Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini & Mahitha Lingala*
The vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative has been perceived as Washington’s strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative and it’s growing influence in Asia.
While the initial steps were taken by the Obama Administration in 2015 during Obama’s visit to India by releasing a Joint Strategic Vision statement for the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean region and putting efforts into canvassing for India to act as a partner to support Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy,the Trump Administration has given a further push to the concept of the FOIP (Free and open indo Pacific). During his 12 day Asia trip in November2017, Trump used the term Free and Open Indo-Pacific on more than one occasion – much to the discomfort of Beijing.
While delivering his second major address of the trip, he mentioned USA’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region at the APEC(Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEO Summit in Da Nang (Vietnam). Upon his return from the trip, Trump stated that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific was one of his key foreign policy objectives.
The revival of the Quad, consisting of US, India, Australia and Japan, has given a further fillip to the FOIP strategy. This initiative was revived in 2017 after a decade. Their most recent meeting in fact was held on June 1, 2019 at Bangkok. During the meeting, officials from the four countries these met and held consultations on a number of issues and reaffirmed their shared commitment to preserving and promoting the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
Some steps have been taken, by the US, towards enhancing connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Trump Administration passed the BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development) act in October 2018, through which a new development agency, the USIDFC was created. According to the BUILD act, the USIDFC seeks to combine ‘… the capabilities of OPIC and USAID’s Development Credit Authority, while introducing new and innovative financial products to better bring private capital to the developing world’
Earlier in August 2018, in an address to the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the US Chamber of Commerce, Washington DC,US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo committed 113 Million USD for investments in technology, energy and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this as a ‘down payment’ towards a new era in the Indo-Pacific.
Joint efforts of stakeholders in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Narrative
Efforts have also been made to work jointly for promoting connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.
In the APEC Summit in November 2018, Australia, Japan, and US signed an MOU for jointly developing infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific. The MOU was signed between Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and its Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Efic), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).
The Joint Statement issued by all three countries stated, that the trilateral partnership would lend support to ‘..infrastructure projects that adhere to international standards and principles for development, including openness, transparency, and fiscal sustainability’. The three countries have identified a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in Papua New Guinea to which three agencies – JBIC, OPIC and EFIC – will jointly provide assistance to the tune of 1 Billion.
During the recent trilateral meeting between Japan, India and the US (dubbed as JAI), on the sidelines of the G20, connectivity initiatives were discussed. In a tweet, the Indian Prime Minister stated, that in the discussions on the Indo-Pacific region, connectivity and infrastructural development were high on the agenda.
Towards an alternative vision for the Indo-Pacific
While the narrative of the Indo-Pacific has been dominated by the US, Indonesia and India have sought to put forward a vision which is similar, but not identical to that of the US (Japan and other stakeholders seem to be comfortable with this vision).
Indonesia’s vision of the Indo-Pacific seeks to give an integral role to ASEAN in the FOIP, and is not merely focused on the China factor. During the last meeting of Quad, in June 2019 at Bangkok, member countries batted for ASEAN playing a larger role in the Indo-Pacific given its economic and geo-political relevance.
“….by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region is, therefore, a positive one,”
This was a month after the Indian Prime Minister had met with President Xi Jinping, with an eye on bringing relations back on track after the Doklam stand off (which had taken place in 2017).
Indonesia organised a high level dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation in March 2019 in Djkarta where delegates from 18 East Asia Summit (EAS) countries were present. Indonesia while referring to the need for a rules based order, also spoke about the need for peace and prosperity and to avoid ‘…potential rivalry and competition in the region’
It would be pertinent to point out that during Indian PM, Narendra Modi’s May 2018 visit both sides had agreed upon a“Shared Vision of Maritime Cooperation in the Indo Pacific” . One of the important steps in this direction, is India’s decision to develop the Sabang Port in (Aceh Province) close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The port will give India access to markets of ASEAN countries on the one hand and in strategic terms, it is India’s answer to China’s increasing presence in the Straits of Malacca.
ASEAN Summit – June 2019
At the recent ASEAN Summit, the grouping put forward its Indo-Pacific outlook. This was interesting. While on the one hand, it talks about firmly standing for a rules based order on the other, it also speaks against rivalries and a ‘zero sum game’ (alluding to US-China rivalry).
This vision interestingly, was welcomed by the US and other countries.
It is not just Indonesia, but even certain South Asian countries which are vary of the US narrative. At the Dalian Forum or the Summer Davos, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made it clear, that the Indo-Pacific narrative should not be targeted at anyone and not just focused on security issues.
While it is true, that the Indo-Pacific narrative can not be wished away, as China has sought to do in the past (a senior official dubbed it as a bubble). It is also true, that the vision has to define itself in terms of what it stands for, and can not be merely targeted at China. The vision for the Indo-Pacific needs to be in sync with the geo-political and economic realities of Asia.
An unpredictable Trump has resulted in a change in geo-political dynamics. In the last two years, both Japan and India have sought to mend ties with China. As a result, it has been argued that India has been more cautious vis-à-vis the Quad Grouping as well as the overall narrative of the FOIP.
Second, smaller countries not just in ASEAN, but South Asia, which are important stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific, do not want to get entangled in the US-China rivalry. A perfect instance is Bangladesh. There are off course many countries which have expressed their concern with regard to the overall economic implications of the Belt and Road Initiative, but want to avoid any open confrontation with Beijing.
Perhaps it is time for an Indo-Pacific strategy, which emanates from Asia, and does not have to blindly toe Washington’s line. Also, if the alternative vision needs to be successful, it needs to have a clear and pragmatic vision for connectivity and economic linkages. In this context, the Trump Administration’s emphasis of giving a larger role to the private sector is important. Governments and donor agencies can not match Chinese investments in connectivity projects and infrastructure, it is time that the private sector emerges as an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Indo-Pacific strategy needs to be innovative and should avoid being reactive or knee jerk.
*Mahitha Lingala is a student at the OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India
Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A
The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?
The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.
In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat. Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions? Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.
From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!
The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?
Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix. While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day. Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?
The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth. But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues. So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.
Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression. The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.
From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.
So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it. The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits. The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.
The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today. But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.
Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor
After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).
The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)
During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).
It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.
While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.
Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:
“underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.
Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.
One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.
Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A
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