Opinion | China is Driving Indo-Pacific Nations Together

Singapore - As Asian nations in the Indo-Pacific Rim emerge as potential future powers and enjoy greater global visibility, prestige, and power, great powers in the region have found themselves pressed with the need to pursue more comprehensive foreign policies towards the region. Ultimately, these policies are economically driven, given the outsized role that economic power plays in shaping these countries, their needs, and their priorities. The most visible example is, of course, China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

Beijing believes that by merging foreign and economic policy to reshape global infrastructure it can re-shape global trade routes and put China at the epicenter of both Asia and the world economy, making Beijing a global Milliarium Aureum of sorts. However, the excessive focus on OBOR tends to overlook policies that other major players like Japan, South Korea, and India, are pursuing on the global stage. It is hence essential to understand how the policies pursued by other Asian players in the region are directed at not only increasing their own standing in the region, but towards containing Chinese influence and potential domination of the region, given China’s increasing use of economic, political, and military force to achieve its political objectives.

For China, securing economic leverage is key to its geopolitical strategy in the Asian context. Given China’s reliance on exports to continue to expand its economic reach, securing trade routes is key to understanding China’s decision to develop OBOR, as well as its decision to push the envelope over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Given that one third of all global naval trade passes through in the South China Sea, this region is essential to the functioning of current trade flows. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that over 60% of China’s trade transits over water. In 2016, 874 billion dollars of Chinese exports passed through the South China Sea — about 90% of China’s crude oil imports are pass through the region, and in particular, through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

In addition to the economic incentives for influence in the region, Beijing is highly invested in numerous territorial disputes throughout this region. Brunei, the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam all maintain overlapping claims to territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea. China’s stake in the region therefore marries its economic and geopolitical interests to the balance of power in the region. In order to address this soft spot in its economic chain, the PRC has developed a number of initiatives to shore up its strategic posture. Chief among these, Beijing is expanding its hard power by augmenting its military and border presence in the South China Sea by creating an island chain throughout the South China Sea — the ‘great wall of sand’ — and enhancing its sharp and soft power through the OBOR initiative.

Between 2013 to 2016, the PRC commenced large scale reclamations at seven locations – in order to strengthen territorial claims to the region demarcated by the "Nine-Dash Line" that it uses to denote its naval territorial claims. The reclamations were created exclusively for military use, featuring a variety of anti-access/area denial and staging assets ranging from sea-walls and deep-water ports, to anti-air, anti-naval missile installations, and three runways to facilitate the use of aerial power in the region. The reclamations were accompanied by several minor confrontations throughout the region; the People’s Liberation Army has evicted foreign fishing vessels from the region, implemented a requirement to obtain fishing permits in disputed areas, and intercepted aerial and naval assets belonging to other nations. These tactics allowed China to create, a chain of air and sea-capable fortresses that can be used to effectively introduce anti-area access denial (A2/AD) to prevent interference from foreign naval power through deterrence, at first — through force if necessary. 

The ability to project force more readily in the South China Sea grants China greater security and military leverage, but does not allow it to guard its trade routes and supply chain entirely. Through the lens of economic security and regional deterrence, OBOR can be seen as an initiative to create a logistics chain that would allow China to have greater control over its trade network, while also strengthening relations with the nations party to the investment projects. By creating a trade network that spans Eurasia and Africa with key nodes in allied countries and those in China’s near abroad, China is able to strengthen the security of its trade network while increasing Chinese influence by tying foreign economies more closely to Beijing. 

Prime examples of this policy in practice are the China Pakistan Economic Corridor — which aims to secure Chinese trade with the Middle East — and China’s extensive land routes connectivity project through Central Asia and Europe — which seeks to accrue Chinese influence in a number of resource-rich Central Asian and former Soviet nations and to strengthen China’s commercial and economic ties to Central and Western Europe. In this context of globally scaled Chinese economic grand strategy that Japan, South Korea, and India are pursuing their own connectivity, infrastructure, and investment projects to chart their own course and to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

The Asian Tigers Take On The Chinese Dragon
South Korea’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, which account for approximately half of its GDP. With one quarter of South Korean exports going to China, Beijing has enormous economic economic leverage against Seoul — a strategic advantage it has demonstrated it is willing to use. In (2016), the Korean economy suffered severe trade shocks from Chinese retaliation against Korean companies following Seoul’s deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) systems. Seoul said that THAAD was designed as a defensive to protect against North Korean missile threats, but China felt that China was targeted. Companies like Lotte suffered tremendous loss as Chinese boycotted and was forced to close down many of its marts in China. As a result, South Korea is actively pursuing a trade agenda aimed at reducing its economic dependence on Chinese markets. Since (2008 financial crisis) India and Vietnam have arisen as important trade partners with growing market demands to meet the high supply of Korean manufactured goods. New Delhi and Saigon, like many South East Asian powers, have made common cause to hedge against rising Chinese economic influence in Southeast Asia.

Samsung and Hyundai, two of the biggest companies in Korea, have invested heavily in Indian (market in electronics and automobiles). Samsung opened the world's largest phone factory in India in 2018, and South Korean and Indian governments have sought closer cooperation in their trade relationship, reducing tariffs on their existing free-trade agreement, called the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). In February 2018, PM Narendra Modi said that more than 600 Korean companies such as Hyundai, Samsung and LG Electronics had heavily invested in India. In a nod to future plans for greater development of economic ties at the India-South Korea Business Symposium in Seoul during a State visit to the Republic of Korea, Modi proclaimed that India “aspire[s] to welcome many more.”

Japan is also seeking to increase its infrastructure investment and pursuing a closer strategic and diplomatic relationship with India. Prime Minister Abe initiated a comprehensive economic reform policy dubbed Abenomics designed to stimulate Japan’s perennially sluggish economy after returning to power in December 2012. Abenomics consists of three major policy tools, which Abe calls “three arrows”: an expansionary fiscal policy, an aggressive monetary easing policy, and structural reforms aimed at lagging sectors like agriculture, as well as business reforms, such as improving Japan’s corporate governance to revitalize the moribund Japanese economy. Promotion of exports of infrastructure, from infrastructure development planning, materials and technological know-hows, is a part of the third arrow of Abenomics. These policies were designed to complement Tokyo’s efforts to expand the scope of its export markets beyond the traditional focus on ordinary manufacturing goods, such as automobiles and electronics as they were declining in exports amount and losing its competitiveness on international stage.[1] In effect, China and Japan are fiercely competing for economic influence in Southeast Asia through infrastructure development projects, such as ports and railroads, and have expanded their competition to neighboring regions — in particular, India.

In the race to winning infrastructure contracts in developing Asian markets, Japan’s strategy appears aimed at providing viable alternatives to Chinese financing and OBOR initiatives. Rather than attempt to compete with China by developing its own transcontinental infrastructure investment plan — a game at which the Japanese would lose due to the sheer size of investment capital required — Japan has opted to compete with China within the framework of OBOR by undercutting China’s bids at critical junctures along the chain. As South Asian leaders grow wary of China’s “debt trap diplomacy,” as manifested by the hand-over of the port Hambantota by Sri Lanka to China, the joint U.S., Australian and Japanese infrastructure push in Asia could prove substantial in countering increasing Chinese influence. In tandem with quadrilateral naval exercises between India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. to develop defensive counter-capacity against China’s Strings of Pearls, the economic and political incentives for Japan to actively engage in the Indo-Pacific region are aplenty.

ASEAN countries and India have also forged deep economic ties, christening the ASEAN–India Free Trade Area (AIFTA) in 2010 and celebrating 26 years of formal ASEAN-Indian relations in 2019. The Indo-Pacific is home to a burgeoning collective of rapidly emerging markets that, as a region, claim the world’s largest population. Because of their geographic proximity, they often share interests in maritime domains, security cooperation and economic integration. Although not as recently incentivized as Japan and South Korea, they remain solidly committed to their interregional relations and partnerships, and will likely continue to collaborate both economically and politically as China continues to rise.

The Sleeping Great Power of South Asia
India’s own foreign policy however, is more nebulous and variable by comparison to its Indo-Pacific neighbors, though New Delhi has made political and investment policy overtures to both the Japanese and South Koreans. During the Cold War, India served as the bulwark of the Non-Aligned Movement, co-founded by Josip Broz Tito of Socialist Yugoslavia, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1956. It was the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy through the Cold War period as it sought to chart a separate course from Washington and Moscow, and was a crucial policy tool by which to convince other newly-independent nations to refrain from taking sides. 

In the post Cold War world, however, this movement has lost its raison d’être, and with it, New Delhi’s rallying cry. Nevertheless, India continues to pursue and advocate for policies of non-intervention, multilateral cooperation, and non-alignment in foreign conflicts to preserve its neutrality on the global stage. However, India's policy of neutrality fails to address India’s rise to the global stage as a “leading power” with the potential to become a second Asian superpower. India’s reluctance to fully commit to formal alliances or cooperative security frameworks with other nations belies its nascence in the world of great power competition.

While India does occasionally take minor actions to reinforce strategic relations, such as its efforts to improve relations with Vietnam by encouraging joint oil and gas exploration projects between Vietnamese and Indian petroleum corporations or its overtures to governments in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi seems to lack grand strategy and long-term vision. The lack of long-term planning ultimately stems from complex domestic political factors that stunt the creation of broad, long-term external affairs planning. 

Firstly, India’s foreign policy is left mostly to elected officials and senior bureaucrats responsible for particular policy geographies. The Indian foreign policy establishment lacks an overarching strategic viewpoint for Indian foreign affairs. To the extent that there is a comprehensive vision for Indian foreign policy, it rests with the Prime Minister; any long-term vision for Indian foreign policy objectives and strategy effectively expires when a new Prime Minister takes office. 

Another significant handicap to long-term policymaking is the outsized focus on Indian territorial disputes which naturally consume most of New Delhi’s foreign policy bandwidth. Disputes with Pakistan and China over the areas of Kashmir, Aksai Chin, and Arunachal Pradesh draw the full focus of strategic planning as they draw India’s foremost foreign and domestic political priorities into focus. As a result, India is likely to remain politically mired in its own backyard until there is some satisfactory resolution to these issues prevents the creation of more coherent overarching strategies, as most of India’s military power is often deployed with countering Pakistan and China fore of mind. 

Finally, India lacks the ability to engage in checkbook diplomacy of the kind practiced by Japan, South Korea and other powers like Saudi Arabia, due to the pressing need for domestic investment. It’s nearly singular focus on domestic development removes a potentially viable way to extend its influence in the Indo-Pacific Rim through unilateral investment in infrastructure and development programs. This also explains why India’s most ambitious and extensive international investments projects always form part of larger multilateral initiatives, such as the New Development Bank. In addition to these domestic factors, there are also a number of foreign affairs issues — among them, tense border disputes with China and Pakistan, the threat of conventional or nuclear conflict with both China and Pakistan, a tenuous alliance with the United States, and the lack of a pre-existing regional security apparatus such as NATO — that discourage India from pursuing ambitious foreign policies, and which inhibit India’s capacity for reciprocity to South Korean and Japanese overtures for greater active security cooperation in East Asia.

These unresolved foreign policy issues saddled alongside an ingrained, historic distrust of foreign great powers often leave Indian politicians without sufficient political space to establish concrete military ties with other nations. Its perceived dependency on complete operational freedom prevents New Delhi from meaningful participation in initiatives such as freedom of navigation exercises, extensive joint training, and doctrine matching with other nations. This paradoxically restricts India’s ability to match the combined strength of its two nuclear neighbors and reinforces New Delhi’s hesitancy to pursue a foreign policy paradigm that overtly seeks to counter both nations simultaneously. The result is a self-defeating siege mentality which causes India to punch below its weight on the global stage. 

India’s reluctance to proactively engage both China and Pakistan over its border disputes is key to understanding why New Delhi continues to address the Kashmir issue as a purely bilateral issue with Islamabad, and why Chinese-administered Kashmir is often omitted from public discourse and government statements. Despite the majority of its exports flowing through the South China Sea, its vested interest in countering Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific, and its commonalities with Japan and South Korea, India often limits its involvement in foreign affairs to the occasional statement, state visits, and minor participation in disjointed naval exercises featuring every country from the United States to China.

The Case for Greater Indo-Pacific Cooperation
There is a clear need for India to develop a comprehensive long-term foreign policy rooted in mutual cooperation with other nations in the Indo-Pacific to help it counter China. Ad hoc policymaking by incoming Indian administrations must cease to define the course of Indian foreign relations. This would require a serious shift in the balance of power of decision-making in the subcontinent, such that policies and strategies are designed by career bureaucrats. Most importantly, India must accept that Non-Alignment is no longer a viable foreign policy foundation in contemporary global geopolitics. break with the non-committal view of foreign affairs which non-alignment cultivates in domestic foreign policy circles and the wider public.

A promising sign of this early in the Modi Administration was a slight push to give greater importance to the SAARC nations, however a bolder strategy that focuses on more powerful and grandiose partners, such as ASEAN, Australia, Japan, and South Korea, would be more viable. Furthermore, these nations and potential partners also need to realize the constraints India faces with regards to its own neighbors as a source of reluctance to engage more readily. As a result, these potential partners should also shape their own aspirations regarding India and each other, and focus on increased commercial ties, and the formation of stronger strategic partnerships. The ASEAN-India meetings can be a good example of how to have this sort of development, and enlarging such discussions to a truly regional scale would best allow for coordinated actions by these various nations to tackle the challenges that an increasingly expansionary and assertive China brings to the region.

The incentives for Indian leaders and their partners in South Korea, Japan and ASEAN, are closely aligned with deepening economic cooperation and seeking strategic alliance in countering the Chinese influence. However, the deeply entrenched mentality of the Non-Aligned Movement which pervades India’s policymaking is overriding such incentives, making India a less significant player than it deserves and should be in the global stage. 

Korea, Japan and ASEAN countries, on the other hand, recognize that such platforms for cooperation is a key missing puzzle. They could work toward forming multilateral institutions that could enable them to actively engage and cooperate while continuing to pursue economic integration. Alternatively, they could fully utilize already existing multilateral organizations—like RCEP, ASEAN, and APC, to name a few—and try to expand their agendas in furthering regional integration. In doing so, they could avoid rather costly bilateral stand-off against China and draw in other players to collectively put pressure on China.

Indian leaders, recognizing such need, could begin by engaging more actively in dialogue with Tokyo and Seoul while elaborating upon New Delhi’s long-term strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific. Based on partners’ willingness to cooperate militarily, shared values, and long-term regional interests, India can begin to create the framework of a grand strategy starting in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and South Korea already have sufficient economic incentives to assume more active roles were India to present serious overtures and a plan of action. The time has long since passed that India overcame its historic disinclination to take a leading role in the regional security and economic landscape. 

As trade war rages on between China and US, increasing political risks and economic dependence of China would only render India a favorable destination for investment and trade. While India may not be on top of the agenda for these countries, as South Korea has impending issues with North Korea and Japan is heavily focused on Southeast Asia, India’s proactive stance would most likely be welcomed by Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries.

Should those key countries start taking active measures and work towards common goal, it may be possible to witness a dramatic shift in dynamics playing out under the initiative of One-Belt-One-Road led by China. Further continuation of economic integration between India and other important Asian key players can potentially balance out the Chinese investment and increase their influence in the increasingly strategically important region. The first step towards such measures could start with forming simple key strategic partnerships in regional multilateral organization, and gradually moving towards bilateral agreement and cooperation in the future.

Originally published in “Joon's Blog: Macro, Geopolitics, Global Culture, Current Events and East Asia.”


Joon Young Kwon

- International Scholar
- Twitter: @JoonBlogTube
- LinkedIn: Joon Young Kwon

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Pranav Jain

- International Scholar
- Twitter: @Pranav_Jain_
- LinkedIn: Pranav Jain

Supporting Author

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Cameron Vaské

- Founder & Editor-in-Chief
- Twitter: @CameronVaske
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Photo Credit:

  1. By Kishi Ganku - Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18842784

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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