Since Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency, he has expanded the Asia-Pacific region to include the Indian Ocean, renaming the enlarged area “Indo-Pacific” and the Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command, a military theater stretching from the Western US to the Indian Ocean.
This was meant to revive Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – consisting of the US, Australia, Japan and India – as the “Indo-Pacific strategy” to counter China.
However, Trump’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” will probably fail because it is against the member countries’ national interests, including those of the US itself. Although they all feel threatened by or wary of China’s economic and geopolitical rise in the region, escalating conflicts of whatever form would adversely impact their economies and risk geopolitical instability in the region.
China is a major trade partner of all four Quad countries, implying that the Chinese market is very important for increasing and sustaining their economic growth. The US and Chinese economies, for example, are deeply entwined, China being both the “factory” and market for many US Fortune 500 enterprises, including Apple and General Motors.
It might be because of this close economic relationship between the two giants that Trump’s ill-advised trade war with China pushed the US economy to brink, raising consumer prices, bankrupting farmers, and increasing poverty. Many of the Chinese goods on which he imposed tariffs were made by American firms in the Asian nation. Against this backdrop, reviving the Quad could be fatal to the US economy, particularly amid the surge in Covid-19 infections and related deaths.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the US economy shrank by more than 30% year on year in the second quarter and is expected to contract by more than 8% in 2020, largely attributed to Trump’s trade wars and mishandling of the pandemic. No US president has ever won a second term in a tanking economy.
Since it was, in part, Trump’s trade war against China and failure to heed the Asian country’s warning about the coronavirus outbreak that pushed the US economy to the brink, there is no reason to believe his increasingly toxic rants against the country will reverse America’s misfortunes.
Indeed, the opposite might be true. While blaming China for the pandemic, Trump has done very little to curb the spread. Trying to kill China’s technology ambitions raised concerns of US businesses being shut out of the lucrative Chinese market.
Attacking China on the economic and technology fronts is already harming America’s interests, and Trump cannot imagine how destructive forming a military alliance to fight China would be. This explains why he ordered his defense secretary to hold a 90-minute telephone conversation with the Chinese defense minister for a peace “pow-wow” on August 6. In short, Trump does not want a war with China, for obvious reasons.
Washington’s Quad partners might be thinking the same thing: Why risk their economies and security over a perceived threat, or cave under US pressure? Besides, China has never given any indication that it will attack any of them militarily.
Indeed, if one cares to examine the history of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and at the Himalayan border, China might not be the bad guy.
There was never any problem of “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea until the US declared its “pivot to Asia” policy in 2012. The disputes between China and Japan surfaced only after the Japanese government decided to buy the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from its “Japanese owners” that same year. The problems on the Indian-China border are a result of the ill-defined Line of Actual Control (LAC), where each country has a different demarcation line.
Australia’s decision to side with Washington for no reason other than being “kith and kin” is ridiculous. If China cuts off Australian exports, and stops sending Chinese students and tourists, Australia could turn into a basket case – together they probably account for 40% of its economy.
Furthermore, Australia is well within the range of Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the majority of the population concentrated in major cities, Australia might not be able to survive attacks on Sydney, Melbourne and other cities. So instead of “putting China in its place,” Australia could find itself destroyed or severely damaged in a China-Quad war.
Although the Abe government and its right-wing supporters might support reviving the Quad, the majority of Japanese might not, particularly the country’s business community. The declining and aging Japanese population raises the importance of the Chinese market to corporate Japan’s financial viability, if not survival. China’s huge and increasingly wealthy population and comprehensive infrastructure system can serve as both a factory and market for Japanese enterprises.
The Quad makes even less sense given Japan’s relatively small landmass and its population concentrated in a few cities. It is unclear whether Japan could survive a war against China because major cities such as Tokyo and US military bases would be the first to feel the wrath of Chinese missiles.
With regard to India, participating in the Quad is equally irrational, given its relatively small economy that is sinking into a deep recession. India simply cannot afford to spend huge sums of money on imported arms to counter China.
It has also been reported that India might not have enough ammunition to fight a war lasting longer than six months. Perhaps with the exception of a few jet fighters the country bought from Russia, France and the US, most of its weapons are outdated. On top of that, Pakistan could be drawn into fray, siding with China. Fighting a one-front war is difficult enough; fighting on two could be fatal for India.
In the end, the US “Indo-Pacific strategy” will fail.
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.