After the Korean War, the United States proposed a NATO-type alliance, the ‘Pacific Pact’, with other Asian powers to counter the growing communist threat in Asia. This attempt failed. Because its Asian allies rejected the US offer to include Japan in the ‘Pacific Treaty.’ The United States considers Japan its closest ally and is a major non-NATO ally but has significant NATO contacts. The United States has several military bases in Japan, with the United States Seventh Fleet often anchored in Yokosuka.
The contours of the Indo-Pacific strategy of the Pentagon and the Biden administration are now emerging more clearly. Public comments from the administration’s figures indicate that the United States is maturing its presence by creating more formal and ad hoc regional alliances—such as the Quad, the ACAS—to balance China’s military power.
At the heart of the US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region is also the competition for influence in Southeast Asia. But beating the drum of ‘rules-based discipline’ or sounding the alarm over Chinese military and economic conditions has found less resonance among Southeast Asian postcolonial elites than Washington might have thought. Currently, regional countries do not want to accept anyone’s monopolistic approach to regional order, be it Washington or Beijing.
Some Southeast Asian countries see the ‘rules-based order’ talks as a necessary diplomatic cover to protect shared principles, but most see it as hollow and some personally see it as a bird of prey against China.
While China’s behavior may not be favorable to the region in all respects, the United States must consider its own responsibility for the deterioration of regional order. The Trump era has seen a hardening of the field, which is far from over. Many regional elites feel that the way the United States uses war-making, arms-selling, and lobbying tactics in the name of the global war on terrorism is fueling much resentment and mistrust.
Nor should Washington assume that regional states will unite to resist Chinese hegemony and create a European-style balance of power. In Asia, rather than balance of power, hierarchical, historically regional order structures can be analyzed more deeply.
At the moment, few leaders in Southeast Asia see China as the primary threat—military or otherwise. There is no regional consensus on the ‘China challenge’ nor is any one power ideologically or morally superior to the other.
With effective polarization in the region, it will not be possible to exclude China from all regional policy arenas and the possibility of the emergence of a European-style energy system will also be bright. Russia has put Eastern Europe and many European countries in economic jeopardy in the Ukraine war. As a result, protecting their own people from financial distress is now the main task of Europeans. Analysts believe that it will be a luxury for them to dominate Southeast Asia or help the United States. Moreover, Europeans are less used to spending cash.
Should China become more of a threat to every Southeast Asian nation in order to build a truly balanced alliance in the region? Why will China do that? China does not follow a carrot and stick policy like Washington. China provides support to regional countries in various economic activities, which are mutually beneficial. In this, China has quickly gained popularity in different parts of the world in a very short period of time. China does not foster or incite political parties within any country. Go ahead with the work of development and bilateral assistance with the incoming government. That is why many countries are slowly coming together under the umbrella of BRI. However, many problems remain in working with the government. Many times the opposition to the government faces major problems. Example Pakistan. Pakistan’s Gwadhar project and terrorist activities in Waziristan and the killing of Chinese employees are memorable. A strategy has also been adopted to anger China in the region. Since Trump capitalized on Taiwan, the game has been thrown into flames. But the cost of angering China is not small. Fresh from the war in Afghanistan, the West will quickly find it difficult to shoulder another burden of costs and send troops. It will be much easier for the West to strike with remote warfare tactics and other means, for now that is the way it is.
But cutting ties with China without a viable alternative would be strategic malpractice and folly. If not the US or China, who will lead the new alliance? Could middle powers such as India, Japan or Australia lead a new arrangement?
These forces have already taken sides in the US-China strategic competition. India will effectively participate in any anti-China front. India’s neighbors have seen from the SAARC experience that India is inept at managing alliances. They see their neighbors more politically than economically. As a result, the emerging SAARC faces a setback. Almost all countries have renewed support for China’s ‘One China’ policy. So no one will come forward under India’s leadership against China. Next is Australia. Unfortunately, through subdependence Australians lost much of their sovereignty to imperialist powers. As a result, neither India nor Australia is able to lead the alliance in this region. Japan simultaneously made China and Russia strategic enemies. So they can’t lead the way.
ASEAN can form an ideal multilateral diplomatic order, while the United States maintains the region’s military-security system and China strengthens the economic order. Mini lateral groupings such as quads and occus will make this environment more fragile.
Regional order depends primarily on how regional elites define and protect their internal legitimacy. It is time to find the local drivers of regional order. Instead of reinventing the wheel of new policy initiatives, the United States could work with regional powers such as Japan and multilateral institutions under ASEAN.
The US is all set to shift its failed strategic workshop in Afghanistan to the East. This is what Joe Biden’s reasoning behind the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in October 2021 implied. Since the Vietnam War, the United States has built up large military bases in the region: for example, 50,000 in Japan, 30,000 in South Korea, and 5,000 in Guam. US military presence in the Philippines has its own history.
The US has failed miserably to counter China in the entire South China Sea. It is a marginal sea in the western Pacific Ocean, earning its name by touching the shores of South China, which China claims as its own. The South China Sea is rich in natural resources, with an archipelago consisting of isolated islands. It is surrounded by the islands of the Indochinese Peninsula, Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei, Sumatra or Indonesia and has sea water connections with the East China Sea such as Taiwan, the Philippine Sea through the Luzon Strait, the Sulu Sea through the Straits near Palawan, the Strait of Malacca through the Straits of Singapore, Chromata. And the Java Sea through the Bangka Strait. Two gulfs, the Gulf of Thailand and the Gulf of Tonkin, are also part of the South China Sea. One-third of global shipping, worth $3.38 trillion, goes through the South China Sea. This sea has touched almost all parts of the ASEAN countries. China has already built many military installations on its artificial islands. The region is strategically important to both the US and China. Both are ready to adopt any policy to gain influence.
China is moving ahead and investing heavily in small oceanic states to create an economic corridor. There are no barriers to trade in their manufactured goods and Chinese industrial goods. Australia increased its trade with China and emerged as its largest two-way trading partner, accounting for nearly one-third or 31 percent of global trade in goods and services. China is able to influence Australia’s media and higher education systems and, to a lesser extent, its defense and strategic establishment. Currently there is low tide.
It is estimated that 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas can be found in the subsea seas. Both of these ocean treasures are largely controlled by China, but other claimants are also claiming some of the resources. The Philippines, one of the biggest victims in the immediate region. On the other hand, other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia continue to express their complaints to China from time to time. The overall situation is that ASEAN is a silent spectator in the region. Now Aucas is creating a power bloc in the Indo-Pacific region by experts in international relations that only targets China.
The United States has 800 military bases in the world. There is much to admire about the United States, but there are several things that cause concern. The country is almost always at war. Many say that war is the driving force behind America’s economy. Washington could sell billions of dollars worth of arms if there is a war. America has been at war 93 percent of the time since its independence in 1776. America is involved in overthrowing governments around the world and seeks to change governments through the Yellow Revolution.
The US has always turned to the world for its own interests. Australia has sought US intervention in the region through the Trilateral Alliance citing insecurity in the South China Sea. The move is one step in President Biden’s pledge not to allow China to dominate anywhere in the world.
Not only has the alliance’s defense spending not expanded even as ASEAN has knocked on China’s door, the countries have numerous maritime disputes among themselves. In these hostile circumstances, no major alliance like NATO was formed in Asia.
Author: Retired Joint Secretary and Librarian