By: Ryan Kuhns
While there may be the beginnings of a somewhat stable, geopolitical equilibrium developing in the Indo-Pacific between China, Japan, India, and the United States, there are a number of scenarios in which the order could be transformed and the balance reset or thrown off completely. Within each of these scenarios usually lies the presence of a regional conflict that the Indo-Pacific powers could utilize in order to gain marginal advantages in carrying out their wider geopolitical interests. The two great powers, of the four mentioned, most likely to attempt to disrupt the system are India and China, while Japan and the United States are interested in maintaining something very similar to, if not actually, the status quo, although there are caveats (most in the case of the United States but one in the case of Japan as well). The middle to small powers most likely to be the catalysts for destabilizing events are Pakistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and North Korea.
In the case of India, its desire to maintain South Asian regional stability and secure its borders with China and Pakistan, as well as maintain control of the Indian Ocean Region, leads to a number of possible events where India must either seize the initiative to increase its regional security, and thus its global position, or try to undermine or stem the growth of Chinese influence in what it considers to be its regional sphere. While the Chinese and Indian navies grow in size and develop similar blue-water capabilities, the potential conflicts on the continent will determine the nature of the India-China relationship and the precarious balance of “competitive accommodation”.
China’s ties with Pakistan exacerbate South Asia’s main security dilemma in the fact that it pushes India to consider a scenario in which it is surrounded by states hostile to its key security interests and border integrity. The Kashmir issue and the un-resolved border issues along the Line of Actual Control create a situation in which all three countries will be looking for opportunities to increase their leverage on these points of contention. For China, this is through Pakistan, maintaining the integrity of India’s primary military pre-occupation with that country. If another war broke out between India and Pakistan, the actions of the Chinese will have a profound impact on Indo-Pacific stability (even if those actions are limited to diplomatic and economic support). An attempt by China to balance against India with Pakistan will signal to the rest of the Indo-Pacific powers the hegemonic ambitions of China in South Asia, and provide the context for further hedging, either in the direction of China or the US and India.
Myanmar will be another destabilizing element between China and India, where internal conflict within Myanmar (with recent events involving both China and India), along with Myanmar’s fluctuating opinions on Chinese economic involvement coupled with the importance of Chinese infrastructure and economic investments in Myanmar to Chinese energy security, will have an impact on how India’s approach to Myanmar is viewed in the region. As the importance of Myanmar’s stability and alignment with Chinese interests increases to the CCP, the possibility of Chinese military intervention in Myanmar’s internal political struggles will increase as well. A Chinese intervention in Myanmar (and the nature of the operations) would send a clear message to surrounding states about China’s policy on regional interventionism and create hedging responses similar to the ones described in the Pakistan event above. India’s response would dictate the tenor of alignment behavior following the intervention, with the full spectrum of diplomatic reactions, from subtle realignments to military alliances, existing as possible outcomes to the above scenario.
In any case, China might find itself more isolated than before and with more enemies. This, of course, will be mitigated or exacerbated by the US response to the two scenarios above, and this is where the caveat from the introduction comes into play. If the US explicitly aligns itself with India after either of the two aforementioned scenarios, the diplomatic and security divisions formed over the course of those events could become entrenched in the region, making it more likely that future conflicts could play out much differently given the re-calculation of power that will take place among the nations involved. Even though the United States may see itself endeavoring to maintain the regional status quo with its allies and newfound partners, the transition from loose agreements and the balance of “competitive accommodation” to hard balancing would present a situation that is very different from the status quo to the Chinese.
The place of the US and India in Vietnam’s response to Chinese consolidation of its claims in the South China Sea could have a similar destabilizing effect. In providing military equipment, training, and aid to Vietnam, one of the most vociferous opponents of China’s actions in the South China Sea along with being one of China’s historical enemies, the US and India could embolden Vietnam into taking marginally more aggressive actions in confronting China that could escalate and evolve into a real conflict. It that case, India and the US will be in the uncomfortable position of abandoning Vietnam to its fate (loosing regional diplomatic and security credibility) or aiding the Vietnamese in their fight against China (through material and diplomatic assistance). Either way, tensions will be much higher between the three great powers following a potential conflict between Vietnam and China. If the US and India back down, they may feel greater pressure in the future to push their security agendas against China in order to re-establish their credibility. If China does not believe US-India claims are credible, it may check them and create the spark for a major war. If the US and India support Vietnam, understandable Chinese fears about its strategic encirclement will inform its future policy in the regional and global arenas, possibly creating an increasingly aggressive Chinese foreign policy.
The last possibility for Indo-Pacific destabilization exists within another major war on the Korean peninsula or the collapse of North Korea. There have been a number of provocative actions by North Korea against South Korea over the past couple of years (shelling of South Korean Islands, the sinking of the Cheonan) that could have led to war under the right circumstances. The perpetual mismanagement of North Korea and the recent reports of intra-governmental conflict within the regime (as evidenced by the brutal execution of Kim Jung Un’s uncle) also point to the possibility that has been debated for decades, that the North Korean regime could collapse creating a number of concerns for East Asian powers. The Chinese reaction will, in many ways, dictate whether a crisis on the Korean peninsula will escalate into a serious international or regional issue. At the same time though, the nature of Japan’s involvement will have an enormous impact on China’s reaction and quality of involvement. While China worries about stability in the Korea peninsula given its border with Manchuria and its historic utilization as an invasion route (the importance of which was demonstrated by China’s intervention in the Korean War), the Japanese have similar concerns.
While it’s difficult to tell what kind of reaction the Chinese would have to a collapse scenario, especially given China’s increasing diplomatic and economic ties with South Korea, the Chinese would be against any Japanese presence in the effort to stabilize the peninsula in a collapse scenario. While the absence of the Japanese in international or regional efforts to stabilize the peninsula in the case of collapse may seem feasible, the ability of the Japanese to stay off the peninsula in the case of a war is less likely to be realized, particularly given recent developments in US-Japan security relations after Shinzo Abe’s trip to the US. If Japanese Self-Defense Force troops will be able to operate with American troops, per Japan’s potential constitutional reforms, even if these roles are in support, they will be sorely needed in the case of a flashpoint conflict between North and South Korea. The Chinese will likely be incensed, and their retaliation could run the spectrum between concerted, tacit support for North Korea to taking the opportunity to seize the Senkakus/Diaoyudao. Even in a more placid collapse scenario, the re-unification of Korea and the Japanese position in the re-unification, along with the Japanese relationship with that united government, will dictate Chinese behavior during and after the event. In either case, US involvement will be heavy, and its actions will be complicated by Chinese reactions and concerns, further delineating their respective interests. India will also be watching, possibly considering how the Chinese would react in the case of a collapse of Pakistan. The transformation of the Korean peninsula would certainly re-shape East Asian geopolitical dynamics, and by extension, the Indo-Pacific.
While the United States and Japan may be interested in the regional status quo, simply because they have the most to lose to systemic change, their actions during times of regional crisis will shape the immediate reactions or long-term strategies of China and India, which are both powers looking to either fit to or transform the current system to their growing power and national prerogatives. The long term geopolitical and strategic interests of all four Indo-Pacific great powers will drive their behavior during and after crisis, and while one event may not prove the cataclysmic introduction to serious conflict, it may be the defining factor that upsets the current balance of “competitive accommodation” on which the long-term prospects for regional and international peace may rest.
Ryan Kuhns is a master’s student at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He studies International Security and Commerce with his main interests being in international relations, defense economics, strategy, and the social/political organization of war. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.