China Power

The Emerging Strategic Triangle in Indo-Pacific Asia

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China Power

The Emerging Strategic Triangle in Indo-Pacific Asia

Indo-Pacific Asia is a recent concept, but one that the region’s strategic planners should note carefully.

For China’s new premier Li Keqiang, the choice of India for his first foreign trip was a smart one. Li went to New Delhi amid a public outcry in India over the territorial spat with China, and then visited Pakistan at a time when a new government was preparing to take office. The context meant the timing was meaningful.

Li took pains to make it clear to India that “we are not a threat to each other, nor do we seek to contain each other,” and pledged to open China’s markets to Indian products to address the trade imbalance and boost commerce to $100 billion a year. The premier also sought to reassure India over the vexed boundary issue and called on the countries to use their wisdom to find “a fair and mutually acceptable solution.” The challenges are many, but the strong political will of the Chinese leadership to keep the bilateral relationship on the right track deserves recognition.

What Beijing will find disturbing, however, is the Indian public’s growing wariness towards China. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute in Australia suggested that more than 80% of Indians view China as a security threat, even though China has become India’s largest trading partner. Moreover, 65% agree that India should join with other countries to limit China’s influence, although 63% would like to strengthen relations with China.

Australia may be the country that does the best job observing and assessing the evolving dynamics between Asia’s two giants, China and India. Chinese strategists keep a very close eye on the research outlets and debates within Australia. One of the most powerful intellectual innovations by Australian international relations scholars in recent years is the concept of “Indo-Pacific Asia”. It is a concept that has inspired many Chinese strategic thinkers and planners to begin to look at China’s grand strategy across a wide Indo-Pacific swath.

And it is true that a power game of great significance has unfolded in Indo-Pacific Asia. The United States, India, Japan and other players are seeking to collaborate to build an “Indo-Pacific order” that is congenial to their long-term interests. China is not necessarily excluded from this project, and it should seek a seat at the table and help recast the strategic objectives and interaction norms that bind all participating states.

The biggest challenge in Indo-Pacific Asia is the grand accommodation among one hegemon and two rapidly rising giants. The pressing task for China, the U.S. and India is to build and sustain substantial and purposeful dialogues to find viable mechanisms for communicating their interests and concerns to each other, managing the impending rivalry and generating synergy for regional stability and prosperity.

The deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin, a location that can be viewed as a crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, indicated that the U.S. is adopting a new two-ocean strategic framework, and is part of the U.S. military pivot to the region.

A U.S. strategic guidance document released in January 2012 emphasized “the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia” and specifically highlighted that “the United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region,” echoing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s encouragement of India not only to “Look East”, but also to “Go East”.

Undoubtedly, China does not want to see India become the linchpin of the U.S. alliance system in the Indo-Pacific region. In June 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted, “America is at a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing a new defense strategy…In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Defense cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy.”

However, neither the U.S. nor China should make the mistake of assuming that there is a natural Indo-U.S. alliance vis-à-vis China. Since independence, India has pursued strategic autonomy as a guarantee for its leading role in world affairs. Most Chinese observers are very confident that India will stick to that creed and will manage its relations with both China and the U.S. effectively.

Indeed, Beijing and Washington might find a “Non-Alignment 2.0” strategy potentially adopted by India quite palatable, since it would allow India to play an important role in sustaining equilibrium within the region.

So, in what areas could the emerging strategic triangle be helpful? Many, in fact. Take Afghanistan, for example. India worries about stability in its front yard, China is concerned about its economic investments and American fears terrorism. Each has a considerable stake in keeping Afghanistan from becoming a failed state. The three powers have much more in common than not when it comes to stabilizing Afghanistan.

Nor should we forget Pakistan, which is also struggling through a very difficult period, but which has an opportunity now under its new government to enjoy belated economic development and normalized relations with India. While helping to mediate conflicts between North and South Korea and between Palestine and Israel, China could do more to facilitate a reconciliation between Pakistan and India.

Most important, the three sides should immediately compare notes on their own Indian Ocean strategies. Secure maritime navigation from Africa and the Middle East to East Asia is vital to energy and resource access. In light of its high dependence on the Indian Ocean sea lanes, China has legitimate rights to safeguard its geoeconomic interests. Beijing has no intention of squeezing the presence and interests of India and the U.S. and contesting for primacy, and cannot afford to do so at any rate. But it should not shy away from articulating its concerns over Indian Ocean security.

The three sets of bilateral ties (China-U.S., China-India and America-India) are today quite fluid. Strategic planners in Beijing, New Delhi and Washington would do well to approach their work with an awareness of this emerging triangle in Indo-Pacific Asia as one of this century’s decisive regions.

Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the China Centre for Contemporary World Studies, the think tank of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. He is also executive editor of China International Strategy Review and a non-resident fellow at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CISS), Peking University.