The dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region and the South China Sea have changed radically over the past few years.
Only a few years ago, China was building up South China Sea fortifications with apparent impunity, insisting on possession of the area within its “nine-dash line,” continuing to threaten Taiwan and using military intimidation against Japan over claims over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台), or the Senkakus in Japan.
Beijing continues to intimidate Taiwan, but its provocations of India, and its political and economic bullheadedness regarding Australia, have forced re-evaluations in New Delhi and Canberra over how to balance the economic advantages of not upsetting Beijing with the threat of ignoring its excesses.
Amid the US-China trade dispute, Sino-Japan ties warmed as Beijing sought to mitigate the economic pain, but that did not prevent then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe from orchestrating the Free and Open Indo-Pacific foreign policy concept — which was adopted by US President Donald Trump as a blueprint for his engagement with Asia — or from resurrecting the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad) between India, Australia, the US and Japan to contain China, an Abe innovation that had fallen to the wayside with leadership changes in Japan and Australia.
In the past few months, cooperation between the Quad countries has accelerated, with the Malabar joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean completed last month. India’s invitation to Australia was especially significant, allowing all four nations to participate for the first time in 13 years.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga remains positive about the Quad’s potential. Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have spoken to US president-elect Joe Biden, who confirmed with Suga that the US-Japan security treaty applied to the Senkakus, and expressed with Morrison his commitment to maintaining a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
With continued US support under Biden, the Quad has the potential to become a more consolidated, effective coalition. If it opens up to other regional partners, such as South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, it could be an Asian version of NATO.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — who is mindful of Taiwan’s reliance on US weapons sales for national defense, and the need to promote not just the perception, but the reality of Taiwan providing its own national security — is prioritizing an indigenous weapons development program.
Hopefully, Taiwan can stop being a recipient of support and contribute more not only to its own, but to regional security, making itself a valuable asset and potential participant in a Quad-plus Asia body.
Some commentators are expressing concern over the signals that Biden’s transition team is putting out, with his choice of retired four-star US Army general Lloyd Austin as US secretary of defense — who lacks experience dealing with China — and with his subtle amendment of the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” to a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
However, Biden himself says that he intends to focus not on military force, but on alliance-building, international cooperation, economic policy and diplomacy. This vision would certainly be facilitated by an “Asian NATO” in the Indo-Pacific, to avoid war not through military might, but through the collective will to maintain peace and the rule of law.
Abe envisioned the Quad and the free and open Indo-Pacific as an insurance policy, given concerns over US reliability given the untested nature of a mercurial Trump. He also knew that, even disregarding its military strength, the US would still be needed because of its unifying competencies.
An empowered, unified, extended Quad-plus regional infrastructure would be important to achieving US foreign policy goals in Asia, and Taiwan could be an invaluable partner.
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