ANALYSIS | Indo-Pacific is drifting away from the US

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The incoming Joe Biden administration has its work cut out if it wants to restore US/Indo-Pacific relationships, writes Azhar Azam.

In a push to further balance Tokyo's ties with Beijing, the Japanese Foreign Ministry last week told Newsweek that China is the world's second largest economy with which its "relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for Japan" and vowed to thin out the bilateral issues in high-level meetings and visits.

The Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Korea (ROK) also struck a gallant tone about its bonds with China. Recalling its relations with Beijing spanning over thousands of years, it said resumption of the historical bilateral exchanges in 1992 would pave the way "for forging friendly and co-operative relations for the future".

Surrounded by a neurotic and uptight regional environment heading for an escalation among the Indo-Pacific nations, the statements signalled Tokyo and Seoul were chasing away Washington's push to stand up to Beijing and looking at unwinding the tense situation.

Ever since Yoshihide Suga became the new prime minister of Japan in September, it was expected he would keep his focus on economic reforms in the country and likely modulate posing Australia-India-Japan-US strategic grouping, the Quad, as a cohesive multinational military front against China.

While in his speech to the Japanese Parliament, Suga abjured to describe "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy or vision to preclude giving it a China-containment look, his relatively moderate pitch in Vietnam about creating "an Indo-Pacific NATO" against Beijing is being seen as a balanced regional approach by experts.

Cold water 

Although Japan warned it isn't going to pull out from decades-old territorial claims over the Pinnacle Islands in the East China Sea, still the response "Japan continues to deal with the situation in a calm and resolute manner" somewhat poured cold water on the American ambitious China-targeted plans in the backdrop of the virus-hit Japanese economy.

As Beijing and Tokyo look to resume business travel between the two intertwined economies by mid-November and Japan's export steadies, including rising shipments to China for the third consecutive month in September, the improving economic indicators could beseech Suga to put off differences at some other time and keep his emphasis on accelerating trade with China to fast-track the country's economic recovery.

READ | Phumlani M Majozi: Tensions between the US and China: Are we in the age of a second cold war

Similarly, insinuating the outcome of the bilateral consultations between Beijing and Seoul and President Moon Jae-in's visit to China in December 2017 - leading into the normalisation of the bilateral ties - the ROK Foreign Ministry said: "Relations between the ROK and China continue to develop in a stable way with active high-level exchanges."

It sent a powerful message to the US that the ROK seeks to refresh its relationship with China. The statement carried more weight as Seoul continues to iron out differences with Beijing on the deployment of THAAD or any other US-led missile defence systems to ease off Chinese suspicions.

Strategic overtones

ROK conciliatory moves to China have strategic overtones for the US.

As Seoul is threatened by Washington over the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula vis-à-vis differences on the cost-sharing agreement - the progressive change would weaken Washington's campaign to check Beijing's growing influence.

Seoul’s proclivity to Beijing is on the rise. ROK Ambassador to the US Lee Soo-hyuck recently said: "Just because Korea chose the US 70 years ago does not mean it has to choose the US for the next 70 years, too," noting Seoul was recognising the importance of its economic relationship with Beijing.

Again, it is the economic interests that turns out to be the main perpetrator in ransacking the primeval ROK-US alliance and US President Donald Trump's imposing instinct has incremented its pace. This paradigm shift, if invaded into the other American partners, could blow the final whistle on the global leadership bout, with end-result favouring China, beforehand.

In the past few months, the Trump administration has stroked colossal damage to the US international credibility through its pointless policies. The president's brazen and often derogatory attitude has consistently pressed the historic American allies to rethink their ties with the US much earlier than they would have thought.

With Tokyo maintaining the best relationship with China, ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha refusing to shoulder the "structured alliance" and ASEAN alongside Australia, China, New Zealand, Japan and ROK gearing up to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - another daunting task would shortly test the ability of the incoming Joe Biden administration to restore America's trust across the Indo-Pacific.

- Azhar Azam is a commentator on geopolitical issues and regional conflicts and an opinion contributor to CGTN, New Straits Times and The Express Tribune, a partner of The International New York Times.

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