ANTHONY PUN. The Battle for Indo-Pacific.

Aug 9, 2018

China is surrounded by at least 16 countries, some with common borders and territorial disputes with her. Japanese PM’s proposal in 2005 to form a Quad alliance (US, Australia, India and Japan) is seen by China as the introduction of Cold War in the Asia Pacific. Former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby provides a deep insight why Australia should not be a part of it. The analysis of individual countries surrounding China revealed that the BRI initiatives are making an impact on the recipient countries and they are more likely to be neutral or distance themselves from the Quad. India and Japan are likely to changes sides when it suits their national interests and that leaves Australia holding the unwanted baby. 

There are more than 16 countries surrounding China and they include ROK, DPRK, Japan (east), Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia & Australia (south) and India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan (west).

It would appear that the Battle of the South Pacific has rekindled the Quad forum. 

The Quad, first proposed by Japanese PM Abe in 2005 with India, Australia, Japan and US as members is seen by Beijing as containment. Geoff Raby also made the comment that Beijing was perplexed why Australia would want to be part of the Quad when “its been a leader in promoting deeper regional integration through APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum and various ASEAN-plus mechanisms. More recently, Australia had also initiated the Bali Process on People Smuggling.

China BRI initiatives are making headways in the western flank and India is being given the red carpet treatment and priorities in several summits in the last 6 months with additional inducers such as helping to cool the India-Pakistan conflict. As for the Himalaya border conflicts, China is astute enough to keep the status quo and put the issue on the back burner when discussing bi-lateral relations with India. Deep down, India is still a non-aligned country and her relations with China dates back at least 2,000 years. China cannot afford to lose India.

China does not interfere with the domestic politics of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar and accepting China BRI initiatives for their infrastructure developments are more palatable than Western investors who asked too many curly questions.

Sri Lanka also welcomes BRI initiatives.

On the eastern flank, the main arch rival is Japan. Although  PM Abe and the military appear hawkish and pro-American, the people of Japan are peace loving and would not like to see another war. The lack of natural resources is the main reason Japan went to war. The Japanese have not forgotten who “nuked” them. If China can give what Japan wants, Japan will become non-aligned. A warm China-Japan relations is a fundamental to peace in East Asia.

The BRI initiatives will ultimately reach the shores of the Philippines, Indonesia, ROK (South Korean) and DPRK (North Korea) and any territorial disputes with these countries including Japan & Vietnam, can be settled among the party nations without outside interference. Sharing of resources in the disputed islands is a better way to resolve conflicts.

According to a Philippines government report, “the Philippines-China relations have gone through dramatic changes in recent months. Following the Duterte Administration’s pronouncements signalling a change in the approach towards China, with USD 24 billion worth of Chinese funding and investment pledged”.

The proposal to cut a canal in Southern Thailand will bring shipping to the Indian Ocean without having to travel through the straits of Malacca and boost the Thai economy.

In Indochina, the Laos and Cambodia can be considered as China’s friend. (Laos)

 It would appear that Vietnam could be playing both sides, but in the end, the wiser decision would be to have a closer relations with a powerful country who shares a common border with your country.The  China border skirmish and territorial disputes can be settled and it is in China’s interest to keep Vietnam happy. Despite the difficulties, China and Vietnam will make it together.

In Malaysia, the new PM plans to visit China to review China’s investment in the infrastructure deal. The interview of PM Mahathir by CNN cable TV indicated that the PM is not buying into any containment politics by the US and commented that any issues should be resolved by Asians themselves.

Our northern neighbour is also involved with the BRI. An uptick in lending for BRI infrastructure projects in Indonesia has led China to overtake Japan as the country’s second-largest foreign investor in 2017.

China has additional advantage over Australia in influencing these countries such as ROK, DPRK, Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, They have common cultural and religious heritage.

The above analysis of countries surrounding China, predicts that in the long term, most if not all countries would eventually be aligned with China, not as military allies but as economic allies for co-prosperity and peaceful coexistence.

If Australia intends to proceed with a Cold War front in Quad, Australia would end up as the lone Deputy Sheriff with India and Japan drifting off in the sunset. The other worry is whether the US Sheriff would also change sides. Egg on Face!

There is still time to steer Australia into safe waters and play a major influential role in Asia Pacific affairs and enjoy the co-prosperity and peace in the Asia Pacific as suggested by many distinguished authors in Pearls and Irritations. Inclusion of China is better than Isolation, lest we be isolated in our region.

Postscript: Australia, Japan and the US have proposed to start a new “BRI” initiative to compete with China.IT now looks like the Quad is  reduced to the “Pacific Trio”. However, competition is fair game but containment is a risky business.

Dr Anthony Pun OAM, is the current National President of the Chinese Community Council of Australia Inc.

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