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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The Indo-Pacific is all a-churn in response to Joe Biden’s victory

The region’s geostrategic and trade dynamics are already in flux and may throw up opportunities for India to capitalize on

As the Indo-Pacific gears up to welcome the Joe Biden Presidency, underlying structural factors are asserting their primacy. Unlike in the past, the region is not in a wait-and-watch mode for Washington to set its own house in order and reveal its priorities. There is already a churn that is shaping the geostrategic landscape in the region. This month’s multilateral engagements underscored this fact in more ways than one.

Two years after the Chinese President Xi Jinping and US vice-president Mike Pence traded barbs in back-to-back Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, the Chinese President asserted this year at the APEC summit that China won’t engage in decoupling of economies. It was a pointed reference to US President Donald Trump’s policy of ushering in strategic decoupling from China just days after the region inaugurated the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which accounts for 30% of the world’s economy and one-third of its population. Beijing has repeatedly pointed out that Washington is missing in action on the economic front with America’s absence from RCEP.

It was left to US national security advisor Robert O’Brien to reaffirm the US’s longstanding commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in this vision. The strategic push from the US in the region is quite explicit, with suggestions for the establishment of a new fleet closer to the intersection of the Indian and Pacific oceans and America’s participation in the annual Malabar naval exercises in the northern Arabian Sea involving Australia, India and Japan.

America along with its closest allies, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand—the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group—also pushed back against Beijing for imposing new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong, warning that China’s action was a clear breach of its international obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

China’s ties with regional players such as Australia continue to witness a downward spiral, with Beijing suggesting that some people in Australia adhere to a Cold War mentality, harbour ideological prejudice, regard China’s development as a threat, and have then made a series of wrong moves related to China, describing these factors as the “root cause" for worsening relations between the two countries. Canberra has taken a robust posture vis-à-vis China’s overweening attitude by not only banning Huawei from building its 5G network but also calling for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit this month to Tokyo saw the two nations signing a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that will allow troops from the two countries to train and conduct joint military operations, the first such agreement for Japan since it signed a status of forces agreement in 1960. America’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien has been visiting countries in the region like Vietnam and the Philippines, underlining concerns about Chinese actions to prevent Vietnam from tapping into offshore resources and building frayed ties with Manila.

Yet at a time when the incoming Biden administration’s policies are yet to be clearly articulated, hedging is still the name of the game. Japan and South Korea will be hosting the Chinese foreign minister this week as part of Beijing’s attempts to reach out to some key players in the region before Washington makes a move. Japan has also signalled that it will try to expand the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade pact, given the interest shown by China and the UK in joining the pact.

There is some expectation that Biden would try to renegotiate the TPP but he has not committed to rejoining the trade pact, which the Trump administration had previously abandoned. His campaign was categorical that “we [the Democrats] will not negotiate any new trade deals before first investing in American competitiveness at home."

China is not expecting any major change in American policies under Biden apart from style. As the Global Times has argued “China should not harbour any illusions that Biden’s election will ease or bring a reversal to China-US relations." The extent to which Trump has managed to change the China discourse in the US can be gauged from former US president Bill Clinton’s recent suggestion that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s long-term reign has upended US-China relations and would require Biden’s incoming administration and its allies to take a more coordinated approach to dealing with Beijing. It was Bill Clinton who was the architect of the integrationist approach towards China in the 1990s, a posture that dramatically altered the global balance of power in China’s favour.

The Indian response to this flux is being shaped by its own struggle with Chinese expansionism along the Himalayan border. New Delhi is pushing back on multiple fronts and seems more cognisant than ever of the need to build its own economic, military and diplomatic sinews. As the churn in the waters of the Indo-Pacific becomes stronger, India’s own choices are getting sharper with all the concomitant challenges as well as opportunities such a situation generates. It is for Indian policymakers to manage the challenges and to make the most of the opportunities.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London

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