The international political order is witnessing a formidable churn in current times. The indomitable China’s rigorous pursuit of its maiden cross-continental connectivity project, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is simultaneously developing with a consolidation of power by a few middle and major powers to offer a counterweight and an alternative model to the Chinese ambitious geostrategic juggernaut. The evolution of the Indo-Pacific as space is replete with political, strategic, and economic significance for the emerging Asian order. The Indo-pacific, as a strategic theatre, is believed to be construed in the light of two significant developments. The precipitous rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region and the relative waning influence of US in Asia created the need for the other major Asian power like Japan, Australia and India to step up, in order to make a concerted attempt to prevent the balance of power from being upset in an important political theatre inextricably linked to the region’s economic sustainability and prosperity. However, the conception of the Indo-Pacific as a counterpoise to China’s increasing clout in the region is vitiated by two fundamental contradictions. First, the interpretation and the visualization of Indo-pacific as a space by its chief proponents are variegated and distinctive, making the regional project full of challenges. Second, the powers which envision Indo-Pacific as a strategy to offer an alternative to the growing Chinese influence in the region have yet been unable to come up with a coherent realistic template and adequate resources for crafting an alternative narrative to China’s unabashed and aggressive economic expansionism in the region.
The Ideational Labyrinth
Firstly, the geographical expanse of the Indo-Pacific and the rationale behind the formulation of the mental map of this region is envisaged differently by its notable major constituent powers like the USA, India, Australia, and Japan. The dilemma of the recent resurrection of the loosely framed grouping, the Quad, which ostensibly proclaims to uphold the imperative of “free and open Indo-Pacific”, is another case in point. The USA, despite its occasional rhetoric against China and the ensuing trade war, will eventually have to seek a constructive relationship with China. The presence of USA’s official delegation in the 2017 BRI summit and its subsequent dismissive reading of BRI as a “vanity project” this year can be construed as the USA’s ambivalence over its conceptualization of Indo-Pacific, its function in the Quad and its response to the BRI. Australia, which has precedence in abandoning the Quad in its first avatar, and aligning with China, still finds itself in a diplomatic conundrum today as it has deep-rooted and inextricably linked commercial ties with China. India, which has serious reservations about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as a crucial part of the BRI coupled with India’s skepticism over China’s strategic intrigues in South Asia, has flanked an idea of “inclusive” Indo-pacific to curtail Chinese asymmetric surge in the region. But, at the same time, India appears to be reluctant to perceive the Quad as full-fledged security architecture, which is a counter to Chinese dominance, as antagonizing an ascendant neighbor belies India’s diplomatic pragmatism and strategic autonomy. Japan, which is an early and strong proponent of a free and open Indo-pacific, also seems to appear in two minds as it has enthusiastically participated in the BRI summit and perceives the BRI as a competitive approach, especially in the domain of connectivity and infrastructure building, than a confrontationist demeanor towards China.
The Operational Challenge
While the Indo-Pacific remains caught in the quagmire of policy differences and attitudes of countries, trans-regional formulations like the Quad are attempts towards providing a promising alternative to the strategic and economic order being dictated by China. However, the evolving and amorphous nature of the Quad remains a challenging aspect. The primary concern here is whether the constituent powers claiming to offer an alternative of China’s trans-continental connectivity project have the necessary economic wherewithal and the political will to offer such an alternative. On the other hand, China has shown the economic and political promise to sustain its BRI. Powers like India, Japan, and Australia have much to contemplate regarding their regional and investments in regional infrastructure by all these countries could provide alternative models. Endeavors like the Quad or India-Africa Growth Corridor could materialize, but these alternatives should clearly spell out a reassuring blueprint that would mitigate the apprehensions of the BRI styled debt trap. The Indo-Pacific region, which is tremendously infrastructure-starved, could make every attempt to reap the optimal benefits from both the BRI as well as the alternative projects floated by other stakeholders.
It is crucial to reiterate that history bears testimony to the fact that it is undeniably tempting to float alternative imaginative constructs to counter an aggressive expansionist power, but to accord, realistic dimensions to such conceptual designs remains a herculean task. If a credible alternative to China’s BRI is indeed to be envisioned, then the motley partnerships and alliances would have to commit more in terms of economic contribution and political will. Besides, a well-formulated coherent vision, mutually coordinated planning grounded in reality, and a robust aggregated resource base for the fructification of such a vision will be indispensable for a balanced Indo-Pacific.
*** The author is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. Ambar is presently working as a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. He is currently working on the project, “Understanding Public Perceptions: India and China”. He has been a former Guest Faculty at the Department of Political Science, Siliguri College (University of North Bengal) and alumni of Vision India Foundation. ***
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