August 18, 2014

What Beijing Fears Most: Intra-Asian Balancing

The following blog post appeared originally in The Interpreter, the blog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, on August 18, 2014. It was republished in the Business Spectator on August 20. An excerpt is included below, and the original post can be found here.

Yet there's a third possibility that White has overlooked, one that is much more troublesome from Beijing's standpoint. That is the evolution of a strategic, security, and technological compact among resident Asian powers that serves to balance China. Chief among these balancers would be Japan and India, but Vietnam, Australia, and others could all conceivably play crucial roles. Indeed, Rory Medcalf and C Raja Mohan have recently raised this very possibility: the emergence of middle-power coalitions in the Indo-Pacific.

The one that has Beijing most worried, judging by the rushed visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to New Delhi in June, is the emerging strategic relationship between India and Japan. Security ties between these two countries are, at present, at risk of being both wildly oversold and under-explored. But there is no discounting the potential. As I've written elsewhere, India and Japan share similar concerns about Chinese intentions (both are locked in territorial disputes with China) and have doubts about Washington's commitment to the region. They also have complementary strengths, with Japan's financial resources and technological sophistication a natural foil for India's manpower-heavy and battle-hardened military. 

A security partnership with India offers Japan at least two other benefits, both of which, if carried through, could undermine Beijing's plans for regional hegemony. Japan's military-to-military contacts with India enable it to prepare for out-of-area contingencies, particularly in the maritime realm, which represents a key step in Japan's path to becoming a normal military power. More significantly, the possibility of joint production of the US-2 aircraft with India, and its potential export to third countries, could mark a major development as part of Japan's reversal of its self-imposed ban on defence exports.

There is a tendency in some quarters to downplay Beijing's ability to make mistakes. Even its handling of public relations — not exactly China's strong suit — can somehow be re-interpreted as an act of brilliance and sophistication. While White rightly raises two scenarios in which China's assertiveness towards Japan reaps dividends, it's hard to completely discount the possibility that Beijing is being short-sighted. China's leaders might relish the thought of unquestioned Asian dominance or a revanchist campaign against an isolated Japan. But the emergence of a balancing coalition led by Japan and India (and possibly including others) presents a much more daunting prospect.