By J.V. Lakshmana Rao
The US in general and India in particular have sounded stern warning to China against its growing hegemonic attitude powered both by its economic dominance and armed military excesses. The US and its Asian allies have intensified during the past fortnight their efforts to convey this message to China.
The US ire against Chinese attitude has been evident from the Interim National Security Guidelines announced by the President Joe Biden’s government last week.
It is clear that China, which has expected change in the US foreign policy, has been surprised when it has noticed Biden too has been pursuing the well-known Trump’s anti-China policy.
China is now clear that Biden would pursue the time-tested well-known anti-Beijing policy after the March 12 Quad’s first-ever Summit when the heads of the four like-minded member-countries – the US, India, Japan and Australia — participated virtually in it and discussed the issues arising out of China’s “excesses” particularly on the India’s northern-eastern border of Ladakh, including the Line of Actual Control, and occupation of some of the isolated uninhabited as well as shallow water man-made South-Sea islands, and Chinese unilateral naval and submarine vigilance exercises in the area.
The US also sent to Seoul its representatives — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, — who reached on March 17 the capital city of South Korea, which is not part of Quad’s foursome — for talks over the unfinished Trump’s vigorously initiated issue like the North Korean nuclear threat.
South Korea backs the US policy in South Asia and has also provided a place for the US to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system with a radar facility. Obviously South Korea is also aware that its accommodation to the US has angered China which fears that the missile facility could be used by the US for the surveillance of the Chinese territory.
But South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is in his final year in office, also needs the support of both US President Joe Biden and the Chinese Xi Jinping, with a hope to achieve a breakthrough in normalizing relations with North Korea headed by Kim Jong-un. Perhaps this is what inhibits South Korea come out openly to join with the Quad countries, which are obviously working in unison to protect the interests of their countries from the regional dominance of China.
Close on the heels of the Seoul talks, top US and Chinese officials held talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 and 19. They exchanged sharp and public barbs expressing different views of each other in their first ever face-to-face meeting after Joe Biden assumed office as the US President.
Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US would like to express its “deep concerns” over China’s actions when Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi accused the US of “hypocrisy” with regard to “cybercrimes and abuse of human rights.”
Blinken also raised issues like China’s cyber attacks, incarceration of the Uighur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, imposition of new restrictions on Hong Kong, action against Taiwan and the trade tensions with Australia. All these issues were not internal matters and the US was obliged to raise them.
As Yang countered it by describing that the US has been the “champion” of cyber attacks and its democracy “illusory,” Wang said China would not accept “unwarranted accusations” by the US.
Yang added. “Many people in the US actually have little faith in the democracy of the US.”
While reports did not highlight reference to China’s aggression on India’s northern border, in the meetings at Seoul and Anchorage, earlier in a rare and unusual style of expression of unity among four world leaders of Quad member-countries, the US, India, Japan and Australia — President Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Prime minister Scott Morrison — reaffirmed their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region in a joint Oped published in The Washington Post.
In this context addressing journalists, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that China was not only discussed at the Quad Summit but also the US intended to take up Chinese aggression in Taiwan, Senkakus and eastern Ladakh in his scheduled conversation with top Chinese officials.
Some opined that the Oped might be in response to the Quad’s response to Chinese statements that all the four countries had “different fish to fry” in their relations with Beijing, and their economic and other priorities would prevent them from really presenting a united front.
The Oped said: “We are striving to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region is accessible and dynamic, governed by international law, and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, and that all countries are able to make their own political choices free from coercion.”
It added, “In recent years, that vision has increasingly been tested. Those trials have only strengthened our resolve to reckon with the most urgent of global challenges together.”
A press conference held after the Quad Summit, Sullivan said: “This is our effort to communicate clearly to the giant Chinese government, how the US intends to proceed at a strategic level. What we believe are fundamental interests and values, and what our concerns with their activities are, whether it’s on Hong Kong or Xinjiang or in the Taiwan Strait, or their aggression on the border with India.”
As part of the defense cooperation and exchange of information, as highlighted at the Quad Summit, India is progressively increasing its naval exercises with the Quad countries and other key strategic allies, even as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has set out on his first tour of Asia to strengthen military cooperation and ensure credible deterrence against China.
Speaking at the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii on March 13, Austin confirmed that he would be traveling to Japan, South Korea and India to strengthen “alliances and partnerships” as well as foster “credible deterrence” against China.
While India, the US, Japan and Australia made their intent clear to deter any “coercion by China” in the Indo-Pacific region during their leaders’ Quad Summit, their navies have decided to join France for its “La Perouse” exercise to be held in Bay of Bengal from April 4 to 7.
Meanwhile, Austin visited New Delhi from March 19 to 21, in continuation of his tour of Japan and South Korea with Blinken.
After holding talks with India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Austin addressed a joint press conference, where he said: “Prime Minister Modi has stated that India stands for freedom of navigation and freedom of over flight, unimpeded lawful commerce, and adherence to international law. So, this is a resounding affirmation of our shared vision for regional security in the Indo-Pacific region. And it’s clear that the importance of this partnership and its impact to the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead.”
Austin said that elevating the US-India defense partnership was a priority of the Biden-Harris administration. And that would be done through regional security cooperation and military-to-military interactions and defense trade.
He further added: “In addition, we are continuing to advance new areas of collaboration, including information sharing and logistics, and artificial intelligence, and cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber. We also discussed engagement with like-minded partners through multilateral groupings such as the Quad and Asean.
Rajnath Singh said: “The recent leaders’ Summit of India, the USA, Japan, and Australia under the Quad framework emphasized our resolve to maintain a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. We discussed the need for enhanced capacity building to address some of the non-traditional challenges such as oil-spills and environment disasters, drug trafficking, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, et cetera.”
He emphasized that India was committed to further consolidate its robust defense partnership with the US. India would look forward to working with the US closely to make the India-US relationship one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.
He appreciated Austin’s acceptance for participation of the US in Aero India 2021 along with a business delegation. “I invited US industry to take advantage of India’s liberalized foreign direct investment policies in the defense sector,” Rajnath Singh said.
The virtual Quad Summit took place on March 12 as China and India have been involved in a military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern Ladakh since May last year. After several rounds of talks, the two sides simultaneously withdrew troops from the Pangong Lake area in February. Talks have been still continuing for the withdrawal of soldiers from the rest of the friction points along the LAC. China is also engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Japan has maritime disputes with China in the East China Sea.
In the Summit, the leaders of the Quad countries finalized an important initiative under which huge investments would be made in India to create additional production capacities for the export of doses of Civid-19 vaccine to the Indo-Pacific region. This is seen as an effort to counter China’s expanding vaccine diplomacy
The Quad leaders vowed to strive for an Indo-Pacific region that would be free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion. They added: “We are united by our democratic values, and our commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”
In his opening remarks at the Summit, Narendra Modi said that Quad has come of age and its agenda covering areas like vaccine, climate change and emerging technologies would make it a force for global good.
He said India’s daunting vaccine production capacity would be further expanded with the support of Japan, the US and Australia to assist countries in the Indo-Pacific region and the Quad would now remain an “important pillar of stability” in the region.
“We are united by our democratic values and our commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Our agenda today – covering areas like vaccine, climate change and emerging technologies –make the Quad a force for global good” he said.
The Summit of heads of Quad countries and the other various group meetings that have followed, have sent a strong and clear message to China that its coercive dominance would not be allowed to continue.
By J.V. Lakshmana Rao