Renewed talks rock Beijing’s boat
The resurrection this week of USIndia-Japan-Australia quadrilateral talks has generated considerable coverage in India — whose media tend to portray India as engaged in constant rivalry with China — but less interest in the US and Japan.
The term “Indo-Pacific” routinely used by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has this week become identified with the reforming of this informal grouping.
The most prominent coverage in Chinese media was a commentary by former Australian ambassador Geoff Raby published in the English version of the Global Times. Raby says the group is “a bad idea, a very bad idea” whose original purpose was “to contain China”. “It is a potentially dangerous response to China’s ascendancy, and flies in the face of more than 30 years of Australian policy engagement with China,” he says.
Under the weight of the geopolitical realities, he says, “and the internal contradictions of the quad” its first iteration a decade ago “disappeared, along with Abe, Bush and Howard”.
Beijing, he says, still “cannot fathom why a country that has benefited so much from China’s prosperity would wish to join a group, as Beijing sees it, intended to contain China”.
When he was first Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe initiated the concept, delivering a speech to the Indian parliament in 2007 titled “A confluence of the two seas”. He later named the US and Australia as potential partners, “spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean”. After Kevin Rudd became prime minister four months later Australia started to reject the concept.
The day after Mr Abe returned to power in December 2012, he wrote an article commending again “Asia’s democratic security diamond” and has begun to promote it more actively recently.
This week officials of the four countries met in the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in The Philippines, and the leaders of the US, Japan and Australia met briefly, before India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived.
Mr Modi, while developing a close relationship with Mr Abe, has appeared reluctant to test China with which India is a partner in the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) grouping, and with which a dangerous border confrontation was recently settled.
Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said when questioned about the quad: “India is open to working with like-minded countries on issues that advance our interests and promote our viewpoint. We are not rigid in this regard.”
He said that India was involved in several trilateral groups already, including with Russia and China, with Sri Lanka and the Maldives, with US and Japan, with Japan and Australia, and with Afghanistan and Iran.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said following the officials’ quad meeting that regional visions and proposals “should be open and inclusive, and conducive to enhancing win-win co-operation. Politicised and exclusionary ones should be avoided”,
He said: “We hope that such relations would not target a third party,” implying China.
Doug Paal, the vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, who was director of Asian Affairs for US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W Bush, said in Beijing that “so far, the Indo-Pacific strategy seems a hollow slogan”.
He said that the Indo-Pacific concept seeking to enlist India to balance China “implies you’re either with us or against us, and people in this region don’t want to be asked such a question”.
He believed that US President Donald Trump had “grabbed the idea because they’re short of thoughts within the system” about developing America’s regional role.
“How the US maintains its security commitments to its allies in a security environment where it is no longer dominant is an enormously challenging problem. I’d anticipate that a balance of power will be one outcome,” he said.
But he ruled out the prospect of the development of a NATOtype arrangement in the region opposed to China.
If China’s behaviour became really unruly or difficult they will bandwagon against it, but absent that their commercial linkages with China will be too great to consider antagonising Beijing.
Politics professor Rohan Mukherjee at Yale-NUS College said that the quad seemed like an effort to pass on the costs of containing China to regional actors. “Without greater constructive leadership from Washington, the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ is likely to remain a catchy slogan whose time has passed.”