be found in the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, created in 2002; in the creation of an Australia–India–Japan trilateral in 2015; and in the revival of the QUAD in 2017.

One interesting implication of our research is that, while abandonment concerns regarding the US engagement in Asia significantly encouraged Tokyo to seek closer ties with India, India itself has been less motivated by abandonment issues. Instead, internal debates in Delhi are more concerned with the risk of becoming entrapped between the United States and a rising China. This, combined with a fear of provoking a security dilemma and India’s longstanding ‘non-alignment’ foreign policy approach, has compelled some factions inside the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to eschew strong commitment to the QUAD. As we can see, this ‘commitment dilemma’ explains why all of these groupings see an ebb and flow of defence institutionalization, despite the fact that all share concerns about China’s intentions and growing military capabilities.

Should the US–China rivalry intensify, we might expect to see bureaucratic coalitions inside all four countries debate the prioritization of alliance commitments versus the prioritization of their relationship with China. Much of this has a mercurial dynamic, meaning that if any player decreases its security commitment to the QUAD, one will see a reaction from the others. If the Trump administration cannot sustain strong and consistent commitment to regional security, one might see a worrying shift in balancing behaviours by other QUAD members, with some reaching out to Beijing. The future of the QUAD therefore not only depends on Chinese assertiveness, but also on the appearance of US resolve to the defence of its smaller allies and partners. No doubt, this debate is occurring now at the domestic level.


Hindustan Times, Prasun Sonwalkar, May 27, 2018

Britain needs to focus on the Indo-Pacific region to avoid being caught between two worlds– not quite a European power nor a global power – post Brexit, a leading think-tank has said .

To do this, Britain will need to go to Asia by sea, even if it may remind many of its erstwhile empire built mostly through its naval power, a study titled Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific by the influential Henry Jackson Society says.

The analysis by John Hemmings has been released in the context of the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when, for the first time, the phrase “Indo-Pacific” was mentioned in an India-UK defence statement on future plans of the Royal Navy and Indian Navy.

The report says: “Despite the threats and challenges on the UK’s periphery like Russia and the Middle East, the fact is the future of global trade, global geopolitics, and global power are trending toward Asia and the UK must go there or risk being left behind.

“There are also trends in maritime trade and maritime security that mean that if Global Britain is going to go to Asia, it must go by sea. While such maritime arguments sound like a Britain harking back to a glorious past, in fact a Global Britain that renews its naval and maritime commercial capabilities will one that is preparing for a prosperous and engaged future.”

Mentioning the so-called “quad countries” of India, Australia, Japan and the United States, the report sees much potential for Britain to engage closely with the group in the context of China’s growing presence and plans in the area, including the Belt and Road Initiative.

Hemmings writes: “Britain and India are developing robust security ties across a broad range of ties; I suggest that the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy – who are brothers with a common history and common traditions – could do so much more together, both bilaterally, or in conjunction with India’s other partners: France, Japan, the US, and Australia.”

Besides the existing strengths in India-UK ties, the report says that Britain could work with Japan to financially support India’s desire to match China’s infrastructure projects. It also sees the potential to develop a UK-India-France trilateral maritime cooperation.

The report specifically recommends that Britain offer diplomatic support when key states – such as India, Singapore, or Japan – come under pressure within the region. It also calls for the utilisation, along with India, of the Commonwealth to bolster democracy with other states in the Indo-Pacific such as the Maldives, Fiji, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

It also calls for the UK investing in Asian language programmes at British universities, particularly focussing on Hindi, Japanese and Chinese.


India’s Ambiguity and the Chinese Threat

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RUSI Commentary, with Tanya Sen, 24 May, 2018

Nearly eight months after the Doklam border stand-off, the leaders of Asia’s two largest powerhouses met for informal diplomatic talks, in what seemed to be an attempt to reset their bilateral relationship. Thus far, media in both countries has presented the meeting as a great success, citing new diplomatic beginnings and lauding the pragmatism of their respective leaders. The apparent thawing of diplomatic ties echoes the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai narrative of the 1950s and comes after the two countries reached a record trade value of $84.4 billion in 2017. Yet despite the public hyperbole and the evident enthusiasm of China’s state-run media, it is not clear that one meeting can overturn the structural drivers of Indo-Chinese competition.

China and India are both focused on restoring their status as great regional and even global powers following periods of imperial predation by European states over the past two centuries. They are both heavily influenced by social, economic and political theories that are rooted in Western intellectual trends. Still, such similarities are trivial in the face of structurally-driven competition. With large territories, massive populations and expanding economies, both have the ability to shape their regions along with areas further abroad. Consequently, their rivalry is fed by the desire for dominance over the other – something that is best explained through a realist lens. The deeper explanation is the status of insecurity that results from the security dilemma, whereby both countries are constantly looking to gain a competitive advantage in terms of regional accommodation, and the future global order. This justifies the fears of Indian leaders that they may be lagging behind China in this grander global race.

The old non-alignment orientation is falling out of favour with Indian policymakers for this very reason. While this decades-long policy has been a defining model in Indian politics in the past, Prime Minister Modi’s state visits and multilateral engagements point to a departure from India’s non-aligned ways, towards multi-alignment that better fits today’s global order. Yet despite this shift, India’s grand strategy seem to lack clear direction. For, while India might be equipped with the resources, it lacks the strategic mobilisation needed to rival China’s own assertive vision.

The concerns and suspicion have steered India towards the adoption of an odd hedging relationship with Beijing that is by now familiar with scholars of Chinese foreign policy. Nearly every country must determine the trade-off between economic reliance on China and concern over its ambitions; Australia’s prime minister summed up this dilemma last year, by saying that Canberra’s China policy was based on ‘fear and greed’. In response to this conundrum faced by many others, Indian policymakers are identifying key partners to offset Chinese power. The most notable of these is Japan; after all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the pioneer of the Indo-Pacific concept. His proposal for the creation of a  Quad – an informal four-nation strategic dialogue encompassing Japan, India, the US and Australia – was revived in 2017 after laying dormant for around a decade. India’s efforts seem to be overshadowed by the setbacks in its way, many of which have been present for a large part of its political history.

As the two powers rise in the same region, attempts by China to secure its energy supplies by land and sea inevitably involve Pakistan. This competing set of regional interests can also be seen in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ relationships with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even the Maldives, all of which traditionally lie within India’s sphere of influence. China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan is a continual irritant to relations with India. The truncated power asymmetry acquired by Pakistan, with immense support from the Chinese, has ensured an enduring rivalry and the encirclement of India. The Indo-Pakistani conflict has long dominated India’s foreign policy, and constant contestation in India’s immediate neighbourhood has prevented it from taking on a leadership role in South Asia. Finally, the lack of an alternative Indian grand strategy to non-alignment works against its own power ambitions. On one hand, India is keen to be taken seriously as a world power. On the other hand, Indian foreign policy elites seem stuck between contrasting narratives of India as a developing power or India as a superpower. This confusion over India’s power acts as a drag for its policymaking elites in reshaping a new grand strategy for dealing with China.

China, by contrast, has been quick to identify its rival’s weaknesses and even quicker to develop and realise its foreign policy ambitions. Such has been the rate of China’s successes in its Belt and Road initiative, that India’s lack of organisation means that it seriously risks adversely affecting its primacy in its own back yard. While this hedging approach might be the most politically expedient method for dealing with Chinese manoeuvres, it is holding India back from creating its own alternative vision for the region. So, while the rapprochement with China may be part of this hedging approach and might appear to be enough to relieve short-term tensions, structural factors will continue pushing the two Asian giants in opposing directions. And none of this will substitute for India’s need to wake up to the perils on its periphery, by developing a more robust foreign policy community and seeking a clearer strategy for its region.


Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific

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Henry Jackson Society,  22 May, 2018

The weight of the global economy is going to Asia, it is going by sea – and the United Kingdom must act now if we are to build a truly Global Britain, according to a new report from The Henry Jackson Society.

Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific notes how the future of both the economic order and the rules-based international system will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. China’s growing naval power, its militarisation of sea lanes and its Belt and Road Initiative indicate not only a power determined to become wealthy, but one determined to set the rules of the coming age. However, many of China’s Asian neighbours seek to defend rules over power.

With Britain looking for new opportunities abroad in the wake of Brexit and the economic and demographic realities pointing east, the report argues that the UK must reinvigorate its partnerships with historic allies in the region, not least India and Japan – while also redeveloping new “special relationships” with Commonwealth countries such as Singapore.

The report highlights that:

  • The global middle class will grow 50% by 2030, with much of that growth taking place in the Indo-Pacific – spawning hundreds of new cities, industries and opportunities.
  • Over 90% of global trade is carried by sea and that maritime trade will only increase as regional powers struggle to bring consumer goods and energy to these new cities.
  • China seeks to exert control over these sea lanes in order to protect its own sea lanes, constrain India’s rise and set the rules for the coming era.
  • The Indo-Pacific is becoming a forum for competing visions of international relations – with many of Britain’s historic allies beginning to align in loose security groupings based on respect for maritime conventions and law.
  • The UK, dependent on the rules-based order and the sea lanes in the region, will ultimately have to adopt the “engage and balance” approach that most Asian powers have adopted towards China.

While endorsing the ‘cautious engagement’ approach of Prime Minister Theresa May to China, the report recommends that Britain should:

  • Seek a number of overlapping security relationships across the Indo-Pacific with large numbers of partners – including the ‘Quad’ of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
  • Create “special partners” in ASEAN – not least Singapore, where Britain should explore the possibility for regular ‘2+2’ meetings between the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers.
  • Renew her security relationship with Australia – a useful “node of access” for the UK, as Australia is developing closer relations with key allies including the US, Japan and France.

Standing up for the rules-based international order in the face of the challenge from China should also involve:

  • An incremental increase in Britain’s defence spending, from the current 2% of GDP to 3%. This, with a particular focus on the future of naval and air power, would equip the UK with the requisite tools to have a truly ‘global’ influence.
  • Invest in soft power diplomacy to improve ties with Asian countries. These should involve a rise in funding for language programmes at British universities, particularly in Japanese, Chinese and Hindi; and providing help financing infrastructure development across the region, to counter the Belt and Road Initiative.

Read the full report here.


The New Great Game in the Indo-Pacific

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E-International Relations, 23 April, 2018

This past March saw a mini-crisis develop in the Indian Ocean and it all revolved around the tiny island nation of Maldives. The crisis began in earnest after Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency after rejecting a Supreme Court ruling to free opposition leaders. Indian media reported on the movement of Indian military units around the country, the implication being that they might interfere. Within days, however, a squadron of Chinese naval vessels entered the East Indian Ocean, putting India on the back foot – the chain of 1,192 coral islands that make up the Maldives is a mere 400km from India’s southern coast. President Modi put India’s military on alert, but did nothing in the end, perhaps due to the Chinese flotilla. While the crisis seemed to finish almost as quickly as it started, it highlighted a growing trend of Sino-Indian tussling for influence in a region traditionally dominated by India. In recent years, Beijing and Male have increased economic ties as the Maldives joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative and signed a free-trade agreement. The Maldives is but one such country in India’s neighbourhood that China has taken under its Belt-and-Road wing. To outside observers, it is clear that a new Great Game is underway, one that sees China using a combination of infrastructure development and loans, to develop its maritime trade and naval power. In response to China’s growing influence in a region it considers its own, Delhi has begun partnering more actively with Japan and the US, particularly in development projects and strategic groupings like the Quad.

Prior to 2012 China didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldives. Due to the island country’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, however, it’s not difficult to see why the Maldives may have become the latest pearl in China’s ‘string of pearls’. It has already developed a major commercial port in Gwadar, Pakistan and a military logistics base Djibouti, its first overseas. Strategically, Djibouti is located near the Bab al Mandab, allowing for access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. The country is also in dire need of infrastructure improvements, which China, through Belt and Road, is offering to finance. This isn’t the first time China has invested billions of dollars in the name of development – especially to strategically located countries. Pakistan, a long-time rival of India, has received support from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build a hydropower plant in its Punjab region, which is estimated to cost $1.42bn. In total, China has pledged $62bn to fund the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – again, right in India’s backyard. The same has been happening in Bangladesh, where in 2016 President Xi signed deals worth $21.5bn, showing interest in developing a deep sea port in Pyra.

India and Japan are now taking a page from China’s playbook, treating economic development as strategic leverage. The two have made regional moves into Bangladesh and North-eastern India, however their strong suit is their Asia Africa Growth Corridor, where they are working to create routes in the Indian Ocean region that circumvent China. The Iranian port Chabahar will be especially useful to India—who has pledged $20bn for its construction—in light of the fact that Pakistan currently blocks India’s over-land route into Afghanistan. Of course, even in Africa the India-Japan duo is contending with high levels of Chinese investment. However, there may be space for more sustainable investment in both Africa and the Indo-Pacific region by the two, as an increasing number of recipients of China’s largess fall into the ‘debt trap’ laid by Beijing. Laos is in a $6.7bn hole (a fourth of the tiny country’s GDP) due to a Chinese-led high-speed railway, meant to connect China to mainland Southeast Asia through Laos and Thailand. Similarly, Djibouti’s debt to GDP ratio is now at 85%. A recent report by the Centre for Global Development has warned that Djibouti and seven other countries “face a significantly increased risk of sovereign default if planned BRI projects are implemented”. Sri Lanka has become the poster-child for China’s debt diplomacy after Beijing’s $5bn investment into Hambantota port led to the country leasing the portback to China for 99 years to avoid default. For a country that had seethed about the 100 years of humiliation and predation by foreigners, China certainly seems to be making an about-face.

Watching with increasingly alarm, Tokyo and New Delhi pushed hard to resurrect the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad – as an ‘alternative’ to Belt and Road. Thus far, talks have focused more on the importance of keeping the Indo-Pacific region “free and open”, especially with regard to “maritime safety and security”, only hinting at an alternative infrastructure strategy, however this is rapidly changing. This Great Game is less about ‘containing’ China as Beijing would have us believe, and more about diversifying choices available to countries in the region. Naturally, there is a geostrategic ‘balancing’ element to this as well. Canberra, bullied by Beijing in a domestic scandal involving Chinese interference in its domestic affairs, has pushed for closer relations with both the United States and ASEAN as a way of balancing China’s interference in its domestic affairs. It is beginning to find the true cost of having China as its largest trading partner, and has begun a national debate on how to respond to this, racked by cynical accusations of racism. While the Trump administration consider possible policy options in a ‘free and open strategy’ – see Eric Sayers excellent prescriptions here –  Japan and India are already moving forward on their own infrastructure diplomacy.

As countries begin to realize the implications to Beijing’s ‘debt diplomacy’, there’s definite scope for Delhi and Tokyo to make headway as an alternative type of development pact. While Sri Lanka has been seeking increased investment from Tokyo and Delhi in recent months to unburden itself from Chinese loans, the two need to be more forward-reaching in what they can offer. They also need to design a broader strategy, rather than merely reacting to China’s development plans on an ad hoc basis. This reactive strategy has already cost them the ‘race’ in countries like Nepal and the Maldives. Due to their geographic locations, both countries have historic ties to India, however both have aligned by China over infrastructure investment. The BRI is financing a fibre optic network throughout Nepal (with a command centre in Kathmandu), ending the country’s dependence on India for internet bandwidth. The Maldives Ambassador to China, Mohamed Faisal, noted that though India was offered “a number of projects”, they “did not receive the necessary finance” to be brought into the development stage. Now, India is facing a security problem in the region, as China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy ties up countries right on India’s doorstep.

There is something Mahanian in the way China is building up its maritime power and increasing influence over trade in the region. Mahan, a 19th century American naval strategist who viewed the domination of maritime routes for both commercial and strategic gain, has become obligatory reading among Chinese naval thinkers. Tracing the logic identified by Mahan a hundred years ago, Chinese moves look very hegemonic in design, adding the supplemental development twist as bait. This strategy seeks to safeguard and control vital sea lines of communication (SLOCS), bringing trade and energy from Europe and the Middle East. In doing so, China also seeks to contain India’s own rise and stop it from dominating its own ‘near abroad’, the height of hypocrisy considering the US’ support for its own rise and its own strategy in the South China Sea.

Sadly, the Indo-Pacific is swiftly becoming the locus for a re-emergence of geopolitics, writ large, and all the professions of “win-win” are fading into the background as Chinese merchants and bankers are increasingly being followed by Chinese navy vessels. This new Great Game sees India and Japan competing with China for SLOC security in the Indo-Pacific and may see a re-emergence of gun-boat diplomacy if we’re not careful. Robert Zoellick once called for China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, and while Beijing claims it is not a status quo challenger, the fact is that it is redrawing the rules of the game. While there is some justice in this, China’s authoritarian regime type makes the prospect of a Chinese-led hegemony an untenable one for liberal democracies. How the new Great Game plays out in the Indo-Pacific depends on the willingness of Asia’s other great powers to defend a system, rather than contain an empire.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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