Monday, April 13, 2020

The Strategic Alliance and Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific Region

Tsai, Jung-hsiang
Professor, National Chung Cheng University


Since the end of Cold War, the unipolar moment has come into center stage.
With Moscow’s headlong fall from superpower status, the bipolar structure that had
shaped the security policies of the major powers for nearly half a century vanished,
and the United States emerged as the sole surviving superpower(Wohlforth,
1999:5). The United States is the sole state with preeminence in every domain of
power—economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological, and cultural—
with the reach and capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of
the world (Huntington, 1999: 36). That the United States is a superpower does not
indicate it can fully dominate the world or it is a global hegemon (Mearsheimer,
2014: 236). There are major powers that are preeminent in areas of the world such
as the German-French condominium in Europe, Russia in Eurasia, China and
potentially Japan in East Asia, India in South Asia, Iran in Southwest Asia, Brazil
in Latin America, and South Africa and Nigeria in Africa (Huntington, 1999: 36).
The heyday of the unipolar moment has not lasted very long. In East Asia, the
rise of China has posed the greatest challenge to the United States, especially for
the East Asian order that U.S. seeks to maintain. According to the statistics of the
World Bank in 2018, China has become the second largest economy in terms of
Gross Domestic Product(GDP) and the first largest economy on the measurement
of Purchasing Power Parity (World Bank, 2020). Globally, China’s military
strength has placed third, following on the heels of the United States (first) and
Russia (second)(Global Fire Power, 2020). The school of offensive realism argues
that if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere and the United
States will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional
hegemony(Mearsheimer, 2014: 361). The growth of the rising power is destined
for the status quo power to be alarmed and conflicts between them are inevitable
(Thucydides, 2009). For the status quo power, external balancing such as alliances
is the best strategy to pursue. Alliances are the key tool for states to guarantee
their survival, thereby preventing the emergence of a global hegemon that would
replace the anarchic international system(Brawley, 2004:77). Alliances obviously
are cooperative endeavors, in that their members concert their resources in the
pursuit of some common goal; however, the goal is the prosecution of conflict with
an outside party (Snyder, 1997: 1). A superior alliance can restore the balance of
power effectively against the rising power.

In December 2017, American President Donald Trump released the report
of the US National Security Strategy (NSS) to outline the Indo-Pacific strategy.
It emphatically addresses that although the United States seeks to continue to
cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties,
influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed
its political and security agenda (NSS Report, 2017: 45). China’s efforts to build
and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade,
threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability and
China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit
U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there (NSS Report, 2017:
45). The United States will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan,
Australia, and India in the Indo-Pacific region (NSS Report, 2017: 45). First, this
paper aims to explore the bilateral relationship between U.S. and Japan, U.S. and
Australia, and U.S. and India respectively. Second, this paper also parses out how
China responds to the strategic posture of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

U.S. and Japan

After the end of World War II, the United States created a series of bilateral alliances in East Asia to contain the Soviet threat, but a congruent rationale was
to constrain anticommunist allies in the region that might engage in aggressive
behavior against adversaries that could entrap the United States in an unwanted
larger war (Cha, 2010: 158). U.S. and Japan have been a military alliance since
the Security Treaty between U.S. and Japan signed in 1951. By the time the Soviet
Union collapsed, China has filled in the power vacuum it left in East Asia. Japan
is very cautious about China’s military buildup since China has been harassing the
Senkaku Island(Diaoyu Dao), even when economic cooperation between China
and Japan looms large (Solís, 2019: 14). Faced by unbalanced power, states try
to increase their own strength or they ally with others to bring the international
distribution of power into balance (Waltz, 1997: 951). Japan and U.S. have stepped
up their security ties in order to accommodate to the threat of China’s rise. Since
2016, US has fortified the deployment in East Asia, the Third Fleet originally
operating in the eastern and northern Pacific Ocean areas was sent to East Asia to
join the task of the Seven Fleet in order to meet the challenges from China (Ali and
Brunnstorm, 2016).

Not only did U.S. pivot to Asia, but also it entrenched the off-shore balancing
capability of the allies by arm sales. On 17th August in 2019, the Defense Ministry
of Japan has formally announced to purchase 42 of the U.S.-made F-35B cuttingedge
stealth fighter jets as part of its plan to acquire short take-off and vertical
landing (STOVL) aircraft(Japan Times, 2019). On 27th August in 2019, the Trump
Administration ratified to sale 73 Stand-Missile-3(SM-3) Block IIA missiles
(intercept short and intermediate-rang ballistic missiles) to boost Japan’s selfdefense
security (Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 2020). China and Japan
are locked in the trap of security dilemma. The increase of armaments, that is
intended in each nation to produce consciousness of strength, and a sense of
security, does not produce these effects; on the contrary, it produces a consciousness
of the strength of other nations and a sense of fear (Jervis, 1976: 65, the quote of
the British Foreign Secretary before WWI, Edward Grey). A state pursuing its own
security can be seen as a hostile intent by its rival state.

In 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched the free and open Indo-Pacific
(FOIP) strategy, which is regarded as an enhanced effort by Japan to expand its
strategic horizon to encompass regional order-building in the Indo-Pacific in the
context of China’s growing influence (Koga, 2020: 49). There are two strands
of Japan’s FOIP strategy. First, Japan has been determined to steadily enhance
national defense by increasing its own capabilities and strengthening the US–
Japan alliance, while also transforming its partnerships with like-minded states,
such as Australia and India, into a diplomatic, and potentially military, alignment;
second, Japan’s attempts to build a new regional order in the Indo-Pacific region
are aimed at defending the existing rules-based order established by the United
States from challengers, particularly China (Koga, 2020: 50). Neorealism argues
that great powers rarely engage in external balancing and seldom view their own
allies are reliable (Parent and Rosato, 2015: 79-85). If this thesis holds water, we
can conclude that the quadrilateral cooperation of the FOIP strategy is a collective
action against the rising power but not a coordinating military pact to fight a war.

U.S. and Australia

In 1951, U.S. and Australia signed a collective non-binding agreement to
cooperate on security affairs in the Pacific Ocean. Since then, U.S. and Australia
have been a strategic partnership to co-manage the region and to maintain the
status quo. However, the rise of China and its territorial revisionism in South China
Sea have disrupted the established order for U.S. and Australia in the region. The
shifting balance of power has two major strategic implications for U.S.-Australia
alliance: first, it raises the specter of destabilizing crises or conflicts in the region
and China’s territorial revisionism creates flashpoints for regional conflict; second,
it greatly erodes U.S. military advantages in the region, reducing the United States’
freedom of action and increasing much greater risk to any military planning or
operations (Tarapore, 2019). President Trump’s posture of challenging Chinese
sovereign control over its man-made islands in the South China Sea has increased
Australian concerns that it could soon face the nightmare of being compelled to
choose between its largest trading partner—China and its long-term security ally—the United States, if the two Great Powers were to clash militarily in Southeast
Asia’s critical maritime littorals (Tow, 2017: 50-51). Australia’s geographic
location has become directly relevant to the U.S. defense posture in Asia for the
first time since 1942, as a place of relative safety from Chinese missiles and as a
base for long-range air and naval operations (Frühling, 2018: 208).

Facing the challenge from China’s rise, Australia fortified its military strength
by arms sales. Australia has ordered 72 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II
fighters from U.S. to strengthen its defensive capability in 2018 (Pittaway, 2018).
On February 7, 2020, the Trump administration approved to a military sale to
Australia of up to two hundred (200) AGM-158C, Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles
(LRASMs) and related equipment for an estimated cost of $990 million (Defense
Security Cooperation Agency, 2020). Coupled with military enhancement,
countermeasures to foreign intervention are also legalized. In 2018, the Australian
Parliament passed a bill, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme to require
registration by certain persons undertaking certain activities on behalf of a foreign
principal and to require registrants to disclose information about the nature of their
relationship with the foreign principal and activities undertaken pursuant to that
relationship. Concerns over Chinese political donations and relationships between
lawmakers and Chinese businesses have intensified in Australia and this legislation
is likely to further stoke tensions with major trading partner, China (South China
Morning Post, 2018). Arm sales and anti-infiltration legislations are the double
efforts for internal balancing against the worst scenario.

The importance of the South China Sea territorial disputes for Australia is
the freedom of navigation for Australian warships and the rule-based order of the
Indo-pacific has been underpinned by a strong United States and the enduring
alliance between the United States and Australia (Wirth, 2019). Australia aims to
develop deeper bilateral relationships with U.S. allies such as Japan, Singapore,
South Korea, and India, join multilateral security dialogues with ASEAN countries
and recommit efforts and resources for a strong Australia-U.S. alliance and U.S.
commitment to the Asia-Pacific in Washington (Clarke, 2017: 68). Australia has been an energetic supporter to Washington’s FOIP strategy(free and open Indo-
Pacific strategy), alongside Japan (and within the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue), and
a key proponent of the ‘Quad’ process (Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue) with India
(Wilkins, 2019: 24). Australia’s Indo-Pacific naval force enhances relationships,
builds partner capacity, improves military interoperability and helps to realize
U.S. goals in the region (Wilkins, 2019: 25). U.S. and Australia share the value of
strategic cooperation and the necessity of maintaining the freedom of navigation in
the Indo-Pacific area.

U.S. and India

Over the past two decades, India and the U.S. have drawn increasingly
closer due largely to common concerns about the rise of China and its growing
assertiveness in Asia (Burgess, 2019: 80). India’s grand strategy has evolved from
a non-aligned stance and dependence on Russia for its weapons purchases towards
one of an emerging great power which seeks to counter encirclement and territorial
infringement by China and Pakistan and has consolidated a partnership with the
U.S. (Burgess, 2019: 80). The Trump administration has authorized the release
of several advanced U.S. weapons systems, including Predator drones and the
Aegis integrated air and missile defense system—both of which India would have
struggled to procure from a U.S. administration more fearful of provoking Pakistan
or irritating China (Tellis, 2020). The Trump administration has also granted India
the same special trade status that NATO allies enjoy when it comes to licensing
requirements for high-end defense-technology sales(Tellis, 2020). Although U.S.
and India are not a formal alliance, the rise of China has brought them to closer

However, India and U.S. relationships are not as firm as the alliance between
U.S. and Japan or the alliance between U.S. and Australia since India has been
pursuing a hedging foreign policy. On one hand, India has moved slowly on
certain aspects of military and naval cooperation with the United States and on
the other hand India sought to placate China after the spring 2018 Wuhan Summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping (Lalwani and Byrne, 2019:
48). Prime minister Modi conspicuously ducked diplomatic opportunities to call
out China’s growing assertiveness and avoided joining a regional infrastructure
initiative to counterbalance China’s ascending leverage in the region and India
generally opposes a military role for the Quad for fear of Chinese retaliation
(Lalwani and Byrne, 2019: 48).

India and Russia have been maintaining a strong tie on arms sales. Russia
still commands 58 percent of total arms imports by India, followed by Israel and
the US at 15 and 12 percent, respectively and the military-technical cooperation
with Russia that includes transfer of technology and joint production is a unique
relationship that is extremely valuable to India (Kapoor, 2019). The 2018 summit
between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra
Modi in Vladivostok underlined the countries’ harmonious strategic orientation and
India extended a US$1 billion credit line to Russia to develop its Far East, as part
of India’s new “Act Far East” policy, a complement to the “ Act East” policy which
seeks to deepen ties with Southeast Asia (Bhaskar, 2019). After 2000, Russia–
India ties settled down to an upward trajectory, since Vladimir Putin’s visit to
India and the establishment of the strategic partnership and Indo-Russian defense
ties have gone up tremendously with multiple military contracts and agreements
for technology transfer and joint manufacturing projects concluded (Zakharov,
2019:359). As the US–Russia rivalry intensifies, India is forced to strike a careful
balance between U.S. and Russia(Zakharov, 2019:359).

The rise of China has made India to tilt toward U.S. to meet the strategic
challenges. In 2017, India and China had a military standoff over the border
area, Doklam. The face-off situation reveals that sovereignty issues and strategic
conflicts have seriously set India and China apart. India is also concerned about
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has refused China’s repeated invitations
to join the initiative primarily because BRI’s flagship project (the China-Pakistan
Economic Corridor) passes through the Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, a disputed
territory that New Delhi claims as its own (Joshi, 2019). For India, the U.S.-China competition presents a mixed bag: on one hand, it undeniably gives India
some leverage over its more powerful Chinese neighbor and on the other hand, it
complicated India’s fine balancing act between U.S., a key but overbearing partner
needed to hedge against China but carefully kept at arm’s length, and China, a
rival which India can ill afford to turn into adversary (Lidarev, 2020). The shifting
relationships between India and U.S. have to put in the context of geopolitics to
analyze. Compared to U.S. other allies in the Indo-Pacific, India is the weakest
link. However, India joining the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue with U.S., Japan
and Australia can serve its own strategic interests to balance the rise of China.

China’s Response

Interestingly, China’s economic and strategic ambitions have moved across
both the Pacific and the Indian oceans, but China intentionally rejected to use the
term, the Indo-Pacific because Chinese leaders believe that the U.S.-led Indo-
Pacific strategy aims to contain China’s rise (He and Li, 2020: 1-2). China has
been using means to disrupt relations between these nations is regarded by China
as an efficient way of undermining the Indo-Pacific strategy(Liu, 2020:23). China
adopted the rapprochement to develop a deeper diplomatic relationship with India,
mending its relations with Japan after years of strained relations over the Diaoyu/
Senkaku Islands, and moderating its behavior with ASEAN member states by
hammering out a new Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea (Liu, 2020:
23-25). On the same token, China has been using three modes of influence such
as coercion, inducement, and persuasion to alter the costs and benefits of Australia
remaining aligned to U.S. (Sheng, 2020). Simply put, China attempts to drive a
wedge between U.S. and its Asian allies.

However, China still did not give up its assertive strategy in the South China
Sea. In 2018, the Chinese warship, Lan Zhou destroyer warned that the American
destroyer, the Decatur was on a dangerous course in the South China Sea and it
sailed very close to the Decatur about 45 yards, pushed the Decatur out of the way,
and finally the Decatur diverted to avoid a collision (Perlez and Myers, 2018). China did not back up from its self-claimed territory in the South China Sea. If
China’s economy continues to grow and if it develops increasingly advanced
technology, its defense spending will grow and its military will be better able to
compete with the US in maritime East Asia and these trends will determine China’s
ability to reshape the regional security order, rather than China’s market power
(Ross, 2019: 18).


Australia, Japan and India have tried hard to align with U.S. in order to
counteract China’s increasing leverage in the Indo-Pacific region. The FOIP
strategy is like a security chain or net of four big powers. Thucydides thoughtfully
points out that the growth of the rising power is destined for the status quo power
to be alarmed and conflicts between them are inevitable (Thucydides, 2009). As
Napoleon Bonaparte said, China is a sleeping lion; let her sleep, for when she
wakes she will shake the world. Napoleon’s prophecy has come true that China is
shaking the world now.
The balance of power in Asian order has tilted to China after its rise. The
quadruple alliance of U.S., Japan, Australia, and India has been a countermeasure
to prevent China’s dominance in Asia. The status quo powers establish an external
balancing alliance in order to meet the challenges of the rising power. Whether the
FOIP strategy works effectively depends on the alliance management and China’s
self-restraining responses. Nevertheless, collective deterrence by four countries
works much better than the efforts of one single country.


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