The future of Indo-Pacific order need not be solely determined by US-China relations, writes Tsutomu Kikuchi. Strengthening the resilience of regional states can lead to an inclusive and shared rules-based order.
Contrary to the predictions of international affairs experts that US-China relations will determine the future international order of the Indo-Pacific, the region is now in a transitional phase towards an inclusive and pluralistic regional order in which the region's diverse group of states will also play important roles to maintain and strengthen the rules-based regional order. Our challenge is to manage this transition without military conflict or other disruptions. Key to this is the promotion of collective efforts to further enhance the national resilience of regional countries.
The intensification of the US-China rivalry has led to prophesised scenarios of Indo-Pacific international relations centered on US-China relations. These include the formation of a hierarchical China-centered order, with China as master and the other countries as subordinates, and a 'Cold War' scenario in which the US and China each form a bloc and the two blocs clash.
The interaction between the US and China is supposed to determine which scenario becomes a reality, while the roles of other countries are quite limited. Apart from the US and China, Indo-Pacific countries are seen as on the sidelines of power politics between the US and China. They are depicted as having little room for diplomatic maneuvering, and they are destined to be at the mercy of developments in US-China relations. They are regarded as pawns, not players.
However, a closer look at the history and reality of the region reveals a different picture of international relations. To oversimplify the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific and focus solely on US-China relations would narrow the window through which we consider our policy options and result in a neglect of other factors shaping the regional order.
US-China relations are an important, but not the only, factor defining the international relations of the region. Although both the US and China are great powers, each has its own internal and external weaknesses and constraints. Neither the US nor China has the capacity to form and maintain order in the diverse Indo-Pacific region alone. The support and cooperation of regional states is essential to promote their respective interests in the region.
A distinguishing feature of international relations in the region over the past several decades, especially since the end of the Cold War, is that many countries in the region have increased their national resilience, having developed national strengths and state structures to play a greater role in international relations.
The region is already home to advanced democracies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, which have successfully modernised. In addition, ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines have developed the capacity to tackle the internal and external challenges they face, supported by economic development, the development of national governance structures and nationalism over several decades. Despite the various internal challenges, Southeast Asian countries have accumulated diplomatic experience and skills in managing their relations with the major powers through the regional institution of ASEAN. India, once an inward-looking South Asian giant, has expanded its regional and international role and is on its way to becoming a major regional power and security provider. Island states in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific are also trying to modernise by making the most of their geopolitical position.
Many of these countries engaged in nation-building in an environment of increasing tension between the major powers during the Cold War. They resist the notion of a US-China-led order, which could deprive them of the independence and autonomy they won in long and painful struggles. For these countries, sovereignty and territorial integrity, the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes and a free and open order based on rule of law are essential for peace and prosperity.
Despite a seemingly passive attitude of 'not wanting to be forced to choose between the major powers', these countries have actively promoted a variety of bilateral and trilateral economic, political and security partnerships with intra-regional and extra-regional countries, trying to secure their own freedom of action amidst the tensions in US-China relations. They are not so weak as to be compelled to sit on the sidelines of the great powers' power politics. They are increasingly choosing to shape the future of the region themselves. The image of the Indo-Pacific as poor, weak, and slow to modernise is now a thing of the past.
However, many of the Indo-Pacific countries still have various domestic constraints and difficulties. If these countries are to play a meaningful role in Indo-Pacific international relations, further strengthening of national resilience is essential. They need international support to help them tackle those challenges and modernise.
There is growing recognition amongst countries in the region of the need to strengthen the resilience of Indo-Pacific states. The focus of the US Indo-Pacific strategy is to enhance that resilience, thereby creating a group of states that will not succumb to action contrary to the rules of the international community or to intimidation by force.
The US is not trying to eliminate China's presence in the Indo-Pacific. China is deeply involved in the Indo-Pacific region in political and economic terms. China's presence in trade, investment, and infrastructure construction has been increasing year by year. China's presence is huge and the US is well aware that it cannot be eliminated. Accepting this reality is a fundamental premise of its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Rather than trying to maintain and strengthen the US-led regional order, as it once did, the US expects the countries of the region to contribute to the collective maintenance and strengthening of a rules-based order. In other words, the US expects the countries of the Indo-Pacific to be strong and flexible in their external behaviour, standing up to China firmly when it acts against international rules, but at the same time seeking to get along with China. To this end, efforts to further strengthen their resilience are essential.
The same is true of the strategic agenda of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Japan, the US, Australia, and India. The Quad seeks to enhance the resilience of the states in the region through maritime security, economic security, supply chain resilience and infrastructure development.
The increased resilience of Indo-Pacific states, coupled with the nationalism of these states (their deep-seated sense of sovereignty, independence, and autonomy), will make them players in maintaining and strengthening the Indo-Pacific rules-based order. As a result, the Indo-Pacific order will become more inclusive and pluralistic, with diverse states playing a meaningful role in the maintenance of the order.
This process of building an inclusive and pluralistic international order will take time, but we must not lose our long-term perspective, going beyond the old-fashioned narrative that only US-China relations define the regional order.
Tsutomu Kikuchi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and Professor Emeritus, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo.
This article is based on comments made at the recent Australia-Japan Dialogue held by the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (AusCSCAP).