By, P. K. Balachandran/Sunday Observer
Colombo, April 2: In a strong pitch for Indo-Pacific unity against China, Dr. David Brewster of the Australian National University told a gathering at the Bandaranaike Institute of International Studies (BCIS) here on March 25, that to have a “sustainable” foreign policy, Sri Lanka should not assume a “neutral” stance in the strictest sense of the term.
Giving an example of flawed Sri Lankan neutrality, Brewster cited the plan to make the Chinese-run Colombo Financial City (Port City) a hub to service the Indian financial sector. He wondered if it was realistic to expect India to use a Chinese-run hub given its rivalry with Beijing in this region.
Brewster said that Sri Lanka has to realistically assess the competing interests of the powers operating in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. It should give importance not only to economic relations but to security dimension also, as both dimensions are intertwined, he added.
Rivalries and Ambitions
However, he did concede that countries in Asia are wary about the rivalries and ambitions of the major global/regional powers operating in the region. These countries, especially the small ones, dread to be arenas of Big Powers’ armed conflicts.
But the solution to the problem is not to ignore these and pursue an individualistic “national interest”. It would be prudent to take a broad regional view incorporating larger geopolitical concerns and cooperate with other countries in specifically designed bilateral/trilateral and multilateral agreements to serve one’s national interest, he said.
Giving an example of such a multifarious approach, Brewster said that Australia has a multiplicity of inter-state agreements apart from being part of the Quad Alliance with US, Japan and India.
In his view, it would be prudent for Sri Lanka to specifically factor into its economic and strategic policies, India’s sensitivities and interests even as it engages with China in pursuance of its national interest. Geography dictates this line, he said.
While there is a strong move on the part of the US, Japan and Australia to see the Indo-Pacific region as an integral unit, the countries included in the region have different notions of what constitutes their region. They also have different notions of the “national interest”, Brewster said.
The West and its allies see the Indo-Pacific states as being a counter to an unbridled China. But not all States in the region have such a sweeping notion of the region or its relations with China. Sri Lanka for example, is unable to share the US view that it should break off economic and political ties with China.
China has been the biggest bilateral investor in Sri Lanka since the end of the 30-year war. Additionally, Sri Lankan Governments have been seeing China as a counterpoise to the US and India, which, unlike China, try to influence it on governance issues such as human rights and devolution of power.
Writing in the Brewster-edited 2016 volume: Indo-Pacific Maritime Security: Challenges and Cooperation, Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution in India, says that since the end of the Cold War, India has scrupulously resisted allowing its engagement with one country be seen as being directed against another. It has pursued a strategic partnership with Washington since the early 2000s signing significant defence agreements.
But at the same time, despite a longstanding border dispute, India has participated in Chinese-led initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), seen as an alternative to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). And despite an ugly clash on the border, India-China bilateral trade is now worth US$ 115 billion.
As for China, it has taken a hostile line on India both on the border issue and on the issue of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This has pushed India into American arms and the acceptance of the concept of the Indo-Pacific.
Economic Cost of War
However, both India and China have avoided a shooting war, as both sides clearly see the economic cost of a 1962-type of full-blown war. But the Sino-Indian reluctance to go to war is a dampener for US plans or a militarised Indo-Pacific.
Be that as it may, India is preparing to counter China in the East as its “Look East” policy adopted in 1992 envisages maritime linkages with the South East and East Asia markets, across the Straits of Malacca. This entails ensuring maritime security against a possible Chinese challenge.
However, India’s countervailing policy is balanced, said Pai. India sees the value of low-cost Chinese financing and technical assistance in accelerating development in the region. But, at the same time, it is also “keen to see that such infrastructure does not end up creating discriminatory rules of access, create political economies that undermine the aspirations of the people of those countries, or indeed create permanent damage to the regional ecosystem”.
On the security front, India is apprehensive about Chinese military facilities being surreptitiously built in its maritime neighbourhood. Pai said that India would prefer multiple Belts and Roads and not just one Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or One Belt One Road (OBOR).
India is itself planning international infrastructure projects and would like the Quad to support it. But the US and the rest of the Quad see the organisation as being essentially security-related.
According to Pai, the lack of a consensus on China in ASEAN is also worrying India. Perhaps due to the disunity over China in ASEAN, India is strengthening bilateral ties with individual ASEAN countries.
Writing on ASEAN, Prof. Carlyle A. Thayer of the University of New South Wales asserts that ASEAN, “as an organisation” will not take sides in the strategic rivalry between China and the US in the South China Sea.
ASEAN and China signed an agreement in November 2002 that said: “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences constructively.”
Tensions in the South China Sea are a product of the claims and actions by China and the littoral states, namely, the Philippines and Vietnam. Tensions have arisen due to China’s construction of infrastructure on its artificial islands in the Spratlys Chain and an “action-reaction cycle” precipitated by US’s Freedom of Navigation (FON) movements and China’s kinetic responses.
Because of the 1992 deal with China, ASEAN will stick to its position that all disputes should be settled without the threat or use of force and on the basis of international law, Thayer said. But this may not suit the US always.
Prof. Thayer said that “ASEAN’s centrality is important for regional peace and security. It is not in the interests of China or the United States to oppose a unified ASEAN. ASEAN Members have reached a consensus on the importance of ASEAN’s centrality in their declaratory policy statements.
China advocates a dual-track approach in the settlement of territorial disputes, Prof. Thayer said. “The first track consists of negotiations between the parties directly concerned, while the second track promotes China and ASEAN jointly managing security in the South China Sea. But in practice, China has not been averse to playing on differences within ASEAN to block any initiative or policy that goes against its interests.”
“Achieving ASEAN centrality is a difficult work-in-progress and this leads individual ASEAN members on occasion to work outside the ASEAN framework when they feel frustrated by ASEAN inaction.”
Therefore, the development of the Indo-Pacific as an identifiable “geopolitical region” is, at best, work-in-progress. It has many obstacles to overcome before it becomes a meaningful entity in geopolitics.