Axial Shift in power balance in Asia-Pacific

Axial relations, be it trilateral or quadrilateral, are the order of the day. The balance of power is considerably shifting from the West to East in the world and from Japan to China in Asia. Thanks to the rise of China, though claimed by it to be peaceful, it has threatened the security architecture in the region and the world at large. In lieu of this shift in the tilt in the balance of power, of late an axis of making a trilateral between the US, Japan and India were proposed which has taken the shape of a quadrilateral after Australia joined the axis.  The effort is to contain the rise of China in relation to East Asia and the entire Asia Pacific region. The expansionist policies of China have also been influencing its relations with the ASEAN nations. This is the reason, why the 10-nation ASEAN has welcomed the move to form a quad. The US, Japan, India and Australia share a strong commitment to freedom, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Hence, the quad appears to be sustainable. Given the present situation in the entire Asia-Pacific region, it may be argued that in the 21st Century peace can only be guaranteed when maritime powers agree to form some kind of axial relations going beyond the geographical barriers and considering the relationship on the strategic and economic platform. It is worth mentioning here that Japan’s energy security and trade flows are heavily dependent on secure routes through the Indian Ocean. This is relevant for India too and India is in a position to cooperate and constructively contribute towards this objective. The rising tensions in the South and East China seas make it more conducive for these countries. The concept of ‘Greater Asia’ comprising two Asian nations, Japan and China and the two non-Asian nations, the US and Australia also make it relevant.

In this backdrop, presuming the possibility of a quad, a security dialogue was initiated in 2007 at the behest of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which was parallelly supported by joint military exercises named ‘Malabar’. The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power, and the Chinese government responded to the Quadrilateral dialogue by issuing formal diplomatic protests to its members.

After a lull for a brief period of three years due to a change of guard in the Australian politics, in 2010 the enhanced military cooperation between the United States and Australia was resumed, leading to the placement of US Marines near Darwin, Australia, overlooking the Timor Sea and Lombok Strait. India, Japan, and the United States continue to hold joint naval exercises through Malabar. Abe played the most crucial role in shaping this axis and the quadrilateral was supposed to establish an “Asian Arc of Democracy.” This arc envisioned to include countries in Central Asia, Mongolia, the Korean peninsula, and other countries in Southeast Asia. On occasions, this move was considered a democratic challenge to the Chinese influence. However, these Asian powers knew it that this challenge could not be sustained without coordinating with the United States.

According to an American think tank, the United States pursued a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in an effort to adapt to an increasingly economically powerful China in the Asia-Pacific, where great power rivalry, massive military investment, social inequality, and contemporary territorial disputes have all made war in Asia “plausible.” It goes on saying that establishing a series of alliances among nations recognized as democratic by the United States furthers its own interests. It is precisely because of the rise of Chinese power and the longer-term trend towards multipolarity in the international system that values can and should serve as a tool of American statecraft today.

President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy could be considered a precursor of the quad who had called for a new worldwide concert of democracies to counter the influence of Russia and China not only in the regional political arena but also in the international organizations, especially in the UN Security Council.  However, the recent move by the members of the quad at the side lines of the East Asia Summit at Manila means a lot in this context. The most significant aspect has been that both the US and Japan call Asia and the Pacific as the new Indo-Pacific region. Definitely, for the US, India could be at the centre stage of the Asian geopolitics in general and in the maritime geostrategy in particular. So is the case with Japan. At the recently held meeting at Manila, the quad called for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Truly speaking, the region is increasingly inter-connected and hence convergence of interests of these nations is essential for making it peaceful, prosperous and inclusive.  They claimed that they were striving for making the region rules-based to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight, increase connectivity, countering terrorism and uphold maritime security.  Both Japan and the US issued a similar statement in this regard. Once India comes at the centre of the Asian strategy of the US, it would greatly contribute to including cooperative security strategies in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific. The quad is being fuelled by Chinese aggressive strategy popularly known as BRI (belt and Road Initiative) which India had virtually refused to join. In this context, India needs to have an alliance based on an axis of economic or strategic cooperation. It was an encouraging example for India that for the first time the US refuelled an Indian vessel in the South China Sea recently which assumes greater significance for India regarding its trade and energy interests.

From the Indian viewpoint, the quad appears to be viable enough as in recent times India has given importance to India Ocean and Western Pacific too. India announced its new Maritime policy ‘Ensuring Secure Seas’ in 2015 giving special focus on the security concerns in the Indian Ocean Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), preservation of national influence in the maritime neighbourhood and the protection of overseas investment and Indians residing abroad.

Consequently, it seems to prioritise security against irregular challenges over other traditional threats.  It acknowledges the hybrid nature of maritime challenges, the blurring of lines between traditional and non-traditional threats. In this regard, it emphasizes the need for a holistic approach even as it makes a case for greater coordination between different maritime agencies. India considers its sphere of influence to extend from the Red Sea in the west to the Strait of Malacca in the east which links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the Malacca Strait hosts India’s only tri-services command with a collaboration with Japan. The biggest challenge for India however, would be to maintain a balance between all major players as it is considered a common nation between the two rival axes or alliances. The Russia-India-China Strategic Triangle (perceived in 1998 by the then Russian Foreign Minister Primakov) developed on strategic axis mainly to counter- balance the unipolarism of the United States. In recent times India-US-Japan and recently India-Japan-Australia are cooperating in trade and security. India-Afghanistan-Iran and India-US-Afghanistan axis also appears to be strategically and politically antagonistic. Adding to this challenge the proposal to have a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between US, India, Japan and Australia, though seems to be of immediate security gains for all the members, it might also be a significant bid provoking China.

The recent revival of the quad according to the US could prove to be a strong move to boost for Asian rebalancing strategy. To recall here the proposal of the quad in 2007 could not sustain after its first meeting largely due to fears about China perceiving the grouping as containment. However, its revival might lead to a greater convergence of interests of the four Asia-Pacific giants, particularly in the wake of growing concerns about China’s rise.

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