In Stratfor's 2017 Annual Forecast, we wrote that China's influence in the South China Sea has steadily grown, thanks to a campaign meant to expand and modernize the Chinese military and to develop the sea's islands. China's strategy in the South China Sea has included making concessions to potentially amenable claimants in the region while pressuring more outspoken claimants through limited punitive economic measures. China will maintain this strategy in 2017, preferring to handle disputes on a strictly bilateral basis. Meanwhile, however, China's regional rivals — particularly Japan — will expand their maritime security cooperation and try to work more closely with the United States to counter China's rise. To this end, Japan, Australia, India and the United States are recharacterizing the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific.
U.S. President Donald Trump's prominent tour of the Asia-Pacific ended with limited concrete success, but it has produced an important conceptual change to U.S. strategy in the region. On Nov. 12, leaders from the United States, India, Japan and Australia met in Manila to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) and to urge cooperation for a free and open Indo-Pacific. The term Indo-Pacific, and the policy implications that come with it, is an important indicator of how the United States and its allies are working to shape geopolitics, or at least how it's conceived. And the fact that Trump repeatedly referred to the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific points to just how central the idea is to his administration's foreign policy.
Geopolitics on the Asian continent is organized around the numerous seas, bays and lagoons that fringe its expansive oceans. The Indo-Pacific idea simply expands the conceptual region of Asia-Pacific to include India and the Indian Ocean. The QSD translates this geopolitical understanding into strategy, envisaging the two oceans as a single security space, which includes India and Japan, is bridged by Australia, and is undergirded by U.S. maritime dominance. The impetus for such a reconceptualization is simple: Japan and India, isolated as they are in their own oceans, want to balance against the Western Pacific's rising power, China, by uniting under a single geopolitical sphere.
The Indo-Pacific is not a new concept. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first proposed the QSD in 2007 during his ill-fated first term, but it quickly fell apart after Australia's Labor Party-led government, which opposed the organization, assumed power. The idea of an Indo-Pacific region, however, endured. The notion has resurfaced time and again, brought up by numerous leaders in former U.S. President Barack Obama's administration during its Pivot to Asia. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster began using the term instead of Asia-Pacific.
For a buzzword, Indo-Pacific has been remarkably durable. In the decade since Abe proposed the QSD, China's regional clout has only grown, making the QSD more relevant than ever. China has cemented its dominant position in the South China Sea, expanded in the disputed East China Sea, established footholds in the Indian Ocean, and pushed roads and military infrastructure to the Indian border. During the past year, China held a landmark summit of its 64-nation Belt and Road Initiative, made progress toward a South China Sea Code of Conduct, faced off with India on the Doklam Plateau, and opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Meanwhile, a de facto alliance between China and Russia based on their shared interest in challenging the United States has begun to take shape.
As positive as all of these developments are for China, the country's rise and its attempts to gain more regional influence impinge on the imperatives of a growing number of other countries. This makes China uniquely vulnerable to the sort of alignment the QSD offers: Smaller nations in Asia feel less threatened by U.S. power because of the country's geographic distance from them. Separately, China's rivals have already been working to offset China's strength. In July, Japan participated in military exercises in India's Malabar region, which it also did in 2007, 2009 and 2014. Japan and India have also announced the launch of a program, the Freedom Corridor, to compete with China's Belt and Road program. The relaunch of the QSD builds on this cooperation and on the increasing military ties between all members of the QSD. Apart from countering China, the unique format addresses key interests from all of its members: Japan's need to protect energy flows from the Middle East, the United States' desire to devolve responsibilities to regional allies, as well as Australia's and India's bid to become maritime powers.
The success or failure of the QSD will be determined by not only cementing the initial grouping but by expanding the "Indo-Pacific" concept to include the numerous smaller powers bordering the two oceans. Countries occupying key geopolitical positions — namely Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Sri Lanka — could be enlisted as part of the effort to balance against China. But this is where the concept would run into serious trouble. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the competing Western and communist spheres of influence offered stark choices, the United States never succeeded in forging the same strategic unity in Asia it achieved on the other side of the Eurasian landmass through NATO. Without the imminent threat of the Cold War, the prospect of unity is even more limited today, particularly given increased interconnectedness of trade since the 1990s. Many small countries enjoy the economic benefits of strong relations with China and the security benefits of relations with the United States. They would be hard-pressed to align against either.
Even in its current form, the QSD's viability and effectiveness are questionable. India's military capacity is still limited, particularly in terms of its force projection capabilities, hindering its ability to advance its land-based goals, much less its maritime ones. India also has close connections to Russia, especially in the realm of defense procurement, and will be hosting the Russia-India-China trilateral meeting in December. In addition, the country has a long history of preserving autonomy, dating back to the Cold War, and is wary of subservience to any foreign power. Any balancing against China will have to factor in these three limitations. Even the stalwart U.S. allies Japan and Australia have their limits. Japan is engaged in the slow process of empowering its military for a role in foreign policy and will need to balance the expense of that shift against social spending. Australia, which nixed the original QSD, is torn between its strong economic relationship with China and its loyalty to its strategic allies. It's leaning toward its strategic allies now, but time and economic considerations could always change that.
Considering the shifting dynamics in the Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific concept and its strategic implications have no guarantee of success. If the nascent alignment of the QSD does advance, its progress will be slow. But as China's regional ambitions grow, so will efforts to provide a coherent geopolitical response to that rise, including through the QSD.