Beijing’s growing economic might, military modernisation, and aggressive diplomatic efforts were already eroding America’s competitive advantage and shifting the regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific before the COVID-19 crisis began, said the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in its latest report.
The report titled “Positive Visions, Powerful Partnerships: The Keys to Competing with China in a Post-Pandemic Indo-Pacific” said that the pandemic has accelerated trends in the diplomatic, economic, and defence realms in ways that reinforce structural challenges for the United States, but also create opportunities for it to compete more effectively against China.
“Restoring US alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific is critical to competing more effectively against China,” said the report authored jointly by a group of experts, including Stephen Tankel, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Programme at CNAS and Lisa Curtis Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Programme at CNAS among others.
Under the Trump administration, Curtis was deputy assistant to US president Donald Trump, and Senior Director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council (NSC).
Noting that the US-Japan alliance remains a linchpin for any such effort, the CNAS report notes that Tokyo’s diplomatic warming with Beijing has cooled since the COVID-19 crisis began.
“Aggressive Chinese behaviour toward Australia and India in the wake of the pandemic has spurred both countries to sharpen their policies toward China,” it said.
“Together, these four democracies are enhancing their diplomatic, economic, and defence cooperation bilaterally, trilaterally, and through the Quad, which promises to be a core component of the US approach to the Indo-Pacific,” it said.
The report said that another key factor that will influence the geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific moving forward is the extent to which the United States and its fellow Quad democracies can help Southeast Asia recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
On March 12, US President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever summit of the Quad grouping. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga participated in the meeting.
The US-China competition for influence is intense in Southeast Asia, and so the ability of the United States to deliver on a positive agenda for regional recovery will be a key test of its competence, commitment, and credibility in meeting challenges of the Indo-Pacific.
Done correctly, such efforts also provide an opportunity to build ties between the Quad and ASEAN, and to reinforce a web of networked relationships among their respective members, the CNAS said.
In its sets of recommendations, CNAS recommends swiftly following through with plans to work with Japan and Australia to fund the Indian production of at least one billion vaccine doses and their distribution in the Indo-Pacific.
“Consider additional vaccine diplomacy options to pursue unilaterally or in concert with the Quad and other countries,” it said.
The CNAS also recommended increasing defence integration with Japan and Australia.
“Adapt exercises to account for potential reductions in presence and possible future disruptions to training cycles. Seize opportunities to expand the US-India defence relationship. Seek opportunities to reinforce and expand defence ties between all four Quad countries,” it said.
The report recommends prioritising helping Indo-Pacific countries, especially those in Southeast Asia, deal with debt problems resulting from or exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
“Accelerate implementation of existing assistance programmes for infrastructure and human capital development in the region and enhance coordination with other Quad countries on the delivery of assistance,” it says.