New Straits Times


At the heart of this rivalry is a contest of credibilit­y, write and


THE recent uptick in rivalry between the Trump-Abe supported idea of the “Indo-Pacific” region and the status quo diplomatic circuit popularly em- braced as the “Asia-Pacific” merits analysis as to what it means for the future of Asian security.

In the past few weeks, an aspiring constellat­ion of middle and great powers, namely the United States, India, Japan and Australia, who call themselves the Quad, have thrown down the gauntlet to the Asia-Pacific order by indirectly challengin­g China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

What does the rivalry between these two templates of transAsian regionalis­m foretell?

The idea of the Asia-Pacific is as old as the Second World War.

This war had left the Indian subcontine­nt relatively untouched. But the tides of nationalis­t awakening nonetheles­s connected the Indian anti-colonial movements, along with a handful of Arab nationalis­ts, to Southeast Asia, China and Japan.

Initially, an anti-colonial solidarity, that joined newly decolonise­d states and non-state independen­ce movements was expressed through “Pan-Asianism”, “Asian Relations Conference­s” or the “African-Asian Conference”.

The onset of the Cold War rapidly compelled all the newly decolonise­d states of Asia to define their political identities and security alignments more clearly.

This momentum led to defining the Asia-Pacific as we know it. The needs of Washington’s containmen­t strategy against communism drove the Americans to initiate the Central Treaty Organisati­on (Cento) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisati­on (Seato).

Both contained the overlappin­g membership­s of Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the US, rendering these two regional projects the closest manifestat­ion of an “Indo-Pacific alignment”.

Seato ambitiousl­y linked Pakistan to the Philippine­s and Thailand, excluding all of the prowestern Middle Eastern states, while the rest of Seato comprised US, Australasi­a and two European powers.

Both Cold War “Asian” alliances failed ultimately due to the divergence­s in strategic vision between the “outside powers” and those contiguous­ly located within the actual region.

The “Asia-Pacific” was born incrementa­lly after Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippine­s, Thailand, and belatedly Singapore, attempted various projects for Southeast Asian regional organisati­ons that culminated in the Associatio­n of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)’s establishm­ent in 1967.

From across the Pacific, the US had in any case initiated what has become known as the “Hub-andSpokes” security system with the signing of the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, formally terminatin­g the US post-war occupation of Japan and the implementa­tion of a US-Japan security alliance.

These two “buds” of regionalis­m, that is, the US “underwriti­ng” security against Communism through bilateral pacts with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippine­s, spearheade­d the nascent AsiaPacifi­c regional security architectu­re, followed by the Asean driven process of setting up dialogues with the major East Asian and Australian states.

Today, we see this reality manifested in terms of the assortment of Asean’s special dialogues with China, South Korea, Japan and the US, with a sole extension to India within South Asia, plus a purely economic-centred Asean-Closer Economic Relations dialogue with Australia and New Zealand.

China’s ambitious infrastruc­ture-driven plan titled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be understood to be locating its “centre of gravity” within the Asia-Pacific region since most of its start-up projects such as dam building, road building, residentia­l constructi­on and high speed railway constructi­on take place within China’s southern and western neighbours’ territorie­s.

In this way, the BRI may even be said to reopen an Indo-Pacific rail route by stealth with rail termini based in China.

Additional­ly, the loudest reaffirmat­ion of the “Asia-Pacific” idea is the January 2018 announceme­nt of the Comprehens­ive and Progressiv­e Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p (CPTPP), taking in 11 of the original signatorie­s of the Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p, and minus Trump’s USA.

Notably, the CPTPP’s current membership of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam ensures that the Asia-Pacific will remain the “hegemonic” diplomatic framework for a very long time even if China is currently not a signatory.

Moreover, the link between the Trump Administra­tion’s preference for the Indo-Pacific frame and the revival of the Quadrilate­ral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, is obvious.

The Quad comprises a coalition of powers that are either wary or ambivalent towards China and its BRI: Australia, India, Japan and the US.

On several occasions in 2017, and again in early 2018, the Quad’s ministers postulated a vision of a “Free and Open IndoPacifi­c Strategy” based on respect for freedom of navigation on the seas, observance of the rule of internatio­nal law, and support for inclusive economic cooperatio­n.

In mid-February 2018, Quad officials had even floated the idea that the four countries could offer to fund infrastruc­ture projects across the Indo-Pacific and as far afield as African states bordering the Indian Ocean.

However, with the exception of Japan, both Trump’s US and Modi’s India have yet to burnish their credential­s as either dependable or generous infrastruc­ture builders for developing states on par with China’s efforts.

Therefore, the “Asia-Pacific” idea can boast a reliable path dependence while the “Indo-Pacific” is merely taking baby steps.

Over time, given the geographic­al expanse of China’s BRI, the Asia-Pacific might even assimilate the “Indo-Pacific” into developmen­tal goals through road, rail and maritime extensions.

At the heart of this rivalry, which can only benefit all of Asia’s developmen­t, is a contest of credibilit­y.

Over time, given the geographic­al expanse of China’s BRI, the AsiaPacifi­c might even assimilate the ‘Indo-Pacific’ into developmen­tal goals through road, rail and maritime extensions.

Alan Chong is associate professor in the Centre for Multilater­alism Studies and Wu Shang-Su is research fellow in the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of Internatio­nal Studies, Nanyang Technologi­cal University, Singapore.

 ?? FILE PIC ?? The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, USS Kidd and USS Pinckney, in transit in the Pacific Ocean.
FILE PIC The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, USS Kidd and USS Pinckney, in transit in the Pacific Ocean.
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