What do these news events from the past week have in common? Two US warships sailed by the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea. Australia announced that it would support Taiwan’s return to the World Health Organisation (WHO). In Delhi, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi hosted a ministerial meeting on how to lure manufacturing firms from China to India.
The link is summed up in a recently published book, Indo-Pacific Empire. It came out in early March, so was written before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. But it is impressively prescient.
In it Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, highlights an emerging formation on the geopolitical map: the Indo-Pacific, a growing web of alliances centred on the “Quad” of India, Japan, Australia and the US, but also taking in a crescent of maritime states in eastern, south-eastern and southern Asia. Looser and more multipolar than other such formations, it is unified by the quest to balance, dilute and absorb Chinese power. “The Indo-Pacific is both a region and an idea: a metaphor for collective action, self-help combined with mutual help,” writes Medcalf. Two months on from its publication, virtually all of the trends that his book draws together have advanced.
Scepticism towards China is mounting. In an escalating war of words, Australia has called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak. Japan’s economic rescue package included almost 250bn yen (some $2.2bn) to support Japanese firms in moving production out of China. India has tightened investment restrictions in a move clearly aimed at shielding domestic firms from Chinese takeovers; Modi’s meeting illustrating the country’s new willingness to style itself as a rival manufacturing hub.
Among ordinary citizens the shift is more overt. Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institute reports that “anti-China sentiment has gone mainstream” in India, in everything from prime-time news to social media memes. In countries threatened by China’s ambitions in the South China Sea patience is also waning: “What’s new is the outrage south-east Asian states feel over seeing this business-as-usual intimidation at a time when they’re struggling with a pandemic that is at least partly Beijing’s fault,” Greg Poling of the CSIS think tank tells Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the latest Pew survey shows a record 66 per cent of Americans have an “unfavourable” view of China – a shift not lost on Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who are now competing to out-hawk each other ahead of November’s presidential election.
Current events also reinforce Medcalf’s thesis in the way this intensifying wariness about China is pushing different parts of the Indo-Pacific closer together. Australia’s new hawkishness is expressed in its vocal support, echoed by Japan, for Taiwan’s return to the WHO at the World Health Assembly in two weeks. Taipei’s deft response to the outbreak has strengthened its standing more widely, including in India and the Philippines. Chinese naval provocations have had a similar effect, prompting US shows of commitment to its allies around the South China Sea, as well as shows of intra-regional solidarity between them (notably, the Philippines protested when the Chinese coastguard sank a Vietnamese fishing boat on 2 April).
Meanwhile the “Quad”, long considered a fairly peripheral forum, has not only held multiple ministerial meetings to discuss the pandemic in recent weeks, but also expanded to a “Quad Plus” including South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. Its “slow but steady institutionalisation”, writes Rajeswari Rajagopalan in a new report for the Perth USAsia Centre, “suggests that its future expansion is a real possibility.”
It is too early to make firm predictions about the geopolitical fallout of the pandemic. But it is clear that Medcalf is on to something. So watch alignments at the upcoming World Health Assembly, watch the tensions in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula (where Kim Jong-un has apparently reappeared after an unexplained absence), watch Indo-Pacific bilateral partnerships such as the Indian-Japanese one. Watch the US presidential campaign; Biden has not yet unveiled his foreign-policy prospectus but it is likely to include hawkishness on China and a commitment to repairing the US’s international alliances. And do not be surprised if, under a Biden presidency, those two threads combine to make the Indo-Pacific the central idea in US foreign policy.
This commentary is taken from the latest edition of World Review, the New Statesman’s new global affairs newsletter. Sign up here to receive it for free every Friday.