“Yesterday is a strange land – tomorrow is ours,” said Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, in 1998. Never was this more true than for 2020 and 2021, which witnessed transformative events worldwide. And nowhere more so than in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, which is changing at multiple gears and levels. As it approaches 2022, the region will bear the stamp of the past five years and will have to chart a course through tensions and crises between the states, both with diplomacy and military preparedness.
The region is central to the global economy and peace, with nine countries playing a key role: the US, China, Japan, India, Germany, the UK, Russia, Australia and France. The geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific will largely be shaped by the interplay of relations between these countries.
Of paramount importance is the comparison between the US and China. As the Trump era ended last January, there was uncertainty about whether the next president would be hard or soft on China. President Joe Biden has demonstrated his formula of determination, resilience and civic discourse in his first year. Expect this relationship to be characterized by constantly hostile, competitive, and cooperative traits.
Differences over Beijing’s southern and eastern China policies, aggressive stances on Taiwan, human rights violations in Xinjiang, the subjugation of Hong Kong citizens and assertive economic aid delivery in the Indo-Pacific – these will weigh heavily on US relations and China. Through its active diplomacy — a series of senior official visits beginning with Vice President Kamala Harris — and reaffirming commitments to both allies and partners, the US signaled it is here to stay. However, it wants the full commitment of its friends to create integrated deterrence and will keep the doors of dialogue open for Beijing. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping, armed with unprecedented authority at home, has been confrontational, as evidenced by China’s repeated raids on Taiwan’s air defense zone and the PLA’s persistence in eastern Ladakh.
In this impasse, the role of new groups and individual nations is significant. The most important are the Quad, a strategic partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia and the militaristic AUKUS (Australia, UK, US). Together they have brought a halt to the perception of China’s regional dominance. In 2022, the effort to curb China’s influence could intensify as Japan under Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announces a bold National Security Strategy (NSS), doubles its defense budget and makes a serious effort to end Article 9 (which restricts the use of its armed forces). military cooperation with the US is being expanded. Meanwhile, India and Australia are on track to deepen ties not only bilaterally but also with the other two Quad powers. The next Quad summit, likely hosted by Japan, will strengthen the group.
Two regional groupings – the EU and ASEAN – can determine how they position themselves in the interaction between Quad and China. The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, announced last September, aims to raise its economic and security profile in and ties to the region. The new government in Germany and the April 2022 presidential elections in France will shape EU policy towards this distant region. Only by being more strategic and less mercantilist, more outspoken and assertive towards China and working more closely with partners like India can the EU – and its former member the UK – hope to become vital players in the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN, located in the middle of Indo-Pacific waters, is facing the heat of China’s aggression and the fiercest rivalry between the major powers. Its unity is under pressure and its centrality is in question. This group has most of the work to do. It should increase its realism and throw off its tendency to wish problems away. Some clear language from the Quad powers with ASEAN governments is necessary; an opportunity will arise when President Biden soon holds a personal summit with the 10 ASEAN leaders.
The outcome of three major summits in 2022 — G7, BRICS, G20 — will also affect the region’s politics and diplomacy. Germany, hosting this year’s G7, will have to assess whether the G7’s 2021 pledge to “Build Back Better World” has made any progress in Asia. It now faces not one but two adversaries: China and Russia. All eyes will be on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the 14th BRICS summit, which will take place in China. It is an unlikely prospect unless Beijing shows enough accommodation to end the deadlock in Ladakh. The G20 summit, hosted by Indonesia, will show whether President Joko Widodo’s deep Indonesian diplomacy and capabilities make him a top statesman.
So where does India stand in these churning Indo-Pacific waters? India has three important obligations. First, to bolster the Quad — especially by ensuring the group lives up to its promise to deliver at least one billion doses of vaccine to Indo-Pacific countries by December 2022. At the same time, India needs to protect its established relationship with Russia and show some resilience in its dialogue with Beijing. Second, it should strengthen cooperation with key Southeast Asian partners — Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand — and bring to mind ASEAN as a group. Third, the eastern and southern parts of Africa and the Indian Ocean island states require sustained high policy attention and financial resources. A clear economic and trade agenda, involving and incentivizing the business community in India to follow suit in this vital region, will surely pay dividends in the long run.
India has done well in fulfilling its humanitarian duties during the pandemic. Learning how to smartly turn them into economic and strategic opportunities in the periphery is the focused task for the country in 2022.
This column first appeared in print on January 15, 2022 under the title ‘The Indo-Pacific opportunity’. The writer is a distinguished fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador with extensive diplomatic experience in the Indo-Pacific region.