COVID-19 accelerated timelines in regard to China and the Indo-Pacific, which resulted in decreased internal divisions, more certainty and less hedging, creating the possibility of deeper, more effective partnerships.
COVID-19 and China’s strategic push
The field research for this paper ended at the start of March 2020, just as the severe global, political, social and economic effects of COVID-19 were gaining momentum. Each of the six countries has since responded to the pandemic in their own way, from India going for a complete lockdown to Tonga closing its international borders for months. At the same time, China has pushed ahead with its strategic agenda. It passed Hong Kong security legislation, launched major military exercises overtly designed to train for an invasion of Taiwan, and increased activity, both on the India–China border (fatally) and in the East and South China Seas.
Revisiting domestic divisions, uncertainty and hedging
The combined effect of the national responses to COVID-19 was a shift in the three consistent themes that surfaced during the roundtables and interviews – namely, domestic divisions, uncertainty and hedging. In terms of domestic divisions, China’s actions amplified the concerns of, among others, the technology, defence, intelligence and security communities. Those concerns contributed to creating more certainty about positioning with regard to China, which has resulted in reduced hedging. All the elements were in place before COVID-19 emerged, but the virus and its handling accelerated the time scale and created a strategic environment that is now much more resolute about China.
Specifically, in the case of domestic divisions, the main argument during the interviews and roundtables for a cooperative policy towards China had been economic. For example, in the cases of the US, France and Japan, there was reliance on China for supply chains. In the UK there was also major Chinese investment in the City of London. In parts of Oceania there was Chinese tourism.
The pandemic has had such a severe economic effect in all six countries that the cost of some sort of ‘decoupling’ from China can appear relatively minor in comparison.
The pandemic has had such a severe economic effect in all six countries that the cost of some sort of ‘decoupling’ from China can appear relatively minor in comparison. It seems less of an issue to rock the economic boat if that boat is already sinking. As a result, the policy approach of treating China with more caution led by the defence and strategic communities gained traction, and there has been an introduction of economic policies that would have been unthinkable at the start of this research project. The US government, for example, invoked the Defense Production Act, stripped Hong Kong of its special economic status, and cancelled plans to invest billions of dollars of a US federal pension fund in Chinese markets.
In terms of uncertainty, a rise in popular anger at China over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent actions has made it much less politically viable in the six countries (all democracies) to be seen as being ‘soft’ on China. It is likely that a competition over which political parties are the ‘toughest’ on China will become election talking points at least in the near term. This played out recently in the US, with Republicans and Democrats alike vying to be seen as standing up to China. So, while governments may change, the dominant factor shaping Indo-Pacific engagement – a country’s strategic view on China – seems more certain.
The overall result is that the window for hedging – balancing the US and China for better domestic positioning – is closing. Countries are being forced to pick a side. Even the ever-elusive France is talking about backing away from Huawei, a bellwether issue. (However, it is still allowing Huawei to build a manufacturing plant in eastern France.)
The age of allies and partners
As defence, security and intelligence concerns gain traction domestically, and there is less uncertainty and hedging about China, the world is potentially entering a new era of alliances and partnerships. For example, at the start of the field research, the UK permitted the use of Huawei equipment in its telecommunications backbone in spite of security concerns and the potential effect on its relationship with the US. By the end of the research phase, London was proposing a D10 alliance of democracies – the G7 members plus India, South Korea and Australia – to create a 5G competitor to Huawei.
In July 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a ‘new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies’ to face the challenge of China. In his first post-election call with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then President-elect Joe Biden expressed his desire to ‘strengthen and expand the U.S.-India strategic partnership’ and specifically mentioned ‘maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific’. The focus is expected to continue and deepen.
Across the six countries, there is a stated desire to work more closely with like-minded partners, though there are still varying degrees of concern about being seen to be ‘anti-China’, at least economically. In this case, Tonga is likely representative of many smaller countries that still do not have enough alternative economic supports in place to risk being seen as antagonistic towards China.
China is trying to use this leverage to put in place partnerships of its own, especially around economics, for example, the RCEP trade agreement that includes among others Australia, New Zealand and Japan. India conspicuously stayed out of the RCEP, citing concerns over the potential for Chinese dumping into the Indian market. There are also questions about RCEP’s actual reach and effectiveness, especially as many of the countries involved already have bilateral free-trade agreements, and some clauses of the RCEP do not include dispute mechanisms, making them unenforceable.
Meanwhile, a range of ideas for effective cooperation among democracies is being put forward, for example, expanding the Five Eyes to include Japan. Another proposal that is gaining momentum originated from Indian strategists. It is for an Indo-Pacific Charter, along the lines of the 1941 Atlantic Charter signed by US President Franklin Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Atlantic Charter was not a formal treaty. It had eight points to ‘make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future of the world’. Those points included that ‘countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other’ and ‘they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them’. The Atlantic Charter became one of the guiding documents for the establishment of the United Nations and NATO.
The current proposal for an Indo-Pacific Charter seeks to address many of the same areas, including respecting the rights of all people to choose their form of government (i.e. Taiwan). But it adds updated elements such as sovereign control over data (a critical defence issue as concerns mount over China’s use of metadata to refine weaponized AI) and the formation of a space security council.
An understanding of varying perceptions, some examples of which came up in the field research, would be essential in the discussions around the points for a new charter, and how to initiate it. For example, given the issues brought up in the roundtables and interviews around persistent sensitivities about perceived colonial attitudes, a starting point might be to have India and Japan take the lead in consultation with the Quad and regional partners, and then broaden it out to other signatories. Another perception sensitivity that could be addressed by an Indo-Pacific Charter is that countries of any size are considered as full members. Tonga could sign as proudly as India – and while it could not wield the same economic weight, it could perhaps lead in charter areas where it is a leader, such as freedom of worship.
The Indo-Pacific consists of a wide range of countries, with an even wider range of sometimes conflicting perceptions. However, especially since COVID-19, there is growing common concern about China’s economic policies, military expansionism and human rights abuses. The result has been that in strategic communities across the Indo-Pacific, there is an equally growing desire to create a broad consensus on acceptable behaviour, rules and norms, and to state, fundamentally, what they want from increased activity in the region.
An Indo-Pacific Charter is one way to reduce domestic division, uncertainty and hedging by making clear internally and internationally what nations that sign stand for, in the same way as the Atlantic Charter did in 1941. It is a means of creating alliances that are ‘recognized by generals’, if not by lawyers. For it to be effective, there would have to be an enforcement component, but the goal would not be to fight; the goal would be to create partnerships strong enough, and with enough levers (including economic), to dissuade nations that want to dominate unilaterally. That could mean economic boycotts or supply-chain redirecting, rather than naval blockades.
Global strategic focus has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. How the region handles the next few years will determine if it becomes the cradle of crises or solutions.