SSU Forum with Associate Professor James Crabtree

Date: Friday,March 02, 2018, 11:30 - 13:00
Venue: Conference Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject: “The Rise of the Indo-Pacific: Can India and Japan Shape the New Global Order?”
Lecture: James Crabtree, Associate Professor of Practice at the LKY School in National University of Singpore/td>
Language: English
hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India have drawn closer of late, as both leaders grapple with the challenges of China's rise. At their last meeting in September 2017, Mr. Abe said stronger ties between the two Asian nations could become the "basis to underpin the regional order”. Both have also pushed the idea of the "indo-pacific", while unveiling their own plan to rival the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: the $40bn Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. But given their respective economic and military limitations, can a new partnership between India and Japan really shape a changing global order? And what would it need in terms of political will and economic resources to succeed?

The Security Studies Unit was delighted to host James Crabtree, Associate Professor in Practice at the LKY School, as well as a senior fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) at the National University of Singapore.

Professor Yee-Kuan Heng, member of the SSU, introduced the guest as an outstanding expert on Asian international politics, who has lived in India for several years working as a correspondent for the Financial Times before moving to Singapore. Mr Crabtree thanked the host and also SSU Director Professor Kiichi Fujiwara. He illustrated the topic of his talk, namely the concept of a “free and open Asia-Pacific”, why it is emerging now, and why it matters.

In order to explain this concept, it is important to start from the uncomfortable but fundamental observation that the Asia-Pacific region is being divided into two broad spheres of influence, led by China and the US respectively.

The rise of China implies that those nations who want to escape or resist a possible future Chinese regional hegemony are now likely to devise strategies in that respect. In the recent past and with the new Trump administration in the US, such an early strategy seems to be taking shape, encompassing four international players: the US, Japan, Australia, and India. These form the so-called “quad”. Mr Crabtree sketched a brief history of this quadrilateral initiative, which in his view starts as a Japanese idea initially contemplated by the first Abe cabinet in 2007. At that time, Prime Minister Abe visited Delhi and promoted the idea of an Indo-Pacific geopolitical space. This lead to the very first steps of the “quad” in 2007-2008 with a quadrilateral security dialogue, but the initiative collapse, allegedly because of the government change in Canberra.

Why is the “quad” resurfacing at this juncture? The main reason is the relative policy vacuum in the United States. After the previous administration’s promise of a “pivot to Asia” which basically did not materialise, the Trump administration seems to lack a coherent strategy for its Asian foreign policy. While the President had a rather hard anti-Chinese stance during the electoral campaign, the first year in office did not see major offensives against Beijing. However, that tone has changed in more recent months, particularly concerning trade.

More generally, it seems that the US administration is now inclined to see China as a geopolitical rival. Within this framework, the US has now begun to adopt the idea of the “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and within that the “quad” itself, as a developing foreign policy idea which might fill this policy vacuum.

It is worth noting that the US has done this in effect by adopting an originally Japanese approach to the problem, and one which has been pushed by the diplomatic skills of PM Abe. It is unusual for the US to adopt a foreign policy concept that did not originate from within its own government, but from a foreign government.

Why is this happening now? Mr Crabtree listed three factors, whose cumulative effects.

The first factor is the increasing concern about Chinese military assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea and more general in its naval operations. Each one of the quad nations has reasons to be worried about China.. Australia has been going through espionage scandals in relation to Beijing. India has seen its relations with China worsening over the past few years. Japan has longstanding concerns in the East China sea, as well as elsewhere.

The second factor are the negative feelings associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is now about five year old. While it stated as a large framework for infrastructure investment in Asia, underpinned by a series of domestic and international considerations (export of domestic overcapacity, particularly in steel production, the aim of developing the Western parts of China, the national energy security policy) it is now extending in all directions and some expansionist traits are becoming difficult to deny. The sheer scale of this project is now alarming. If other nations are going to try to balance it with similar initiatives, as in the case of Japan, it is clear that they do not have the resources to do it autonomously, but need the cooperate with other actors.

The third factor is the domestic political situation in the US. There is a certain confusion in Washington concerning foreign policy in general and its approach to East Asia in particular. Even the “pivot” promised under the previous administration did not yield the expected result, and under Trump the situation has certainly not improved. Besides, Trump’s preference for bilateral diplomacy, as opposed to multilateral, makes the management of alliances more complicated. The idea of an “Indo-Pacific” strategy, envisaged by Japan and to some extent now adopted by the US, presents itself as a stop-gap, a provisional fix, although it is clear that many more details are needed to understand what exactly this idea will or could mean in practice.

After analysing these three factors, Mr Crabtree focused on the evolution of Japan-India relations, which can be seen as an important test of any quad strategy. Japan and India have been drawing closer for some time, partly because of PM Abe’s diplomatic initiative in that direction on the one hand, and as a reaction to China’s assertiveness on the other.

Abe and Modi share conservative values. Japan and India also have complementary economic needs, especially in infrastructure development, where Tokyo can make substantial contributions to India’s much needed infrastructure build-up. Both countries are considering large-scale infrastructural projects in the Indo-Pacific region, including the newly announced Indo-Africa Growth Corridor, which focuses particularly on maritime links and harbours. Mr Crabtree acknowledged that there are numerous unknowns in how this new “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategic concept will develop, and the “quad” as a specific grouping alongside it. It is difficult to envisage how the quad will function in the longer term, especially given the complicated set of relations between India and its neighbourhood, as well as India and the US. The US may continue to pursue this strategy, or may change its policy entirely. Much will also depend on China and how aggressive Beijing chooses to be it. Yet the basic argument remains that this is the best option those four countries have. Therefore, instead of being on defensive and reactive, they should try to create together a more affirmative vision under the Indo-Pacific banner, with the potential to attract allies and mobilise resources.