The Indo-Pacific: Ideological Polarity of a New Cold War?

World development and national growth are inextricably linked. A nation may grow at the expense of other nations in the short run but growth can be sustained only in a rules-based international order. Despite the ongoing ramblings against globalization, it is prudent to focus on rules-based international development and to formalise accountability of all nations to international law.

Within the confines of a nation’s territory, there exists a strong positive relationship between national development and the enforcement of the rule of law. Similarly, abiding by international laws and conventions provides an essential fillip to international development. However, growing tension in international politics due to the rise of China and the heralding of a New Cold War hints towards an imminent threat to rules-based international order. How should the liberal world order respond to an increasingly assertive authoritarian China with little regard for international law?

China’s growth has been a cause of concern among its maritime neighbours like Vietnam or the Philippines and continental neighbours like India. Rise of China has fueled an entrenched security dilemma among its neighbours and global powers alike because its rise is accompanied by rising territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS). Furthermore, China’s growing footprints in SCS threatens the fundamentals of a rules-based international order, Freedom of Navigation (FON).

At the core of the conflict lies the region of Western Pacific Ocean where the Chinese intend to drive the US out of their forward position to achieve full control over the illegally claimed maritime territories in the SCS. Despite the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016 in the Philippines vs China case, the Chinese have continued to be obstinate about their claims.

The unanimous ruling of the international tribunal rejected China’s claims about historic rights over the SCS as such claims were incompatible with international law and, therefore, illegal. Furthermore, the tribunal upheld all the claims of the Philippines except claims regarding the status of Graven reef and McKennan reef. As a result, China was found to violate the sovereign rights of the Philippines. The environmentally-damaging and sovereignty-infringing Chinese constructions in the SCS also amounted to aggravation of conflict when the matter remained sub-judice.

The intrinsic value of the precedent set in international law by the ruling is accentuated by the fact that it was a unanimous verdict. However, China has demonstrated disdain for the judgement by declaring that the verdict of the PCA was nothing more than “a piece of scrap paper”. China has only further aggravated the conflict in the SCS since the PCA ruling.

SCS is not the only arena where the Chinese disregard for international cooperation has come to the fore. The lack of transparency about the global spread of COVID-19 pandemic and China’s bid to punish nations that seek accountability has unmasked its real character. Furthermore, deepening of control over Hong Kong, aggressive maritime manoeuvres against Taiwan, and opportunistic misadventures across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in India are testaments of China’s expansionist urges at a time when the world needs more cooperation than China needs territorial expansion.

China’s aggressive activities in each of these arenas have invited strong statements from the US. Consequently, the Chinese have accused the US of pushing the world on the brink of a New Cold War. The world is faced with an increasingly assertive China with little regard for the sovereignty of its neighbours and FON in the Western Pacific in general and in SCS in particular.

The Chinese hardball diplomacy pushes the countries of Indo-Pacific to ponder over the mechanism to rein in China. Reining in China will depend on enhancing security cooperation among Indo-Pacific countries, particularly the Quad, and cutting international economic dependence on China.

First, cooperation in the field of maritime security is a sine qua non for maintaining FON in the Indo-Pacific. Owing to the vast geographical stretch of the Indo-Pacific, only joint efforts by all the Quad countries can shore up their ability to exercise sea control or, at least, sea denial to powers that infringe upon the rights of other countries to FON. However, the Quad countries need to be mindful of the concerns of the individual countries concerning China. For instance, while India shares a vast stretch of a continental boundary with the Chinese, the other Quad countries mainly face a maritime threat only. Uncomfortable questions like “how would the Quad respond in case of a continental misadventure by the Chinese against India if India is perceived to be extending support to rein in China in the Indian Ocean?” need to be satisfactorily answered. India is going to be a crucial pillar of the Quad in the Indo-Pacific and the Quad must understand India’s apprehensions regarding the continental domain. Thus, an extensive security dialogue to rein in China can achieve its goals only when it is mindful of the concerns that individual countries may have.

However, a security alliance is challenging to achieve in the short run because the Chinese will exploit the apprehensions of individual countries to its advantage. Furthermore, most countries have voluminous bilateral trade with China, which can be reduced only in the long run and that too only with a concerted approach by all the Indo-Pacific governments. For instance, the persistent military manoeuvre of the Chinese across the LAC may be construed as a perpetual warning against India’s growing proximity with the Indo-Pacific countries, especially the Quad, which China perceives as a threat. Thus, a seemingly less apparent and a percipient economic strategy is likely to pay off in reining in China in the long run.

Second, the global community needs to cooperate on diversifying the global supply chains and to shift industrial units out of China. The COVID-19 pandemic can be utilised as an opportunity to diversify supply chains and shift industries out of countries that are unlikely to be transparent when it comes to crucial information sharing and intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement. Thus, a coordinated approach by governments that value transparency to distribute the supply chains currently concentrated in China to all over the Indo-Pacific, particularly in India and South East Asia, would be a welcome step.

Japan has already taken a step in the right direction by allocating $2.2 billion as an incentive for industries that are willing to shift their base out of China. Still, countries like Japan and Australia may rethink if joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would help their cause in the long run given that Chinese manufacturing goods will dominate an RCEP bereft of India. RCEP may also enhance the dependence of Japanese and Australian industries on Chinese goods. Furthermore, if Japan and Australia back out of RCEP, it will not hamper their trade with ASEAN with which both the countries have Free Trade Agreements (FTA). 

Thus, it would be prudent for the countries of the Indo-Pacific to envisage greater cooperation between like-minded nations that value transparency in trading relations. It is also essential to insulate the world from future shocks like the COVID-19 shock by reducing dependence on Chinese supply chains. A risk-mitigated, transparent and equitable relationship between countries is the need of this hour.

While pushing for enhanced economic cooperation among governments that are transparent and open, the world can gradually cut its dependence on Chinese manufacturing and industrial goods. This will enhance the preparedness of countries of the Indo-Pacific to deal with an increasingly assertive and law-flouting China both in the economic and the security realm. China is expanding at the expense of the rules-based international order and thus sowing the seeds of an entrenched security dilemma in the Indo-Pacific region.

The solution of reining in China lies in the execution of the ideology behind globalisation, which is trade and security cooperation between nations that value transparency, liberal values, and FON above all.

The ideological factors driving the wedge between the West, particularly the US, and China are centred around China’s lack of transparency in all aspects of international relations including the Belt and Road Initiative and the resultant competition between the West and China. Furthermore, the growing intensity of Chinese government-led surveillance over Chinese citizens and foreign entities alike has emerged as a global cause of concern. An ideological split between China and the West came to the fore after a group of democratic countries ardently criticized the Chinese government for the inhumane treatment of the Uighurs through a government-led mass suppression campaign. Furthermore, the Chinese government is being increasingly criticized for use of 5G technology for enhancing surveillance over global entities, including global government entities.

The contours of the emerging ideological conflict are yet to take a definite shape. The ideological chasm is yet to be as clearly defined as in the First Cold War. However, an ideological wedge is emerging complementary to the strategic competition between China and the US. Consequently, the Western powers and the Indo-Pacific powers may increasingly have to start taking sides based not only on strategic calculations but also on ideological dispossessions.

Doesn’t the ideological polarity of a New Cold War seem imminent when the incongruence of Chinese values with the liberal status quo is burgeoning? The question remains as yet unanswerable but the world must keep a hawk’s eye over the emerging ideological dimensions as well.

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