Shangri-La Dialogue: Negotiating the Indo-Pacific security landscape

Asean and the Quad need to rise to the challenges if this strategic vision is to work.

Defence leaders from the region and beyond are gathering in Singapore this weekend to discuss the challenges to security in the region. Underlying many of their discussions will be the notion of the "Indo-Pacific", a term that has a new lease of life under the Trump administration.

On Thursday, the US Pacific Command or "Pacom," a unified combatant command of the US Armed Forces responsible for the greater Pacific, was after more than 70 years renamed the Indo-Pacific Command.

The increased currency of the term "Indo-Pacific", over the geographically more limited "Asia-Pacific", places India front and centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's keynote address at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue will be scrutinised for the role New Delhi is willing to play, the principles it values, and the actions it is willing to take in defence of them.

While India has adopted a more active regional role under Mr Modi, its traditional non-alignment policy constrains deeper security ties.

RETURN OF THE QUAD

India, Australia, Japan and the United States are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic partnership Japan's Shinzo Abe initiated in 2007 during his first term as prime minister. The Quad, as it is commonly known, was short-lived. Then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd withdrew in 2008 amid Beijing's complaints that the grouping was unfriendly.

Almost a decade later, the Quad has risen from the dead, though whether it walks is still anyone's guess. Last November, senior officials from Quad countries met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila to discuss ways to achieve common goals and overcome challenges in the "Indo-Pacific".

Sailors on flight deck duty as an FA-18 hornet fighter jet took off during routine training aboard US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea in April. As defence officials gather to discuss some of the Indo-Pacific's most pressing
Sailors on flight deck duty as an FA-18 hornet fighter jet took off during routine training aboard US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea in April. As defence officials gather to discuss some of the Indo-Pacific's most pressing problems, the writer says we must not forget that solutions lie not only in the security realm, but also in the economic, legal and diplomatic spheres. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MORE THAN JUST A NAME

To stand still amid vast changes to the strategic environment in the hope that this will somehow maintain "Asean centrality" is likely futile, no more viable than seeking to stand firm atop a dune when the sands beneath are fast shifting.

The choice of terminology is more than semantic. It points to the geographic area of concern - it is more precise in its focus than "Asia" or "Asia-Pacific"; the relevant state and institutional actors; and the strategic concepts and actions these actors are likely to adopt. It reflects important energy, trade and investment ties with the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

The "Indo-Pacific" terminology also captures the integral link between the Indian and the Pacific oceans as one strategic theatre - Australia and Japan have long thought about the region in these terms. Both Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the then Japanese defence minister Tomomi Inada spoke of the "Indo-Pacific" at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year; US Secretary of Defence James Mattis was at that point still speaking of the "Asia-Pacific", though that is likely to change this year.

Further, focusing on the oceans underscores the growing significance of the maritime domain: Regional security is largely, though not exclusively, maritime security. China's and India's interests increasingly span the globe and their military and naval strategies have evolved to reflect this.

For instance, China's 2015 Military Strategy highlighted the need to shift to a combination of "offshore waters defence" and "open seas protection". China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa two years later.

BIGGER STRATEGIC POND

Apart from being a salient analytical tool, the Indo-Pacific concept also has tangible implications, not least for the balance of power. Adding the Indian Ocean to the mix dilutes China's influence: it increases the size of the pond and adds other fish that are less amenable to swimming to its tune.

Buy-in to the "Indo-Pacific", with its nod to the Quad, sends a clear message that powers, apart from the US, are committed to a rules-based order and international law. The credibility of this message ultimately depends on how the Indo-Pacific is operationalised and whether Quad members step up to the plate.

There are more questions than answers at this stage, including whether the Quad will survive any changes in government. But the revitalised "Indo-Pacific" and Quad are already unnerving Beijing.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has dismissed the "Indo-Pacific" as an "attention-grabbing idea" that will "dissipate like ocean foam". He also expressed hope that the Quad was not targeting China.

Beijing's propensity to equate statements and acts seeking to bolster a rules-based order or international law as anti-China is unfortunate.

Most countries in the region want friendly relations with China, but Beijing's sensitivity to support for international law puts them in a difficult position.

This sensitivity, Beijing's actions in the East and South China Seas, and influence operations elsewhere, lead to reservations about the rising power.

MAINTAINING ASEAN CENTRALITY

Wariness about the "Indo-Pacific" is not limited to China. Asean has questioned what it means for its centrality and has adopted a "wait and see" approach. Some senior diplomats expect the idea to fizzle out as it did in the past.

But if Asean is to have any hope of maintaining centrality, it needs to be more proactive in its support of a rules-based order and initiatives that seek to defend it. Without such an order, Asean will be unable to withstand external pressures and Asean centrality will almost certainly be a myth.

With the US distracted elsewhere, Asean and its member states are succumbing to pressure in the South China Sea and seeing their foreign policy options narrow.

In the past year, Asean averted its gaze as Beijing threatened both Vietnam and the Philippines with military action when they sought to explore and exploit oil and gas in their own exclusive economic zones.

An arbitral tribunal confirmed in July 2016 that China had no valid competing claims in the South China Sea. But Hanoi reportedly buckled because it feared Washington did not have its back.

In the longer term, the problem might not only be US will, but also its capabilities. The gap between US and Chinese capabilities in areas that will be future game changers, such as artificial intelligence, is narrowing. The Indo-Pacific and Quad, which pools the strengths of other important democracies, could be the best hope of sustaining a rules-based order.

Asean must articulate how it could contribute to the broader Indo-Pacific framework or risk its interests not being taken into account.

Indonesia's recent unveiling of the "Indo-Pacific cooperation concept" is a positive first step, particularly given Indonesia's key role in Asean and location in the Indo-Pacific.

To stand still amid vast changes to the strategic environment in the hope that this will somehow maintain "Asean centrality" is likely futile, no more viable than seeking to stand firm atop a dune when the sands beneath are fast shifting.

The Quad and other like-minded partners can promote the "Indo-Pacific" vision by working closely with Asean and its member states, particularly the maritime countries whose support is operationally critical.

ALTERNATIVE TO BRI

Insofar as the Indo-Pacific is a counter to China's Belt and Road Initiative, it needs a stronger economic dimension. The possibility of a trade war between China and the US causes anxiety in the region. Reports of Quad leaders considering a new global infrastructure scheme hold out hope, but a plan must be developed quickly and enunciated well.

The ambitious Belt and Road, whatever one's concerns, is a masterpiece in marketing and has momentum on its side. Whether it achieves even a fraction of what it sets out to do, it is already changing the region's dynamics.

Finally, continental South-east Asia must not be forgotten. Its developmental needs make it particularly vulnerable. Beijing has promised funding for over 130 projects in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation grouping, further integrating Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam into its economy.

Diplomats from Asean like to remind the world that, for the region, economics is security. As defence officials gather to discuss some of the Indo-Pacific's most pressing problems - the North Korean crisis, China's actions in the South China Sea - we must not forget that solutions lie not only in the security realm, but also in the economic, legal and diplomatic spheres.

A comprehensive, coordinated response to maintaining a rules-based order, including adherence to international law, is imperative. A proper framework in the form of the Indo-Pacific is but a starting point in what will be a long process requiring clarity of vision, sustained attention, and effort involving trade-offs and sacrifices.

• Dr Lynn Kuok is an IISS South-east Asian Young Leader at the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore from June 1 to 3. She is also a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge and an associate fellow at IISS-Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2018, with the headline 'Negotiating the Indo-Pacific security landscape'. Print Edition | Subscribe