Are we heading towards ‘Asian NATO’?

By K N Pandita

The Quad is an offspring of the US’ Indo-Pacific security, under contemplation for quite some time at various levels of the US think-tanks. The perception received a boost during the Trump administration when relations between Washington and Beijing soured.

Besides her superpower status, Washington’s Indo-Pacific motivation is a reaction to China’s belligerence towards her smaller neighbours in the South and the East China Sea. In recent years, China has considerably upgraded the capability of her naval strike-power and has been conducting naval exercises in the China Sea and the Indian Ocean region with an explicit threatening prognosis. She has developed ports around India in Gwadar, Hambantota, Chittagong, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar – called “string of pearls around the Indian sub-continent” in Chinese jargon. Shortly, they may serve as resupply and recreation stations for Chinese naval vessels and their crew, enabling the PLA Navy to extend its reach deep into the Indian Ocean.

China’s intention in spreading out her naval sinews far and deep is to ensure the security of the Strait of Malacca, the narrow but highly strategic strait through which three-fourth of the world trade flows and in which China has a big stake. Any country strong enough to choke the Strait of Malacca undoubtedly controls the jugular vein of international trade.

For centuries in medieval times, China was the master of the fabulous Silk Road – the main artery of ancient international trade — that ran from the east to the west of the Eurasian lands. While still retaining dominance over it, China has come out with a more ambitious plan called Belt and Road programme. The Karakorum Highway connecting Urumchi with the Pakistani seaport of Gwadar was completed two decades ago and now a larger connectivity venture called China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the buzzword in Sino-Pak circles. China’s unabashed aggression against India in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 convinced the entire democratic world that there was an existential threat to democracy from unilateralism.

It further sensitized the US’ security concerns, and the Indo-Pacific graph received a shot in the arms. The Quad became active to give a clear message to China that the decisive battle for universalism may have to be fought not on the snow-clad heights of the Himalayas but on the turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

What does it mean for the Asian region and the world at large? It reflects the grandiose mission of China to dominate the world first through economic and then military might. In the name of assisting under-developed and developing countries in the Asian-African continents, in particular, China offers massive financial support for building basic infrastructure. The objective is to submerge the beneficiaries under the mind-boggling amount of principal and its interest which they are not in a position to repay in any case and thus in return they turn into a vassal state. Pakistan is a typical example.

It is a new and unprecedented form of colonialism, more penetrative and devastating. It is a challenge to many of our achievements like a democratic political system, free market, transparency and the world order so assiduously built by human intellect and initiative. It is a challenge to human freedom.

Quad blueprint has been there informally for several years. However, President Biden called for the first time, a formal (virtual) meeting of all the four members to deliberate on the challenges facing contemporary democratic societies.

The US official representatives are expected to meet with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska. This prompted President Biden to meet and exchange views with the Quad members ahead of the scheduled Sino-US meeting. It is said that President Biden wanted to know beforehand how the other three members looked at the situation arising out of Chinese belligerence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and its implications for global trade and commerce.

Experts assert that the Quad Summit meant an opportunity for Biden and his team to figure out on which specific issues the United States could secure support from Australia, India and Japan. Regional security issues, such as growing competition in the South China Sea and possible military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, have always been the top priority of previous meetings under the Quad format. Ni Lexiong, a military expert at the University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, told Sputnik. “Unification using military force is justified under Chinese traditional ethics. In China, everyone has to support national unification. A nation’s territory cannot be separated forever. This solved the question of whether a war is justified or not. It doesn’t matter if other countries agree with this or not,” he said.

The Quad virtual meeting appears to have been a success story of the convergence of apprehensions and perceptions. Its leaders, meaning the US president, and prime ministers of India, Australian and Japan, wrote in a joint Op-ed that “the Quad is a ‘flexible’ group of countries sharing similar world views and committed to ensuring peace and prosperity which is also open to working with others sharing those goals.” “Ending and recovering from the pandemic, standing up to climate change, and advancing our shared regional vision will not be easy. We know we cannot and will not succeed without coordination and cooperation,” stated a rare Op-Ed in the Washington Post, penned jointly for the first time by US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Political analysts pointed out that the Quad Summit could serve as a good example of Biden’s commitment to building alliances and working with allies when dealing with China. A comment was that “After Biden took office he hoped to rely on multilateralism and traditional allies. Although Biden is likely to continue Trump’s confrontational stance against Beijing, he would not follow Trump’s lack of specific strategy.”

President Biden has pulled US’ China policy out of a canister of ambiguity and indecision. His foreign policy is hinged on two ambitions viz. rebuilding ties with frustrated allies and raising a united front against China. It should be noted that the allies rely on trade with Beijing, even though they often clash on security, democracy and human rights. “There is a growing appetite in Tokyo for a strong response to China’s moves” in the South China Sea, The Japan Times reported.

US-China talks

Biden is taking Indo-Pacific with all seriousness. This week, he is working on both of his aims. He has dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea respectively. Writing in the Washington Post, Blinken and Austin said, “It would be a huge strategic error to neglect these relationships.”

China’s state-owned Global Times reported on 11 March that on Washington’s calling Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, will hold “high-level strategic dialogue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NSA Jake Sullivan” in Anchorage on March 18 and 19.

Briefing reporters, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “It was important to us that this administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil, and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe.”

The tailpiece of this narrative is that the upcoming US-China meeting has been convened in the wake of a top US commander’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, has apprised Congress about China’s increasing offensive military build-up and its expanding regional footprint, according to CNN. “I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they (Chinese) are putting in the field unless it is an aggressive posture. I see those developing systems, capabilities and a posture that would indicate that they’re interested in aggression,” Davidson told the Senate Committee.

CNN reported that he also described China as “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century”. He highlighted how Beijing has been carrying out increasingly threatening moves, citing Chinese military activity around Taiwan, along its disputed border with India, and even around US islands in the Pacific.

However, the Chinese state media has refuted Davidson’s comment, saying Beijing has no intention to challenge the US. Quoting Chinese experts, Global Times warned such a hostile attitude held by the US military could increase the risks of conflicts in the region, and that regional countries won’t share US hostility against China.

Chinese analysts said that the People’s Liberation Army is strengthening its combat capabilities to thwart new challenges. A large number of advanced weapons and equipment will be developed and commissioned as Beijing plans to turn PLA into a world-class military, they said.

India has been a victim of Chinese expansionism since the 1962 war. But India of 2020 could stand up to Chinese bullying. The biggest outcome of India’s bold and unflinching stand against Chinese aggressive designs is that China has understood that the decisive battle of the Himalayan mountain war will be fought on the waters of the Indian Ocean and India is not alone. The Indian Ocean will be the scene not of a war of civilizations but multilateralism over unilateralism. To demolish this war-mongering mentality, Asian NATO has to come into existence as the leader of the world front for democracy.
( The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

Comments are closed.