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Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP): Geopolitics in the time of COVID

The increasingly muscular diplomacy displayed by China in recent weeks appears to be a calculated move, with an assessment forming that Beijing is deliberately upping the ante to counter a global push for an investigation into the origin and spread of the coronavirus. Beijing’s response to such initiatives so far has been decidedly combative. With international pressure mounting, Chinese President Xi Jinping relented by stating that China supported the idea of a comprehensive review but insisted that it be “based on science and professionalism led by WHO.”

The most glaring example of its growing belligerence is the whiplash response to Australia’s advocacy for an impartial and independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. More than 100 countries, including Australia, have co-signed the World Health Assembly (WHA) motion for a probe into the global outbreak. Australia’s trade minister said on Tuesday that his country does not want a trade war with China. The statement was issued after Beijing imposed stiff tariffs on Australian barley in what is widely seen as punishment for Canberra’s push for an investigation into the spread of the coronavirus. In a previous interview, Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye struck an ominous tone when he told the Australian Financial Review that Australia should expect to face a Chinese boycott of its tourism and export of wine, beef and other products if the government insisted on a coronavirus inquiry. This was followed by China effectively ending imports of Australian barley by imposing tariffs of more than 80% on the crop, all but killing a lucrative market for exporters. The move came a week after China banned beef imports from Australia over labeling issues.

Meanwhile, closer home, Nepal handed out a diplomatic note to the Indian envoy in Kathmandu, and went as far as to unveil a new political map with Kalapani as Nepalese territory. This was after the Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road up to Lipulekh, meant for pilgrims to cross over on the way to Kailash Mansarovar. Nepal’s objection to India’s newly-inaugurated road via the Lipulekh Pass is likely at the behest of “someone else”, Army Chief General M.M. Naravane said on Friday, hinting at a possible Chinese role. Addressing an online conference, General Naravane remained restrained in tone, stating that only the area east of the Kali river is Nepalese territory. “There is no dispute about that. The road we have built is west of the river.”

Indian and Chinese troops have also engaged in a growing number of standoffs on their sprawling border, including the latest one at the Naku La Pass, which connects the Indian state of Sikkim with China-occupied Tibet. Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, has drawn parallels between the growing skirmishes in the Himalayas and Beijing’s years of increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. “For anyone who was under any illusions that Chinese aggression was only rhetorical, I think they need to speak to India,” Wells told the Atlantic Council think tank.

Most experts believe the pandemic is highly likely to permanently alter the West’s dynamics with Beijing. We are certain to witness increasing efforts to address China’s grip on global supply chains. Efforts are already underway in the US Congress to bring back the manufacture of essential medicines and medical devices to the United States. There is a growing global perception that steps must be taken to address China’s stranglehold on vital supply chains. India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form and across all sectors is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion of its pandemic-linked economic support package for the specific purpose of promoting the shift of manufacturing operations outside of China. As the covid crisis gives way to what will inevitably be a gradual decoupling of the American and Chinese economies in key strategic sectors, it is imperative that this strategy be also deployed for the greater geopolitical stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region.

Free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP): The road ahead

The Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) policy was unveiled by the US President in a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November 2017. The FOIP policy was seen as a successor to the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was first developed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and embraced by India and the US. Earlier in his address to the Indian Parliament in 2007, Prime Minister Abe had advocated for the “confluence” of the Pacific Ocean to the edge of the Indian Ocean to form an “arc of freedom and prosperity.”

By establishing trans-border connectivity corridors, FOIP is designed to connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The aim is to maintain and strengthen a rules-based and open maritime order to prevent instability and conflict, specifically avoiding any one country’s dominance in the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific region. The overall focus of FOIP is on fostering maritime capacity-building and funding regional interconnectivity projects. FOIP has the potential to create a single strategic system, grounded on values of peace and stability and based on open, transparent, and economically sustainable principles with the overall aim of empowerment for developing countries.

Although the focus remains for FOIP to be an “inclusive” forum, it has the potential to mature into the democratic alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Alongside Japan and the US, India has been critical of BRI as “debt-trap diplomacy,” particularly after Sri Lanka handed over a deep-sea port to China for 99 years after being unable to pay its loan back.

India was the only major “quad” country to boycott China's second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2019 over its objection to the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). India also boycotted the first BRF held in 2017, citing issues of “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” as the roots of its concerns. Less than two months after India’s initial boycott of BRI, the two neighbors were involved in a 72-day standoff in the Doklam plateau bordering India, China and Bhutan.

Politically, India under Prime Minister Modi appears to be shifting steadily towards the other major democracies, as the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad grouping underscores. India recently set up an Indo-Pacific division in its Ministry of External Affairs. The new division puts the Indian Ocean at the center of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. India is also a “major defence partner” of the US, with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. At the bilateral level, Japan is considered a trusted partner and is the only foreign power that has been invited by the government of India to undertake projects in India’s sensitive northeast. Recently, Japanese funding agency JICA approved a loan for a 19 km four-lane bridge in the region to connect the neighboring states of Assam and Meghalaya, which will reduce the travel time from eight hours to 20 minutes.

India is home to the world’s second-largest peninsula, and is also the only Quad member that shares a land border with China. Its interests and concerns in the region thus remain unique, and the FOIP concept as it develops will need to accommodate these sensitivities and the need for strategic autonomy into its hybrid regional vision. India’s official position is that it does not seek to isolate any country, and aims to create an inclusive Indo-Pacific. It is thus in the country’s interest to promote a pluralistic, inclusive, rules-based Indo-Pacific order. It is equally incumbent upon the region’s largest democracies – Australia, India, and Japan— as well as the US to promote peace and stability for the overall prosperity of the region.

As such, a “quad” style platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination is a vision that holds considerable promise, as does FOIP. For the foreseeable future, the geopolitical interplay in the Indo-Pacific region will continue to be defined by complex and multilayered features. The scale of transnational issues in a concept such as FOIP means that countries will have to continuously navigate to garner the benefits of the proposed system and simultaneously hedge against country-specific risks.

Through it all, one would do well to keep in mind that what is most necessary to protect is what binds these countries together in the first place: a commitment to democracy and equality before law.

(Richa Jayal is a senior researcher on India-Japan affairs, and an entrepreneur in linguistics. She is a graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Osaka University). 


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