After the end of the Cold War, the United States did not give up its efforts in this area. In addition to promoting security cooperation among its Asia-Pacific allies and partners, it has also frequently put forward various regional security cooperation initiatives with the intention of integrating its hub-spoke and bilateral alliance system transformed into a multilateral network cooperation framework. This kind of action became more and more prominent after the “Asia-Pacific rebalancing” strategy was proposed. The Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” is even more worrying. “Is the wolf really here?”
The United States now regards China as its biggest strategic competitor and Sino-US relations continue to decline; India has provoked border conflicts, and Sino-Indian relations have encountered challenges not seen in decades. In the common context of the “China threat”, the United States and India are quickly approaching (each other), and India seems to be abandoning the “non-alignment” policy it has pursued since its founding.
However, even so, the formation of the “Asian version of NATO” still has some inherent obstacles, which will be difficult to overcome in the short term.
First, the US “Indo-Pacific strategy” is suspected of over-reach. In terms of geographic scope, the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” even surpasses NATO. In terms of geographic complexity, the political system, culture, and religion of the Indo-Pacific region are far more diverse than Western Europe and North America. The goals and tasks of the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” are also very different from those of NATO. The competition between China and the US is largely a game of sea power rather than land power. Sea power is different from land power. It is usually an inclusive power rather than a completely exclusive power. Current sea power and ocean control are manifested more in the relative influence and comparative advantage in a certain sea area. It is a negotiated power rather than decisive power. The United States completely ignores China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and reasonable position in the region, which is not realistic strategically.
Second, the geo-integration of the Indo-Pacific region is extremely difficult. Traditionally, Japan, Australia and India are not in the same geographic plate, but far apart geographically. The sub-regional plates of East Asia, South Pacific and South Asia have their own unique power positions and influences. Joint checks and balances are very difficult. They are either not adjacent to China on land, or the geopolitical situation on land is difficult to change. Japan and Australia are in the former situation, while India faces the latter situation. These countries indeed do have geographic contradictions with China to a greater or lesser degree, but their respective focii are different. It is quite difficult for them to take joint actions to form a strong “Indo-Pacific” alliance. As for other countries in the region, many may be willing to use the “Indo-Pacific” geographical concept, but they are unwilling to become a tool for great power rivalry.
The third is the absence of international political soil (receptivity) for bloc, confrontational politics. The US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” over-emphasises China’s rise and geopolitical competition with China, while ignoring other geopolitical phenomena in the region and the increasing policy independence of small and medium-sized countries. In fact, most countries in the region pursue a strategy of “hedging” between China and the United States. They are unwilling to see China and the United States move towards a zero-sum game, and they are unwilling to choose sides between China and the United States. The interests and concerns of these countries cannot be ignored. They cannot be the puppets of the United States. The “four-nation strategic concept” proposed by the United States overemphasizes the role of India, Japan, and Australia. It will also hurt the pride and enthusiasm of regional powers like South Korea and Indonesia. Regardless of whether it is in the South Asian subcontinent or Southeast Asia, no other country in the region has responded positively to cooperating with the United States in establishing a strategic framework against China. They are willing to accept the geographic concept of the “Indo-Pacific”, but they all emphasize the establishment of tolerance and an inclusive order in the region. The establishment of NATO was formed on the basis of all-out political, economic, and military confrontation between the two major camps. Today, the possibility of such an all out confrontation is not evident.
All strategies and policies “seek to realise the ideal.” Although the US “Indo-Pacific strategy” is difficult to be fully implemented, and the “Asian version of NATO” is unlikely to be realized, even if the goal is partially achieved, it will cause problems and no mean strategic pressure and policy dilemma for China. As far as China is concerned, instead of getting entangled with the threat of an “Asian version of NATO,” it would be better to concentrate on its own tasks and strengthen its hedging ability and position.
Therefore, what China needs to do most is to persistently promote good-neighborly diplomacy, navigate its periphery well and better integrate its own rise with the development of its neighbors. China also needs to prompt the international community to recognize that China’s claims to a rules based order are open and inclusive. The more closed the United States is, the more exclusive it is, the more open and inclusive China must be. In addition, whether it is the fortification of “external lines” of military strategy or the solid advancement of the “Belt and Road” initiative, it is necessary to take into account the constraints and interference brought about by the implementation of the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. It is necessary to have the requisite strategic determination as well as prudence.
(The author is the Director of the “South China Sea Strategic Situation Awareness Program”)