By – Manav Lal
In an important foreign policy speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Xi Jinping, championed a new regional security framework for the Asia-Pacific. Building on a previously conceptualised framework by Jiang Zemin in 1999, (“xin anquan guan”) Xi put forth the idea for a “New Asian Security Concept” to foster trust building among Asian nations, and enhance security cooperation. Driving home the need for a fresh architecture, he condemned the 65-year-old US-centred “hub-and-spokes” alliance system which he argued, was emblematic of an anachronistic “Cold War security structure”. Additionally, he implicitly specified United States of America’s influence to be the weak link of constructive efforts towards building a more sustainable, and inclusive regional security order in Asia. The central purpose of the proposed security architecture was to weave tight knit partnerships of organisations and entities, devoid of Washington’s influence, so as to further China’s strategic interests in the region.
Continuing to denounce the philosophy of binding alliance frameworks, Xi Jinping, crafted an architecture that proposed the formation of ‘strategic partnerships’ than formal alliances; Xi’s idea hinged on creating informal and flexible relationships that were rooted in principles of mutual understanding, and trust among its neighbouring states. By extending a similar idea to the security concept, he attempted to showcase multi-pronged benefits for joining the architecture, beginning with the non-obligatory and non-constraining nature of commitment.
Xi’s efforts behind furthering the security blue print served as a pivot to bolster China’s role in the region “commensurate” with its perceived economic status. By using economic development as a “precondition” for security cooperation, China dexterously constructed a message for its Asian neighbours-to deepen ties with Beijing and create a “win-win” security architecture. Seven years after its inception, experts and representatives of Asian nations continue to romanticize the “China solution” to regional security. Several confer Beijing’s efforts to have a significant impact on shaping international relations, and firmly believe in China’s aspiration to uphold regional peace, and pursue sustainable development. .
While the proposed architecture has gained prominence, and displays immense potential for operationalising a ‘win-win’ agenda, the framework’s ‘Achilles Heel’ lies in China’s provocative expansionist strategy. Examples of its aggressive expansion range from China’s militarisation and illegal capture of islands in the South China Sea, clarion call for operationalising the “reunification” process with Taiwan, deepening partnership with South Asian countries, and increased border infiltrations at the Himalayas with India. China’s assertive expansionism is reminiscent of its mission to project dominance in the Indo-Pacific and seek global prominence. Wary of Beijing’s actions, countries are resisting Chinese military and economic expansion causing strategic changes in the Indo-Pacific region. As a consequence, disenfranchisement with the China model has grown –coupled with doubts over ‘debt trap’ diplomacy projecting economic clout, via inception of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a freshly emerging regional security landscape through the Indo-Pacific network, what future does Xi’s ‘New Security Concept’ hold?
Building a Rules based security order versus an oppressive one
At its core, the Indo-Pacific outlook has been built on a shared belief of nations to uphold the principles of international law. In a working paper drafted by the State Department, the United States reaffirmed the importance of the rule of law, by pledging to preserve “a free and open” Indo-Pacific where all nations regardless of their size, are “secure” in their ‘sovereignty’ while pursuing their economic ambitions. The same document in the subsequent section also re-iterated the nation’s commitment towards challenging any attempt made to deter the achievement of objectives in the region. Like minded democratic countries in the region have also maintained similar positions with regards to preserving the “blessings” of open seas. In this context, India, US, Japan and Australia —which also constitute the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping —could leverage the opportunity, and sell a distinctive architecture using the Indo-Pacific network which does not compromise ‘territorial sovereignty’ and ensures inclusive economic progress and security cooperation.
Making constructive use of infrastructure development with neighbouring states through the US-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN), Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EXPQI), and utilising India’s Bharatmala, SAGAR and ‘One Sun-One Grid’ initiative under the International Solar Alliance could serve as anchors to showcase mutual development benefits, and counteract China’s concept of ‘mutual economic prosperity’ under its architecture. Initial progress in critical technological infrastructure, collective capacity development, coupled with the Quad’s promising endeavour to create a resilient supply chain for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, will provide significant impetus to project economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Essentially, the Quad will be able to solidify strategic partnerships with neighbouring countries by furthering their economic ambitions which will help in scoring some critical diplomatic points. Concretisation of such economic partnerships would reinforce the advantages of maintaining a stable rules based order, where in countries can thrive without the fear of lawless economic co-optation.
The Sea Dragon Exercises held in 2020 between United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, and the subsequent Quad+1 military exercises held with Canada and France, are key markers of progress for reaffirming each country’s commitment to strengthen the role of international law in the security domain. Continued affirmations of similar minded nations to uphold international law in the security realm, establishes the long-lasting authenticity of preserving a rules based order. Additionally, the salience of such exercises also underpin the significance of plurilateralism in preserving the rule of law in international relations. At the Raisina Dialogue 2021, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar echoed the need for adopting a plurilateral approach as an alternative to multilateralism, on account of its ‘failure to deliver’. With the Quad gaining diplomatic momentum, a plurilateral rules based approach could serve as a strong counter to neutralise China’s efforts in promoting a tightly held multilateral system. Such ideological shifts in global governance could significantly influence perceptions of Asian neighbours to align their values with a like-minded Quad, and continue embracing ideologies of a rules based order, rather than retracting from it.
By maintaining an assertive stance in the region, China has failed to convince its neighbours that it can be a “fair and trustworthy guarantor” of regional security. If Xi’s concept were to achieve fruition, Beijing needed to construct an architecture, such that neighbouring countries perceived it to be the anchor behind fostering security cooperation based on principles of mutual trust, equality and coordination, echoed by Xi at the CICA. But, China’s belligerent actions have only deepened its threat perception among Asian neighbours, exposing a fundamental contradiction in its foreign policy. Beijing has been relentless while offering ‘carrots’ in the form of economic incentives to its Asian neighbours for necessitating their deference. However, it has been equally committed to its “combative diplomacy” with other countries who do not toe the Chinese line.Such a strategic outlook discloses Beijing’s double standards, and tarnishes the legitimacy of its objective to nurture tight knit partnerships. More importantly, cognisant of the Quad’s strides in propelling a rules based security framework, nations could only deem it as strategic prudence to join hands with a grouping that safeguards their interests, and advances them by upholding the practice of international law.
The maritime manoeuvre and the Quad: Optics matter
Realising security objectives under the Indo-Pacific strategy significantly depends on the operationalisation of the Quadrilateral grouping. While each member state has put forth varied interpretations about the Quad’s central purpose, it is clear that Chinese assertiveness has catalysed dialogue to push for an alternate regional security policy. The virtual summit held among member states earlier in March, 2021, resulted in “the spirit of the quad” which reaffirmed each nation’s commitment to the partnership. Maritime policy was a prominent subject of discussion, with all member states agreeing to prioritise the “role of international law in the maritime domain”. MALBAR 2020 and 2021 naval exercises have demonstrated the seriousness of the promise, and have also showcased the Quad’s willingness to strengthen interoperability, and enhance maritime cooperation.
The grouping’s specific emphasis towards improving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through a coordinated mechanism for tracking developments at the high seas, could spur significant momentum to contain Chinese naval threats. Key developments in MDA could make the Quad a joint forum for deterring unregulated and unreported fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zones of countries troubled by Beijing, thereby enforcing international law. Additionally, each member state’s defensive endowments at “strategic checkpoints” in South East Asian nations are being developed for accommodating state of the art military equipment, which goes to project its combined military clout. Furthermore, bilateral-geo-spatial intelligence sharing agreements, security treaties, and joint action plans on security cooperation between member states, catalyses the ability of the grouping to shape a cohesive security order with a potential to expand such agreements with other like-minded actors in the region.
Even though Beijing has made significant strides in the form capacity building, strengthening coordination mechanisms, and financial assistance to institutional secretariats such as the Shanghai Corporation Organisation, CICA, ASEAN+3 dialogue and ASEAN+China dialogue, its effectiveness in achieving security cooperation through the proposed framework has been subprime. Additionally, while Xi took a strong position to strengthen security cooperation in the maritime domain by embracing a conflict free resolution approach, the Chinese have shown meek commitment towards bolstering maritime cooperation, and remain resilient to use the domain for advancing a sheen of military operations as part of its expansionist trajectory.
Actively making an attempt to operationalise a maritime policy, sends a message of re-assurance to deter malevolent activities that omit international norms. This in turn demonstrates the loyalty of the Quad, and its commitment towards being the flagbearers of maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Importantly, an operative maritime policy has the potential to bolster the Quad’s soft power tremendously, with a potential to cause strategic modifications in the security sphere. Countries would re-assess the possibility of joining an alternate security architecture that does not only promise cooperation as part of its maritime policy, but also safeguards their security at the high seas. In this manner, the Quad would gain immense leverage over China to tip the balance of regional security power in it is favour, thereby diminishing the scope of an operational Asian Security Concept.
Acknowledging strategic imprudence: Need of the hour for the Chinese
In a nutshell, the New Asian Security concept requires a significant strategic overhaul to maintain China’s security posture in the region. Beijing’s lackadaisical efforts to reassure its Asian partners to be the ‘ambassadors’ of security cooperation has spurred considerable uncertainty to align with its vision. An alternate security framework spearheaded by the Quad- using international law as a guarantor of fairness and justice, gives the architecture legitimacy when contrasted with Beijing’s insincere security concept. Additionally, the Quad making progress in devising a functional maritime strategy could propel countries to gravitate towards joining hands with the grouping as a consequence of its power projection and dependability for upholding regional security. China’s strategic weakness lies in its adversely impacted soft-power with neighbouring countries, and the Quad’s maritime manoeuvre could intensify the weakness.
Although, China’s economic appeal has made room for unquestionable deference with a few, it cannot rest on its laurels and devise strategies that are solely central to economic prosperity. Beijing needs to reconsider its position on several matters of conflict at the high seas and land borders, before attempting to appease its neighbours to build the New Asian Security Concept as envisaged.
Manav Lal is an Economics and Public Policy graduate from FLAME University, currently interning at Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.