The Indo-Pacific Zone: A Challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

Concerned about China’s escalating influence beyond Western Pacific, Japan and India have come up with ways to complicate China’s strategic calculus and to maintain a multipolar world. This Japan-India collaboration has given birth to the Indo-Pacific alliance.

In this era of changing world order where US hegemony is over, the economic giants in the Asian region which have long-standing ties with the US, such as Japan and India, are trying to play their cards right in the course of ever-complex global transformations. As the global stage brings the spotlight to the ever rising China, with its bold moves to take the baton of international leadership such as through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the other major economic players in Asia are trying to see how best they could respond to this situation. Dubious of the real motives behind the BRI, Japan and India are trying to counteract this with their Indo-Pacific Zone. As it is said, only a giant can go against another giant.

It could be said that in terms of Asian geopolitics, Japan and India – being the two other largest economies in Asia apart from China – are the Asian countries that possess the clout that could approximately counter China’s aggressiveness. In 2017, Japan was the world’s third largest economy with a GDP of $4.4 trillion, accounting to 5.9% of the entire world’s economy. It also plays a substantial role in the international community by being a leading aid donor and a source of global capital and credit. Even in the long run, as projected in the study entitled “The World in 2050”, Japan would still likely hold a high economic ranking albeit lower than the present one. India, on its part, was the seventh largest economy in 2017 with a GDP of $2 trillion, or 2.8% of the global economy. As emerging countries are approximated to still grow rapidly in the future, India can even outpace US. It is estimated that it would be the second largest economy in 2050, lagging behind only from China and holding a rank higher than the US. As such, synergy between these two dominant Asian economies could indeed impose implications in the way China carries out its international ambition.

The “Malacca Dilemma”

Concerned about China’s escalating influence beyond Western Pacific, Japan would like to complicate China’s strategic calculus and maintain a multipolar world. With the backing out of US in the Asia-Pacific region as evidenced in its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, Japan has been forced to take the lead role. India, on its part, has kept its distance from the BRI due to three reasons: first, India strongly opposes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a flagship project under the BRI that involves the highly contentious and disputed Kashmir region; second, India thinks that the BRI could lead the smaller countries into debt trap; and lastly, China’s objectives for the BRI was unclear to India. China did not conduct any consultation with India, and thus, the BRI is seen by the latter as lacking in transparency.

In 2006, India and Japan’s supreme leaders carried out reciprocal visits to discuss how could they boost their strategic and maritime cooperation. In one of the sessions held at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (or IDSA, which is based in New Delhi), China’s strategic vulnerability was discussed specifically zeroing in on the “Malacca Dilemma” and how this insecurity could be extended to the Indian Ocean Region. Later on in January 2007, the concept of Indo-Pacific alliance was first formally introduced in the academic world through the publication of Gurpreet S. Khurana’s “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” which was first published in the Strategic Analyses journal of the IDSA. The author argues that the alliance between India and Japan are likely to intensify due to the expanding Asian economic integration and to the strategic geographic locations of both countries in relation to global distribution of commodities. In his speech in August 2007 at the Parliament of the Republic of India, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of the confluence of the two seas, referring both to the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

The biggest project thus far of the India-Japan collaboration could be the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). In the India-Japan Joint Statement issued on the 11th of November 2016 upon the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan, the two countries acknowledged the convergence of their political, economic and strategic interests that would serve as a foundation for their long-term bilateral relations. In this regard that both countries highlighted the growing significance of the Indo-Pacific region for the world’s prosperity that is based on core values like democracy, peace, rule of law, tolerance, and respect for the environment. What emerged from this joint declaration is precisely the idea of AAGC as a fruition of their strengthened collaboration.

Alternative to China’s Belt&Road Initiative

AAGC was announced in May 2017 by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the African Development Bank meeting in Gandhinagar. It is hinged upon four pillars namely development and cooperation projects, quality infrastructure and institutional connectivity, enhancing capacities and skills, and people-to-people partnership.

With goals pertaining to increased trade, the AAGC is perceived as an alternative to China’s BRI. As explained by Sachin Chaturvedi, the Director General of Research and Information System for Developing Countries (or RIS, a think tank based in New Delhi), the difference is that BRI is centrally planned while AAGC is envisioned to create different growth poles. Moreover, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s speech at RIS explained that AAGC would be built on the premise of good governance, rule of law, transparency, local ownership, consultative method, financial responsibility, ecological preservation, and respect for territorial sovereignty – all these foundational tenets that run counter to China’s BRI.

However, in spite of the combined economic powers of Japan and India, BRI is still too large a project to collide with, and thus pursuit of other big allies has been sought. On the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila in November 2017, the top officials of what is called Quad, comprised of India, Japan, US and Australia, held their first meeting after a decade of hiatus, discussing how to achieve a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. In June 2018, they conducted their second consultative meeting in Singapore. At present, it is said that these four democratic countries are preparing something to counterweigh China’s BRI.

The enormous project of China that is BRI may truly be too big a project to contend with. As such, if other dominating global economies would like to balance out China’s continuous ascendancy, they have to provide a noteworthy and realistic alternative that would address the loopholes and gaps in the offer of China.

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