Renewed Asia alliance works to curb China’s regional ambitions

US President Donald Trump is touring Asia at a moment when the region’s security situation is practically white-hot. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognizing 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 behavior is set to continue, if not escalate. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last month effectively crowned President Xi Jinping as the country’s emperor. The move comes as Xi spearheads a more muscular foreign entente policy in service of his goal of establishing China as a global superpower.
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 a 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. India stands up to China in border dispute. This is not to say that no country has been able to challenge China. Just this summer, India stood up to its muscle-flexing neighbor in a ten-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 militarized artificial islands there.
In any case, securing a broader shift in China’s foreign policy and stabilizing 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 Beijing’s 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 defense 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.”
Australia may reconsider joining security group. So far, Australia has sought to avoid having to choose between its security ally, the US, and its main economic partner, China. Despite Defense 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.”

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

Source : Asia Times