Dr. Christophe Jaffrelot, CERI-CNRS Senior Research Fellow, and Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, a seasoned diplomat, policy analyst, and former Representative to the United Nations from Pakistan, were invited by CPPG for a webinar on “Geo-political transformations in the Indo-Pacific and their relevance for Pakistan” on January 24, 2022. Dr. Saeed Shafqat, Founding Director and Professor at CPPG moderated the event while Dr. Jonathan Addleton, Rector FCCU, gave a vote of thanks to conclude the event.
The session started by setting the ground for the discussion on, “Geopolitical transformations in the Indo-Pacific and their relevance for Pakistan” highlighting that both geopolitical transformation in the Indo-Pacific and the relevance for Pakistan are two separate topics. Dr. Shafqat initiated the conversation by discussing various aspects of the Indo-Pacific initiative and how different nations are getting involved in it. He invited Dr. Jaffrelot for the discussion on the question:
“What prompted the emergence of the geostrategic concept of the Indo-Pacific?” And secondly, “is this only a kind of competition between the US and China or are there other equally strong contenders like France, Germany, Japan, and Australia?”
Dr. Jaffrelot, answering the question in the context of the European perspective, stated, this is a recent concept, previously the region was referred to as the Asia- Pacific and now that has been transformed into Indo- Pacific, more so in the beginning of 21st century. The US was the first country to give concrete expression to its Indo- Pacific Strategy by renaming the US-Pacific Command as Indo- Pacific Command in 2018. Also, 2018 was the year when President Macron gave his speech at Garden Island in Sydney, presenting for the first time what was to become the European Indo-Pacific strategy.
France was the first country to make this strategy explicit but soon after, Germany in October 2020 produced its Indo- Pacific guidelines for its Indo- Pacific strategy and the Netherlands followed suit at the same time. He hastened to add in his response that all these countries decided to embrace Indo- Pacific strategy for one simple reason– China. The rise of China, the growth of the BRI is one of the major factors in determining the conceptual framework of the Indo-Pacific. He elaborated that in the context of critical detail, the 2010s prepared the ground for the transformation of Indo- the Pacific because, in this decade, China became more entrepreneurial by investing across the globe including many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, incorporating Europe. For example, in Greece, the Chinese firm COSCO one of the largest shipping companies in the world, acquired 51% stakes in the Piraeus Port Authority in 2016. In Portugal, it is investing in key strategic sectors like electricity, transportation, and oil. There was a sense of Chinese expansion that was subtly gaining momentum in the 2010s and that was not only true in Europe but also the Indo-Pacific regions. In the context of BRI, Chinese investments were happening in Pakistan and in Sri Lanka. With the latter the idea of debt-trap diplomacy began to surface, with respect to the 99-year lease of the port of Hambanthota. A perception began to grow that being part of BRI means being in debt to a certain extent. The sub-context of the Indo-Pacific is the fear of China in economic terms and also in terms of trade expansion. China has become the number one trading partner of many countries which are now very much dependent on China. If you look at the EU, the volume of trade has exploded with China; it has multiplied by 2 in ten years from 356 million dollars in 2007 to now 700 billion dollars. So, the trade surplus is on the Chinese side. Given China’s rise, almost 50% of the trade is done through the Indo-Pacific, so it is no surprise why the Indo-Pacific is gaining significance.
On Dr. Shafqat’s question on whether there are other aspiring powers in the Indo-Pacific? Dr. Jaffrelot responded, that the Europeans have a different take on the Indo-Pacific region, as they want to create a Third Way, so that the countries of Indo-Pacific have options other than the US-China rivalry. Therefore, Europe aims to guarantee pluralism, freedom of navigation that would mean respect for international law, which can relate directly to different tensions in the South China Sea as well. The idea is to be in a position to offer an alternative. Therefore not all European countries would define it identically. The French tradition is much more security-oriented and the French military deployment in the Indo-Pacific is more developed than any other European country. This has much to do with the fact that there are military bases in French Islands in the Indian Ocean; France also has around 1.5 million people in the Indo-Pacific including the territory of New Caledonia. On the other hand, Germany will look at the Indo-Pacific in terms of its economic and development-oriented interests. He closed his answer on the concept of partners in the Indo-Pacific saying that there is consensus but not as a priority. For Germany the number one partner is ASEAN. The centrality of ASEAN is systematically emphasized by Berlin and on the French side it is centered on India. The strategic partnership of India and France is one of the oldest, starting in around 1998. Therefore, there are certain nuances that have to be clarified for the Europeans to have a proper unified and cohesive Indo-pacific strategy. This is a work in progress and is on the agenda of the French Presidency for the EU this term.
Dr. Shafqat commented that there seems to be very little space for a ‘third way’ even as one would like to see it happen. If we were to look at both AUKUS and QUAD, ASEAN and other partnerships, “What is the future of Multilateralism, the balance of soft and hard power that the west has and the hard power that the west is pushing”? “How do we draw a balance between the two?”
Dr. Jaffrelot responded that on the one hand, the Europeans couldn’t rely solely on the US as was the previous practice, and this is why President Macron emphasizes strategic autonomy. That would mean more investment in security. Threats coming from Russia and China are making it necessary for Europeans to stand on their own feet. It will require a lot of effort to build consensus and may take time because the EU is a work in progress and slow-moving animal. Negotiations will have to be resumed; yet what was surprising was that the EU formulated its Indo-Pacific strategy in record time, in around one year. The contrast between military-oriented American strategy in the Indo-Pacific and economically driven Chinese strategy is not shared in some Indo-Pacific region countries. He concluded his response by mentioning the militarization of Chinese coastal guards as alarming. Asserting that China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific is not purely economic, it has military dimensions and security implications
Dr. Shafqat invited Dr. Maleeha Lodhi in the discussion by asking to elaborate on “Pakistan’s geostrategic location, sitting on the Gulf and Arabian Sea and in that context drew her attention to the new National Security Policy of Pakistan which he said, makes a case that no country should be the sole power in the Indian Ocean”. Dr. Lodhi responded that one could divide this into two parts. A:
“How Pakistan sees the dominating relationship and competition between the US and China in the Indo- Pacific” and B: “How this concept is perceived by Pakistan”. She explained how Pakistan views the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical dynamics, as a growing contest for power and ascendency in the region between the US and China. The tensions between US and China in the Asia-Pacific and South China Sea are perceived by Islamabad as a significant destabilizing factor that undermines both security and economic stability. Pakistan sees this rivalry as having far-reaching consequences for the states of the region, the global economy, and international stability. Pakistan’s relationship with China has been cemented by its pivotal role in the Belt and Road Initiative through CPEC. Pakistan has also enjoyed historically close ties with the United States, it wants to avoid getting into the middle of Sino- American confrontation and certainly views with concern the increase in militarization in the Asia- Pacific region including the situation around Taiwan. She explained that it is clear to Islamabad that the US has intensified its policy of containing China with the Biden administration continuing Trump’s proactive approach. This is reflected in the revival of QUAD particularly in the summit meeting between member countries at the White House last year. This has further aggravated tensions with China. In September 2021, the US forged a new trilateral security pact- AUKUS that focuses on enhancing Australia’s naval power to counter China’s military power and ascendancy in the Western Pacific. This has intensified tensions leaving the Indo-Pacific in a state of instability and unpredictability.
Similarly, AUKUS has its implications too with non-nuclear states also opting for nuclear part submarines and nuclear fuel outside the IEA safeguard. This escalates confrontation in the South China Sea and suggests footprints of the Cold War, even if the US denies it, Dr. Lodhi added. These moves are denounced by Beijing as a threat to peace and security and during a virtual summit last November, between president Biden and President Xi, the Chinese leader warned of the dangerous consequences of dividing the world into different camps to global peace. This is the view that resonates in Islamabad as well and finds indirect mention in the National Security Policy unveiled recently. Pakistan does not subscribe to the notion of camps. This has prompted warnings from several leaders vocally. Not long ago Singapore’s Prime Minister warned about a military clash.
For Pakistan, given its long troubled relations with India, the role Delhi adopts in the Indo-Pacific stance has direct implications for Pakistan. If India is to augment its military and strategic capabilities to fortify the anti-China front, this will in turn heighten Pakistan’s security concerns. It also provides Pakistan with the incentive to enhance its strategic capabilities, particularly missile capabilities. It should be remembered that despite the counter China policy, 70% of India’s military assets today, land, sea, air are still deployed against Pakistan. She further added Pakistan’s security concerns are well founded and well grounded. Pakistan has long opposed domination by neighboring India, which has been expanding its naval power before the Indo-Pacific. Pakistan has long ago said that it will not accept the Indian Ocean becoming part of India. Now that India is being projected as a strategic counter weight to China and partner in QUAD, the US has extended the contest with China in the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. The National Security Policy of Pakistan quotes, “the Indian Ocean is fast becoming a space for contestation”, and it states its position in the following way, “The self-professed role of any one country as a so-called net security provider in the wider Indian Ocean would affect the region’s security and economic interest negatively. Multidirectional challenges in the maritime domain include cyber intrusion and surveillance of sea lines of communication along the Indian Ocean among others”. So, in response, Pakistan tends to expand its capabilities and do what it takes to save its economic zone and ensure freedom of navigation. In terms of geo-strategy and geo- economics, it proposes new challenges that Pakistan has to navigate carefully. In terms of geo- economics, Islamabad’s efforts to translate its vision of becoming an economic hub providing trade, energy, and communication corridors and connecting three regions that it straggles are adversely affected by the polarized state of play in the Indo-Pacific. Dr. Lodhi added that India is the weakest link in the Indo-Pacific and resists averting itself to an anti-China strategy. Then she explained the credibility of the strategy and added that the US is trying to trade states off the region but most ASEAN members are not ready to join the anti-China strategy. Talking in context with the situation in China, she stated that China could deploy a range of capabilities along with its periphery, which will be hard to match. Indo-Pacific lacks credibility and policymakers view it viewed as driven principally by the military-driven complex of the United States ever anxious to test and acquire sophisticated weaponry. In her concluding remarks, she highlighted that it is a dangerous strategy as it puts China and US confrontation on a risky and escalating course with unpredictable consequences.
Dr. Shafqat added that the concept of the Indo-Pacific is one that is a product of US military and geostrategic policy-making, echoing its low credibility, he called Indo-Pacific a fallacy, as it does not seem to have sufficient academic foundation and hence has not as yet gained enough theoretical traction. In other words, the Indo-Pacific does not change the geography of regions, and therefore remains an interpretation of tactical posturing, particularly motivated by the US to counter China’s rise.
The session was followed by a question and answer session with the speakers. On a question about whether there is any indication of a maritime strategy from Pakistan for protecting its economic, cultural, and strategic interests, Dr. Lodhi explained that for now Pakistan is very clear to never sign up for a policy that suggests containing China and its strategic relationship priority is China. On a comment about Pakistan’s youth as an asset, Dr. Lodhi said that the youth bulge could be an asset or a burden. We see a lot of students going to China for education. Pakistan’s relationship with China is now based on people-to-people ties from state-oriented and to boost this Pakistan needs to develop education infrastructure significantly.
On a question about the prospects of China with the EU, particularly in terms of economic ties, Dr. Jaffrelot answered that since 2015, China has been the biggest trade partner of Germany and there are investments on both sides that promote convergences. Moreover, if we move beyond the economic strategy, there is growing conversation on climate diplomacy, Europeans and Chinese work together for mitigation and diminishing the emissions and it is on road map of EU strategy. Russia may be one of the problems and the future of the China and Russia relationship is important. It is here that the ‘third way’ may be useful.
The session was concluded by a warm thank you by Dr. Addelton, Rector, FCCU who was appreciative of the speakers and audiences’ time. He highlighted the salience of the topic, how it challenges current modes of thinking and pushes our analytical abilities to new fronts.