Video screen shoot of KRI Tjiptadi-381 drove out Chinese coast guard trespassed into Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in Natuna Waters, Riau Islands on Dec 30, 2019. ANTARA PHOTO/HO/PR of First Fleet Command/pras. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Countries, like the character Linus in the comic strip Peanuts, find it difficult to give away their security blankets, grow up and deal with the world as it really is. Australian National University’s editorial board specially for the East Asia Forum.

It’s quite a wrench for even big kids to throw away their Linus blanket equivalents. ‘Transitional objects’, like Linus’s blanket, play an important role in human development as the relationship between parent and child evolves from complete dependence to a phase of relative independence, and ultimately being cut adrift. Infants see themselves and their parent as a whole. Beyond this subjective omnipotence of a child, the objective reality is that, as the days go steadily by, it has to deal with a world in which its parent has less and less power to provide comfort and the objects of its desire. This transition is not easy; it’s filled with frustration, confusion and anxiety, and an inclination to hang on desperately to the illusion and the symbols of a security that’s passed or slipped away.

US allies in East Asia — such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand in Southeast Asia, whose default position has been to cede strategic initiative, if not entirely strategic thinking, to their great and powerful friend across the Pacific — now face a Linus blanket surrender-moment, big time. The geo-political order in which the hubs and spokes of US alliance arrangements provided the framework for their economic and political security is in disarray. The United States has walked away from support for the economic security regime on which their alliance partnerships so crucially relied and President Trump, if not Washington’s political–security establishment, has poured disrespect upon core mutual defence arrangements, shaking economic and political confidence in US reliability around the world.

In these uncertain times, it’s no wonder that the Indo-Pacific idea is all the rage — the American alliance framework resuscitated and re-imagined with Indian heft.

The notion that India will effectively step into the US alliance framework, Hugh White says, now ‘lies at the heart of Australia’s foreign policy … It is founded on the belief that as America’s position in Asia fades, India will step forward to help balance and contain China’s power and prevent it from dominating countries like Australia’. The same notion has also captured Japanese strategic thinking.

The Indo-Pacific idea is a maritime security construct that has been part of military dialogue for some time and now explicitly decorates US naval posture at Indo-Pacific Command. The original idea has transmogrified into other variants, though the lineage is clearly in the US-led regional military security order.

The putative locus of the Indo-Pacific idea lies in the Quad, which aims to tie the four corners of the Indo-Pacific together in high level security dialogue among the four ‘like-minded’ democracies — Australia, Japan, India and the United States (notably absent Indonesia). It’s sure in its distrust of China but unsure of whether and how to build a coalition to counter it.

The idea of Indonesia as the maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific came more recently, built on the geographical reality that that country lies at the intersection of the Pacific and Indian oceans, although it implies an optimistic assessment of its tenuous Indian Ocean ties. But Indonesia has led ASEAN in another direction on the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, released in June 2019, is both a response to the rising contention between great powers and a lens for ASEAN priorities. Not unexpectedly, ASEAN’s Outlook targets openness, inclusivity — which Indian Prime Minister Modi has endorsed — and ASEAN centrality.

Recognition that the values that underpin the vision of ASEAN centrality — rule of law, diplomacy, freedom of navigation and self-restraint — would assist Washington’s pursuit of its own strategic goals. Yet, as Mathew Davies points out ‘the United States is viewed as erratic and preoccupied with its own (and sometimes even more narrowly with Trump’s own) interests. China is now widely seen as the most influential economic and political-strategic actor in the region and while China’s dominance is viewed with considerable concern, if ASEAN members were forced to take sides, almost half would choose China over the US – including a majority in seven ASEAN member states’.

In our lead essay this week, distinguished US diplomat J Stapleton Roy calls the US approach to the Indo-Pacific idea a work in progress. ‘Expanding the policy focus in this fashion not only emphasises the importance of the Indian Ocean region, but brings India into the administration’s policy framework in which China is seen as the principal strategic competitor of the United States. Yet, President Donald Trump’s freewheeling refusal to be bound within this policy framework has rendered the Indo-Pacific concept of limited utility to the US government’, Roy adds. ‘What will be missing [at the end of Trump’s first term],’’ is a stable basis for addressing regional issues in the years ahead.

For now, the Indo-Pacific idea is based on implausible assumptions about India’s political posture, amateurish calculations of India’s projected economic power and unrealistic expectations of American commitment. It assumes that China is an active adversary and not heavily interdependent and constrained within the region.

At a generous stretch, the idea acknowledges the shifting weight of economic and political power westwards in Asia towards India, at the same time as it linguistically underweights the centrality of China and continental Asia to its continuing economic and political momentum. At its core, it is the military–security element of America’s response to the complex problems we now all face in managing the rise of China’s power, through developing a strategy that seeks to engage India as a military counterweight to China. It is a conception that underestimates the complex economic and political interdependence with mainland Asia that leaders and everybody else in the region have to deal with day by day and requires a multipolar order.

The military-strategic is one element in responding to the complex problems we now all face — but only one and not yet the most important as COVID-19 reminds us. It is an element that vastly underestimates the complex economic and political interdependence with mainland Asia. And it underestimates the problem of the stress under which the multilateral international economic order has now been put.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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