Brian Lee CrowleyThe United States’ weathervane-like shifts in policy should have Canada training its attention elsewhere for foreign policy leadership. Brian Lee Crowley says an emerging axis between two democratic great powers, Japan and India, will serve as the foundation for countering China.

By Brian Lee Crowley, May 24, 2017

China may be eager to show itself as a major economic force and voice for trade openness. This was the face China’s President Xi Jinping presented at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

It was also fully on display with China’s recent Belt and Road Forum, where 29 leaders from across the Indo-Pacific came together to discuss China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative that will link Central and Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

Yet more uncertain is whether China can be brought to accept and support a liberal world order based on the rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes.

There is perhaps no other file that encapsulates everything worrisome about China’s behaviour than its current activities in the South China Sea, perhaps the pre-eminent route of maritime commerce in the world today.

Yet more uncertain is whether China can be brought to accept and support a liberal world order based on the rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes.

China has claimed virtually all the land features and much of the waters of this “near sea,” flouting all the rules to establish maritime boundaries and economic zones. Of particular concern has been China’s dredging of waters around various uninhabitable atolls, reefs and rocky to build manmade islands. Three are near completion, likely for military use.

Even when China takes the lead in new initiatives like OBOR or creates new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, it does so to expand its own geo-strategic influence and to counter the institutional order and influence of perceived rivals, not least the United States.

This contrast with US-led initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where states would be free to work together to counter Chinese power. Indeed, beyond trade, the TPP represented the first tentative step towards a regional community of like-minded countries that could stand toe-to-toe with China on a wide variety of files.

Yet, with Washington’s bipartisan abandonment of the TPP, many countries have come to question America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

Even the (in my view) likely resurrection of TPP, under another name and with further significant concessions to the US, will not erase the anxiety that America’s weathervane-like shifts of policy have created in many minds.

With that in mind, we need to look towards the emerging axis between the region’s two democratic great powers, Japan and India – an axis that can serve as the foundation for a larger grouping of like-minded states.

Both countries have an interest in counterbalancing China. The multi-faceted Sino-Indian rivalry is real. India’s strategic focus on the Middle East, from energy trade to a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, is largely a response to China’s increasing leverage in the region. New Delhi’s “Act East” policy extends this strategic focus to Southeast Asia.

Japan is also particularly wary of China’s rise, especially given its continuing disputes with Beijing – from ownership over the disputed Senkaku islands to China’s expansive Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. Japan must also contend with its very vulnerable geographic position, especially its reliance on sea lines of communication, including massive energy shipments from the Middle East.

Should the US fail to come back to the table for a renamed and revitalised TPP, Tokyo and New Delhi appear ready to lead the charge for open trade within the market-oriented economies of the Indo-Pacific.  Early hints of such a vision can be found in Japan’s refusal to accept that the TPP is dead, even in the absence of the United States.

A Japan-India axis is the first step to a larger Indo-Pacific grouping of like-minded states pursuing the rule of law, freedom of the seas and liberal international trade.

Both Japan and India have also launched their own infrastructure initiatives in the region. With Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure initiative and India’s Act East policy, billions will be invested in infrastructure development linking India’s northeast to Southeast Asia.

India was noticeably absent from China’s Belt and Road Forum. Instead, India and Japan will be discussing joint infrastructure development with African stakeholders at an African Development Bank meeting later this month. This might be the first step in both countries’ plan for developing a Pacific-Indian Ocean Corridor, as a push back against China’s OBOR.

A Japan-India axis is the first step to a larger Indo-Pacific grouping of like-minded states pursuing the rule of law, freedom of the seas and liberal international trade.

Such a grouping would not necessarily displace American leadership. But it could help entice the United States into being more engaged – by showing Washington that countries in the Indo-Pacific are taking greater responsibility and shouldering the burden of maintaining the liberal world order.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.