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How the West Faltered During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Authors: Ziyu He and Huaan Liao*

Not long ago, we were residing in the heart of Western Europe relishing sweet junior spring exchange lives, only to have them cut abruptly short by a sweeping pandemic that obscured the sun shining above outdoor cafes on lazy afternoons. In lieu of weekend getaways, we found ourselves scrambling onto a last-minute transatlantic ride back into the United States, lest a potential presidential order soon shuts its borders to. Unfortunately, our worst fear soon became the reality. On the shuttle ride from the airport terminal, news feeds flooded us with breaking alerts on Trump’s decision to close the border to foreigners coming from the Schengen zone. The entire fiasco was all too real—never could we have expected that so soon after the turmoil our parents experienced in China, this, too, would upend our lives for months to come with no end in sight.

As China wakes from the nightmare, the West, especially the US, struggles to flatten the curve. Though second waves of outbreak occurred sporadically, China has earned a prize it long desires—recognition for its leadership role during a time of crisis. At the same time, the West is faltering with no clear path ahead. After surpassing China in both total confirmed and death cases in the end of March, the US continued on a treacherous trajectory months after the outbreak. Fierce tension between state and federal governments and selfish decisions of the White House against its own allies are sabotaging US reputation even further. Across the Atlantic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson risked his life to testify for the inherent danger of the herd immunity strategy. When Western nations retreated from their previous roles as beacons of hopes during times of crisis, China stepped up its role in global governance, pledging material assistance to countries in need and touting its lockdown strategy. The sharp contrast between China’s success and the West’s failure has led many to question whether the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be a “Suez Crisis” for the US and possibly the liberal world order.

So what has the West done wrong?

As all initial efforts to contain the virus failed within the first week of local outbreak in Western Europe and the US, serious measures came too late to stop sporadically imported cases from developing into a grave threat to national security. The confidence and calm Western leaders once evinced only became testaments to ignorance, arrogance, and irresponsibility.

Arguments acquitting Western leaders have been made by pointing out their lack of experience dealing with a pandemic as serious as COVID-19, deceptive reassurance from the Chinese authorities, and delay in WHO’s timely instructions. Settling for these excuses, however, signals weakness and resignation from the responsibility as global leaders. Although the lack of experience in handling global health crises can help explain the initial insouciance toward COVID-19, this ill-informed argument is not a total acquaintance, for not only could it have led the fight, it is also equipped with more means than anywhere else in the world. With more established medical infrastructure and the fortune of managing the health crisis not first but second to the outbreak in Asia, havoc in the West could have been assuaged if not averted altogether under rapid and effective policies in place.

Similarly, assigning blame to China and the WHO does Western countries more harm than good. It is no secret that the Chinese government silences dissidents, manipulates statistics, and restricts transparent journalism to protect its legitimacy and defend its rhetoric for audiences everywhere. Feigning astonishment and blaming heavy casualties on the Chinese government is thus either a testimony of the administration’s incompetence to anticipate imminent risks and allocate appropriate resources to combat the crisis domestically and globally or a foolish bet on the goodwill and transparency of Beijing. Neither is good publicity.

Ideological considerations, rather than pragmatic calculations, explain Western democracies’ failure to implement timely responses to the crisis. Though the fear of economic recession and lengthy democratic procedures in formulating a response surely contributed to Western administrations’ reluctance to lockdown economies, indiscriminate aversion of China’s “draconian” authoritarianism played a more important role in postponing stay-at-home guidelines and issuing lockdown orders as last resorts. In January, when Western media and leaders rushed to denounce China’s snap containment policies as extreme measures with no respect for basic human rights, lockdown essentially became a symbol of authoritarianism and a taboo for the Western world in the name of liberty and democracy.

This was made clear to us in February right after the outbreak in Italy. In our Spanish Politics class, the professor led a discussion about the contagion and asked for reactions. Students from different European countries and the US voiced their opinions, mostly denying any possibility that the virus may end the fun of weekend travels and dismissing lockdown as an unreasonable restriction to personal freedoms followed by “I know China did that, but I mean, it’s China…” The only dissenting opinion came from a girl from Taiwan, who lamented on the then already lacking supply of face masks from all pharmacies before most Spanish people even learned the name of the virus. Drumbeats and trumpets celebrating Day of Sant Medir still resounded on the streets of Barcelona as late as early March. Similarly in the US, without timely restrictions from each state, students celebrated the premature end to their semester with COVID-19 parties that were directly responsible for more infections. Racist sentiments against people of Asian descent in the West ironically caught on much more quickly than preventative measures.

Unfortunately, as the centers of the outbreak shifted from Wuhan to Italy and then New York, Western leaders were compelled to contradict their previous stances and issue lockdown orders, halting national economies to a standstill despite reluctance. As extraordinary measures like social distancing, closing of non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders became inevitable, Western countries handed the victory to Beijing. Not only was Europe and the US “following” China’s lead on implementing unprecedented restrictive orders to minimize exposure, they have also fallen steps behind due to their initial obstinate dismissal. As China recuperates after a month of “zero increase” while death tolls continue to increase at alarming rates worldwide, few can deny that China is becoming the safest place in the world. While China’s extreme measures are recognized and praised by the WHO as “a new standard of outbreak control,” Western leaders, especially President Trump, are experiencing confidence crises from domestic constituents.

Scientifically, preventing human contact offers the best hope of stopping the spread because COVID-19 can travel in aerosol from asymptomatic patients. Restrictive measures will slow it per the logic of nature, and determination to avoid “authoritarian measures” serves only political motives at the cost of millions. Western policymakers failed to distinguish the concept of lockdown and China’s implementation of it. Scientific measures such as social distancing and lockdown should not carry political color, even when China’s execution violates many basic principles of a just government. When China issued lockdown orders, it ignored the wellbeing of small business and vulnerable individuals, stranding thousands in foreign cities without assistance. The lack of planning and coordination caused multiple scandals during the lockdown: the price of necessities and protective gear skyrocketed; the Hubei Red Cross hoarded medical supplies donated to local hospitals, and high-level officials were exposed expropriating masks from pharmacies and Red Cross warehouses.

Beijing and Wuhan should not be criticized because they resorted to lockdown as a way to control the outbreak but because they disregarded the lives and wellbeing of their own citizens. China implemented restrictive orders through command rather than consensus. As current situations demonstrate, the West could have adopted similar policies much earlier without putting the welfare of millions in jeopardy—what true leadership should have been like, instead of playing an opportunistic game of petty politics. Measures to aid the economy and individuals, including state-funded job retention schemes and appeals to big banks to stop stock buybacks to bail out clients, accompanied lockdown orders in Western administrations’ policy considerations but were not implemented in China. Voices calling attention to the collapse and disappearance of small businesses were censored on Chinese social media platforms for “breaking rules and regulations,” further attesting to the woes of an authoritarian regime. Actions as such made China “authoritarian”, not the lockdown itself.

Though East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan demonstrated alternative and more efficient paths of outbreak control, ignoring and rejecting the merit of China’s efforts is a dangerous sign of hubris and ignorance. As the West squandered the opportunity to “know its enemy” by learning from China’s success and failure, it effectively conceded victory to China, at least for now.

For the first time, a major setback of Western democracies was not brought by natural causes—the COVID-19 virus—or external enemies—China—but by the very fear and insecurity the West itself possessed. Though strong rhetoric condemning China’s atrocious human rights records and clandestine political maneuvers exudes confidence as the West chants aloud the slogan of freedom and justice, insecurity about China’s increasing economic prowess, political clout, and military capabilities alert Western countries as the rise of populism shifts policy focus from global prestige to domestic prosperity. Facing a rising competitor who aspires to command greater influence and become a rule-maker for the international order, the West has resorted to craven condemnations rather than confident example-setting actions. The COVID-19 crisis could have been a showcase opportunity for the West, especially the US, to consolidate its global leadership status by demonstrating the best practices of outbreak control and providing public goods for the international community. Instead, retreat from global responsibilities and the fear of mimicking a “draconian” lockdown made China the hero and the West the disheartened losers who barely protect itself. As more countries push back against China’s attempt to retell the story of the COVID-19 outbreak and its successful response, the West still has a chance to redress its mistake, though the window of opportunity will not stay open for long.

As competitions between China and the West elevates to a value-clash between efficient authoritarianism and free democracy, the West has repeatedly emphasized the value of personal freedom and autonomy. Protests frequently erupted amidst challenging lockdown orders. The zealous quest for personal freedom has held back a nobler pursuit for justice. Caring for the vulnerable and upholding a fair and just system is what made the West leaders of the world decades ago, and so should its priority be today. Freedom should serve as a building block to that system, never a stumbling rock.

*Huaan (Amber) Liao, from Xi’an, China, studies Global Business with a European Studies Certificate at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. She spent a semester abroad at Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain. She has researched for The Brookings Institution’s China Center.

Ziyu (Harry) He studies Asian Studies with a minor in Political Science at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is currently on an exchange program at the University of Oxford. He currently works as a research assistant at in the Georgetown Security Studies Department.

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East Asia

Kishida and Japan-Indonesia Security Relations: The Prospects

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image source: twitter @kishida230

In October, Japan had inaugurated Fumio Kishida as the new prime minister after winning the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election earlier. Surely this new statesmanship will consequently influence Tokyo’s trajectory in international and regional affairs, including Southeast Asia.

Not only that Japan has much intensive strategic cooperation with Southeast Asians for decades, but the region’s importance has also been increasing under Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Southeast Asia, as a linchpin connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, is key to Japan’s geostrategic interest and vision.

Since the LDP presidential election debate, many have identified Kishida’s policy trajectory, including in the defense and security aspect. Being bold, Kishida reflected its hawkish stance on China, North Korea, and its commitment to strengthening its alliance with Washington. Furthermore, Kishida also aimed to advance the geostrategic and security initiatives with like-minded countries, especially under FOIP.

One of the like-minded countries for Japan is Indonesia, which is key Japan’s key partner in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific.

This article maps the prospect of Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia under the new prime minister. It argues that Prime Minister Kishida will continue to grow Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia to adjust to the changing security environment in Indo-Pacific.

Japan – Indonesia Common Ground

In its basic principle, Japan and Indonesia shared the same values in democracy, rules-based order, and freedom of navigation in developing strategic cooperation, especially in the maritime security aspect. 

In the geostrategic context, Japan and Indonesia also have significant similarities. Both countries are maritime countries and seeking to maximize their maritime power, as well as having formally synchronized geostrategic vision. While Japan has FOIP, Indonesia has Global Maritime Fulcrum (Poros Maritim Dunia) and leading initiator for ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

In capitalizing on this shared vision, since Shinzo Abe and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo era, Japan and Indonesia have initiated much new security cooperation ranging from a high-level framework such as 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in 2015 and 2021 to capacity building assistances and joint exercises. Furthermore, defense equipment transfers and joint technology development were also kicked off under Abe-Jokowi.

Kishida’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Profile

Compared to his predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, Prime Minister Kishida is more familiar with foreign affairs.

Personally, Kishida comes from a political family and spent several years living in the United States, reflecting his exposure to the international and political environment from an early age. This is significantly different from Suga, who grew up in a strawberry farmer family in a rural area in Akita Prefecture.

Politically, served as foreign minister under Shinzo Abe, Fumio Kishida is the longest-serving foreign minister in Japan’s history. This reflects his extensive understanding of current world affairs, compared to Suga who spent most of his prime political career in the domestic area such as being chief cabinet secretary and minister for internal affairs & communication.

Specifically, in defense and security posture, Prime Minister Kishida is willing to go beyond the status quo and not blocking any key options in order “to protect citizens”. During his policy speeches, he stated that he is not ruling out the option to build attacking capabilities due to the severe security environment surrounding Japan. Also, Kishida will not limit the defense budget under 1% of Japan’s gross domestic product if necessary.

Future Security Cooperation Trajectory with Indonesia 

In short, policy continuity will play a huge role. One of the reasons why Kishida was able to win over more popular Kono was due to his moderate liberalness, demonstrating stability over change. This was more preferred by faction leaders in LDP.

In defense and foreign affairs, the continuity is boldly shown as despite appointing entirely new ministers in his cabinet, the only two ministers retained by Kishida are Foreign Minister Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi. By this, it sent the narrative to the international community that there will not be significant turbulence caused by the changing leadership on Japan’s side.

As a background context on Indonesia, Fumio Kishida was the foreign minister from the Japanese side behind the 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting with Indonesia in 2015. Indonesia is the only country Japan has such a high-level security framework within Southeast Asia. This framework has led Japan and Indonesia to have a second edition of the 2+2 meeting in 2021, resulting in many practical cooperation deals in defense and security.

The other setting supporting Kishida’s policy continuity, especially in the context with Indonesia is that his foreign minister’s counterpart, Retno Marsudi, was still in charge from the last time Kishida left the foreign minister post in 2017, until today. Initiating the 2+2 framework together, it will be easier for Kishida to resume his relationship with both President Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno in advancing its strategic cooperation with Indonesia, especially in the defense and security area.

The prospect of continuity is also reflected in Kishida’s commitment to continue the geostrategy relay of both his predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Suga Yoshihide, in achieving the FOIP vision.

Not only that Indonesia is having a similar vision of maritime prosperity and values with Japan, but Indonesia is also concerned with South China Sea dynamics as it started to threaten Indonesia’s remote islands, especially Natuna Islands. As this is a crucial cooperation opportunity, Kishida needs to continue assisting Indonesia to improve the security and prosperity of its remote islands. Thus, as Kishida also admitted that Indonesia is a major country in ASEAN, having favorable relations with Indonesia is important for Japan’s geostrategy.

Challenges

To capitalize on the potentials with Indonesia, Kishida needs to support Indonesia’s strategic independence as well as to make the best of his position as one of the United States’ allies in Asia.

Despite his tougher stance on China and Taiwan issues, Kishida cannot fully project Japan’s rivalry with China to Indonesia. In addition to its strategic independence, Indonesia has and needs strong strategic relations with China to support many of the vital development projects surrounding Indonesia. This cannot be touched.

Also, Japan needs to bridge Indonesia, as well as other like-minded Southeast Asian countries, with the Quad and AUKUS proponents. Indonesia is formally stated that it is concerned about the ownership of nuclear-powered weapons by its neighboring countries. On the other side, Japan supported AUKUS and is a close ally of the U.S. Kishida’s ability to grab this opportunity will solidify Japan’s credibility and position among Southeast Asians.

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East Asia

Will There Be an End to the War in Korea?

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On September 21, 2021, President of South Korea Moon Jae-in addressed the UN General Assembly, calling for a formal end to the Korean War of 1950–1953. “I … propose that the three parties of the two Koreas and the U.S. or the four parties of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China come together and declare that the war on the Korean Peninsula is over,” Moon Jae-in said.

President Moon’s call appeared more relevant than ever before. For decades, the military stand-off on the Korean Peninsula has been haunted by the threat of a “big war” that could involve nuclear weapons. Resolving the issue also presents a crucial political and legal problem, as the UN has from the outset been involved in the conflict. On the one hand, the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement only meant the cessation of military hostilities, not an end to the war as such. On the other hand, the absurd truth is that it is the United Nations, rather than South Korea, that is officially locked in a military stand-off with North Korea—something certainly needs to be done about this. During the war, South Korea received assistance in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 84 passed on July 7, 1950, establishing the UN Command, multinational armed forces of 16 states led by the United States. These forces fought in the Korean War under the UN flag and signed the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement as the adversary of the Korean People’s Army and China’s People’s Volunteer Army. The Command effectively signed the agreement on behalf of the United Nations, meaning that the latter is still formally at war with North Korea, a full-fledged UN member state since 1991.

President Moon has done his outmost best to build bridges between the two Koreas. The inter-Korean summits of 2018 yielded some positive results—in the near future, there will be no war in Korea, whether nuclear or conventional. That said, the two Koreas have recently tested ballistic missiles, thus demonstrating that Pyongyang and Seoul are both ready for dialogue and for confrontation. South Korea has accepted the existence of North Korea to adopt a policy of peaceful co-existence towards its closest neighbor. However, the parties have proved unable to take the most important step, which is to move the inter-Korean relations to a bilateral format. Moreover, Seoul still refuses to recognize the status of North Korea as that of an equal sovereign state, with a legitimate and constitutional leadership.

Some premises for this seem to be there. Nationalism is what brings the two Korean states closer. Even their first joint statement, dating back to July 4, 1972, said that the Korean unification must be achieved independently, without outside interference, which means peacefully and on the basis of “national consolidation.” In December 1991, the heads of government of the two Koreas signed the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea, formally acknowledging the equal co-existence of the two Korean states. Five inter-Korean summits were held between 2000 and 2018, with joint declarations adopted at each of them. These were essentially programmes to cultivate bilateral relations that would see the two countries move away from confrontation towards reconciliation and eventual rapprochement. None of the documents envisioned any participation of third states in the inter-Korean communication. The relations between North and South Korea have always been conceptualized in an exclusively bilateral dimension, a practice that should persist.

President Moon has also proposed to establish some multilateral organization to include North Korea. “I propose today launching a Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health, whereby North Korea participates as a member along with China, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.” He emphasized that states can no longer handle their national security issues individually. “A cooperative architecture that guarantees collective protection of life and safety will lay the groundwork for North Korea to have its security guaranteed by engaging with the international community.” The President believes that “the end-of-war declaration will indeed open the door to complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Inter-Korean normalization would be impossible without the sanctions lifted, which requires certain progress towards resolving the nuclear issue. North Korea’s nuclear status is enshrined in its constitution—for today’s Pyongyang, this topic cannot be subject to any discussion. It would be wise to adopt a step-by-step approach here—first limiting North Korea’s nuclear missiles, then reducing their numbers to eliminate them all in the end. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang should be replaced with the “six-party” talks that sought to resolve the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula in 2003–2008. For a humble beginning, the parties could discuss the prospects of putting a freeze on missile development, guaranteeing the non-proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies. Pyongyang could cease its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and intermediate- or shorter-range missiles, opening its nuclear facilities for international inspections. In exchange, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul would formally recognize North Korea, establishing diplomatic relations, exchanging diplomatic missions, easing and ultimately lifting sanctions, rather choosing to provide economic and energy assistance to North Korea. A secure and stable North Korea is a far more reliable partner for talks on any subject, including on nuclear issues, than a country cornered by sanctions.

Today’s Northeast Asia is the only region in the world that lacks a multilateral framework to discuss matters of mutual interest or settle conflicts between regional parties. The main obstacle in the way of creating a security system in Northeast Asia is the little trust between the parties. Trust cannot appear without a dialogue on the specific issues of common interest.

In this respect, President Moon’s proposal to establish a multilateral organization that would include North Korea is worthy of note, as it is clearly an attempt to engage with North Korea in international affairs.

As part of its “New Northern Policy”, South Korea could complement President Moon’s current initiative by becoming an intermediary for other Northeast Asian states in assisting in their long-term projects in regional security, energy security, safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy, transportation security and cybersecurity. Setting up legally binding partnerships in the region in these areas, as well as fine-tuning their procedural mechanisms, would allow the parties to build mutual trust to move on to discussions of a broader range of regional issues concerning peace, development and security.

Bringing South Korea’s “New Northern Policy” in line with the existing programmes for international economic integration, which are already “tied-in” to each other (such as the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative), could bring about positive results. Openness, transparency and respect for each other’s interests could go a long way to establishing an effective framework for dialogue as well as a Eurasian Economic Partnership that would include both Koreas. However, how feasible is such an aligning of South Korea’s policies with more global initiatives given the country’s current alliance with the United States?

President Moon Jae-in proposed his initiative against the background of major malfunctions in international communication. The coronavirus pandemic has uprooted everyday life throughout the world. The entire system of international organizations turned out to be totally ineffective, if not completely paralyzed. At the same time, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has struck quite a heavy blow to the entire system of international relations. And it is not so much the U.S. defeat that matters here. Rather, it is the circumstances under which this defeat took place. In leaving Afghanistan, the Americans effectively presented their Afghan clients and their NATO allies, who had been fighting alongside them for 20 years, with a fait accompli.

The Afghan debacle will certainly have repercussions for the situation on the Korean peninsula. Currently, Washington seems to be incapable of proposing new initiatives on the nuclear issue, especially as it faces a number of far more urgent challenges across a broad geographic perimeter, stretching from China to Afghanistan. Still, no matter how interested Russia or China might be in the Korean sanctions being eased or lifted, this cannot be resolved without the United States.

However, the ancients used to say that a crisis can be both a disaster and an opportunity. Like any global crisis, not only do the pandemic and the U.S. fiasco in Afghanistan generate additional risks and challenges for the international community, but they also come with fresh opportunities, opening up new prospects. This applies to the current initiatives proposed by President Moon Jae-in just as well.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

The United States and Japan in Multilateral Asia: Forging Relations and Binding Ties

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Bilateral relations between the world’s sole superpower, the United States of America (US, USA), and the world’s third-largest economic power, the East Asian powerhouse of Japan, are premised on forging healthy relations and binding with the rest of Asia impeccably. This would involve deepening existing ties and forging new ones with the many notable actors professing to vital stakes and vested interests across the length and breadth of the world’s largest continent, as also the Indo-Pacific region (IPR). As on date, owing to evident differings and conflictual circumstances between countries such as Japan and South Korea, Washington D. C. is compelled to calculate its forays in Asia while aspiring for long-term amicability between belligerent countries. However, this factor has not stopped Washington from establishing, entertaining, and evolving its mini/multi-lateral relationships in Asia, especially in the eastern geography of the continent. The United States has implemented a ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ alliance system in the security environs of the Asia-Pacific, with Japan a critical, if not the most critical, ‘spoke’ in this system (see Figure 1 below).

Fig. 1  The US ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ Arrangement in Asia. Source:  The ASEAN Post

America and Japan are not just involved bilaterally, but have enforced an effective multilateral impression leading to having exercised their geopolitical influence across Asia. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, better known as the QUAD) is an initiative of four democracies, which was the brainchild of Japan in the mid-2000s, with pressing commonalities and engaging objectives in the Indo-Pacific in particular. Its four member democracies are the US, Japan, Australia, and India. It was heralded in 2007 courtesy promptings from Japan about the state of maritime security and apprehensions about the upsetting rise of a determined emerging superpower in the Peoples’ Republic of China, despite having initially focussed on disaster relief in the high seas (The Indian Ocean tsunami, December 2004). Of late, the QUAD has been given a much-needed impetus with the as-yet unstructured grouping having adopted a sole security motive to offset the rise of an increasingly influential, overbearing, and overpowering China. A first-ever in-person meeting was organised between its members in Washington D. C., with the capital of the United States signifying just how far the QUAD has come in terms of sustained minilateral activism. This in-person meeting has followed meetings between senior-level officials such as the respective foreign ministers of the four partner countries.

The US and Japan have also extensively associated with Southeast Asia as far as the political, geopolitical, economic, geoeconomic, security, and geostrategic situations of the region are concerned. The US remains on exceedingly and improvingly good terms with South China Sea countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – which are the four major countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or the ASEAN. These relationships are centred upon the military, and especially maritime-military, domain given that Southeast Asia largely involves routine and menacing Chinese infringements in the form of the brazen excursions of its many maritime entities such as the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). An interest in Southeast Asia for Tokyo and Washington caters to a diverse array of initiations and involvement ranging from economic and trade relations to investments and financial outlays for very specific purposes. Timely and responsive military assistance in the form of equipment donations and technology transfers have also become a staple of the US and Japan’s association with Southeast Asian countries. A wary approach is pursued in the perplexing domain of the South and East China Seas with freedom of navigation considered to be an imperative of the vast maritime-naval forces deployed by Washington and Tokyo.

The United States was one of the first Dialogue Partners of the ASEAN (since 1977), and this is also when Japan formalised its till-then-informal dialogue partnership with ASEAN. The US has been involved in several ASEAN-driven maritime-allied formal platforms such as the East Asia Summit (2005), the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (since 2012), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (which is held with all of the ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners and first took place in Vietnam in 2010). Japan is involved integrally in all of the above forums and the ASEAN+3, an exclusive between ASEAN and China, the Republic of Korea, plus Japan itself. In the broader respect, American involvement has helped forge a unity among the participants of such pioneering political, economic, and security mechanisms amongst, primarily, Southeast and east Asian nations, ably assisted by Japan wherever feasible. America’s (in)famous 2011 ‘pivot to Asia’, officially named a ‘Rebalance’, was meant to re-tune and re-focus its attention to the world’s largest and most important continent as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. This was due to the twin reasons of dealing with the emerging security imperatives related to erasing the extra-sovereign Chinese strategic footprint and devising new paradigms of mutually-beneficial economic cooperation with like-minded Asian countries. Southeast Asia was deemed to be the geographical launchpad of this strategy which has since evolved under succeeding administrations.

Other multilateral involvements which help address issues bearing a commonality and a convergence of maritime interests include the US-Australia-Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD). Australia is a country which is increasingly being viewed as an actor with the required level of capacities and capabilities befitting a broader and deeper Indo-Pacific institution of itself, and the recent announcement of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) arrangement has just critically elevated its nuclear threshold. Within the ambit of the Indo-Pacific region in which all three profess to geopolitical stakes, both the US and Japan are highly committed friends of Australia. The TSD was founded in the late 2000s and was focussed on elevating cooperation between the three major Indo-Pacific players in the broader domain of security, which also includes the diplomatic, economic, social, and political arenas. A concerted and concentrated focus on China was also one of the themes of the security domain of the TSD. The last meeting of this trilateral took place in August 2019, a few months prior to the onset of the novel Coronavirus pandemic in Japan. A joint ministerial statement issued by the three parties was ASEAN-centric and endorsed the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. This last meeting had actually co-incided with the circulation of the ‘Outlook’ document by the ASEAN community.

It is certain that the US and Japan have, since time immemorial, indicated a tendency to align key and emerging players in regions of critical geopolitical importance, such as Southeast Asia, and this has considerably vitalised multilateralism. This optimism has been consistently backed by strategies entailing day-to-day participation and the US has emerged as an oddly Asian country in itself through a multitude of ever-growing endeavours. It has expended considerable bandwidth to Asia since the end of the warring years and there is much to both gain and learn from such a grand venture by a foreign superpower. The US remains immensely close to the ASEAN, as does Japan. The extent to which Washington and Tokyo have aided, abetted, assisted, and assured their friends and allies either jointly or individually is worth commendation and furthers a welcome duopoly in the Indo-Pacific region. Most of Southeast Asia remains in an emerging form, with a few prosperous exceptions such as the city-state of Singapore which are responsible for the rise of ASEAN as a worthy participant in the Indo-Pacific’s ‘Great Game’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of his employers in the National Maritime Foundation or Modern Diplomacy.

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