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Changing alignments in East Asia

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)
Early indications about a Trump Presidency’s impact on partnerships in East Asia

Since Woodrow Wilson, the goal of American foreign policy has been to prevent regional hegemony.

believes Seth Cropsey, Director of the Centre for American Seapower at Hudson Institute. Assuming this was true, the goal is now being reconsidered seriously in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections. All through the election season, Trump has indicated that the next administration would be more inward-looking — provision of the common good of security, and promotion of free trade, will not be the guiding principles of US foreign policy anymore.

In the early days, the effects of this new strategy are most clearly visible in East Asia. After Obama decided to suspend efforts to pass his signature Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal through the Congress, Vietnam too will not ratify the deal in the national assembly anytime soon. Trump’s victory also caused panic in South Korea’s financial markets, prompting an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. Australia too followed suit — signalling support for Chinese-led Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.

The framework below gives an idea of how East Asian states are recalibrating their strategies over the past few weeks.

tpp-trump-duterte

Given that the US and China are overwhelmingly powerful in the region, bipolarity exists in East Asia. Further, there are two axes of alignments — political and economic. Based on their relationships with these two major powers, East Asian states can be assigned to one of the four quadrants. There are two bandwagon quadrants (where a state aligns with US or China both, politically and economically) and two hedging quadrants (where a state aligns with one major power in political engagements and aligns with the other in economic arrangements). Grey points indicate positions of East Asian states before Trump’s presidency and black points indicate recent shifts. I haven’t classified all the East Asian states in this framework, yet.

This framework indicates that countries like Australia and Philippines are already moving towards the hedging quadrants. With TPP faltering, a lot of states might follow the Australian trajectory —  economic alignment with China and play a waiting game on geopolitical alignment.

Countries such as North Korea and Japan will find the realignment tougher, and will look out for more options. Faster movement on India—Japan cooperation is an example. No surprises that a landmark nuclear deal between the two countries took place once it was clear that Trump would be the next US president.

Interesting days ahead for East Asia watchers. China can be expected to be strident in the days to come.

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

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No One Saw the Joint Statement

ASEAN adopted a rare tough stance on the South China Sea expressed in a Joint Statement and then immediately retracted it, indicating divisions amongst members.

by Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

There was a statement and then there wasn’t. The China-ASEAN Special Foreign Minister’s Meeting, organised after a gap of three years, was convened on June 14th to discuss relevant issues before the ASEAN-China Summit to be held later this year. After the meeting, Malaysia released a Joint Statement on behalf of ASEAN. The statement was remarkable because ASEAN seemed to have strayed away from diplomatic niceties and had taken a stern stance on the South China Sea. AFP reported that the statement read,

“We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea…We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea…We articulated ASEAN’s commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes…This includes “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the UN Charter…”

While the ASEAN refrains from mentioning China by name, the statement is important because it conveys the institution’s anxiety about the tensions in the South China Sea. Generally, the ASEAN calls for all parties to conform to the 2002 Code of Conduct and attempt to solve the issue peacefully. ASEAN does not directly take part in the conflict. Instead, it tries to act as a facilitator to resolve the conflict as it affects the national interests of several of its members and has implications for the whole region. As the South China Sea is an important shipping route, countries around the world are interested in ensuring the freedom of navigation in the areas.

Less than three hours later, the statement was retracted by the Malaysian government who said that it was not the official statement but the media guideline. Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia released individual official statements where they stressed the need for peaceful resolution of the dispute. Officials from Vietnam and Indonesia later said that the retracted statement was in line with the ASEAN standpoint.  The objection to the statement reportedly came from Laos (the current chairman of ASEAN) and Cambodia, both of whom share close relations with China. The episode evokes memories of the 2012 ASEAN Summit when the institution failed to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years due to Cambodia’s objection to inclusion of the South China Sea issue in the statement.

ASEAN’s success as a multilateral institution lay in its unanimity and consensus based decision making. However for the last few years, arriving at the ASEAN consensus is becoming increasingly divisive, particularly on the issue of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei-Darussalem (along with Taiwan) all have contesting claims to the boundaries of the South China Sea, most of which has been claimed by China under its ambiguous nine-dash line. As China began projects of land reclamation, construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, its military modernisation and increasingly assertive posture has worried the other claimants.

China is also using its bilateral relations with countries like Laos and Cambodia to undermine the multilateral consensus of the ASEAN. Some reports also debate if China’s ‘salami slicing strategy’ has now extended to Malaysia by leveraging its purchase of the debt ridden state entity, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (IMDB) reducing domestic pressure on Najib Razak in return for geopolitical payoffs. China denied the use of pressure either to influence ASEAN proceedings in this case or any others. The reasons behind the retraction of the rare tough stance taken by ASEAN remain unexplained. What it does indicate is that the ASEAN countries have failed to reconcile with a common viewpoint on the South China Sea issue.

The incident is also poignant because the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague is set to deliver a judgement on the second round of hearings on the arbitration proceedings initiated by Philippines in 2013. While China contests the validity of an arbitration proceeding, the decision will be an important geopolitical marker, depending on how different countries respond to it.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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India: A vital player in South China Sea

South China Sea is one of the most difficult and contentious maritime conflicts in the Asia Pacific. Several scholars have echoed the sentiments that the South China Sea conflict would be worst case threat to peace and stability in the region. The concerns are further strengthened with China’s continued military build up, despite the 2002 Joint Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea. China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea is of great concern especially with India unfolding its Act East Asia Policy.

The Modi Government has realised the importance of the South China Sea both in terms of its geo-economic and strategic interests. To further strengthen the relationship with South East Asian countries, India pledges to be a credible  security provider. At the  2014  East Asian Summit, India along with the United States and Vietnam affirmed its support to safeguard maritime security and freedom of navigation. Further, India has been very vocal in the settling the dispute through peaceful means and in a accordance with the UNCLOS.

south china sea

Several reasons have been attributed to India’s interest in the South China Sea (SCS) (1) The increased trade with East Asia and the sense for recognition on the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) from the Indian side beyond its geographical expanse and the importance of the Indo-Pacific region (2) Reducing dependency on the major powers for India’s avowed maritime needs (3) India’s fear of growing China’s assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region (4) The importance of forward maritime presence and naval partnership  is seen critical to deter India’s adversaries in the region (5) Securing the trade-transit route which passes through the South China Sea all vital to India’s growing trade, energy and security interests ( Raja C Mohan, Samudra Manthan).

As India unfolds its  maritime security posture and interest, there is a strong commitment from the Indian side to realign with several South East Asian countries. India is seen as a a vital player in the region, and Southeast Asian countries are keen to partner with India both economically and strategically. India’s inertia to expand towards to East unfolds, this is also a step to contain China’s expanding maritime interest. India’s participation in several East Asian forums is seen as a counter balance move initiated by the Southeast Asian countries. Thus India is welcomed as an external balancer along with the Untied States.

Indian Navy 2007 Doctrine defined “South China Sea as an area of strategic interest” for India and the recent Act East Asia strategy has further reiterated India’s commitment to move beyond the Indian Ocean into the South China Sea. At several occasions India stated that it could or would deploy India Navy to the South China Sea to defends its energy interests.

With India’s maritime discourse expanding and 55% of India’s trade passing through this region, it is imperative that India pursues its interest in the region. The Indo-Pacific trilateral with India, Japan and United States further revitalises India’s presence in the region. Thus the adoption of  the Indo-Pacific region into the strategic framework has cumulatively  summed up the  relevance of South China Sea for India.

Priya Suresh is a Research Scholar@Takshashila. Priya tweets @priyamanassa.

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