Contention over South China Sea

U.S.-Asia coordination to preserve global order


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ASEAN

Mains level : Paper 2- Growing aggression of China in the Indo-Pacific and increasing coordination among Indo-Pacific nations to counter it.

The focus of this article is on the U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific and its relations with its allies there in countering China.

Instances of China’s aggression

  • Galwan Valley is not an exception in Beijing’s recent behaviour in Asia.
  • China has also engaged in a tense geopolitical confrontation with its other neighbours.
  • Stand-offs with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea and threatening Australia with boycotts are a few examples.

Response to China

  • Beijing’s aggressiveness is fueling debates about the underlying costs of reliance on China.
  • China’s aggression is also increasing support for closer coordination between other Indo-Pacific partners.
  • Indian, Japan, Malaysia, and Australia have all taken concrete steps to reduce their economic exposure to Beijing.
  •  India and Australia recently inked a new military logistics agreement in the “virtual summit”.
  • A similar agreement between Delhi and Tokyo may follow.
  • The Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is growing stronger and even expanding.
  • And recently Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued one of their strongest statements to date on the South China Sea.
  • The ASEAN statement insisted that maritime disputes must be resolved in accordance with the UN Law of the Sea treaty.

Asian multilateralism: Born out of crises

  • Recently the “Milk Tea Alliance”, reaction of people, born to forge solidarity between Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and Southeast Asians online to deal with Chinese cyberbullying.
  • The Chiang Mai Initiative — a financial swap mechanism between China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia — emerged in the aftermath of the late 1990s financial crisis.
  • ASEAN, created in 1967, did not convene its first heads of state meeting until fall of Saigon in 1976 in the Vietnam War.

Role of the U.S.

  • The COVID-19 crisis is remaking the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.
  • The ongoing crisis has made countries aware of seriousness of Chinese dominance.
  • This situation has given the U.S. opportunity it has long sought: 1) More credible multilateral coordination among allies, 2) Pushback against online disinformation. 3) The desire to better integrate like-minded economies and supply chains.
  • But the crisis is also raising renewed questions about the American leadership.
  • The question now facing the U.S. is whether or not it can harness this new regional momentum.

Alienating allies

  • U.S. continues to make unforced errors that create distance with U.S. allies and partners.
  • For example, its focus on cutting support for the WHO and asserting that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab alienated Canberra.
  • Similarly, the administration’s suspension of various worker visas will almost certainly have serious repercussions in India.

What should be the U.S. approach to Asia?

  • The U.S. needs to make two major shifts.
  • First, U.S. policy needs to start supporting, rather than attempting to commandeer, regional efforts to build a less China-centric future for the Indo-Pacific.
  • While Chinese aggression provides powerful motivation for coordination, U.S. partners are seeking an agenda that is framed in broader terms than simply rallying to counter Beijing.
  • If the U.S. wants to reduce reliance on Beijing and “re-couple” investments and supply chains among allied nations, it is going to have to make compromises.
  • U.S. should work with Indo-Pacific partners on the issues that they prioritise and provided them with space for independent action.
  • Second, Washington should avoid repeating Beijing’s mistakes of bullying.
  • U.S. should offer a clear alternative in word and deed to China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.
  • Moves such as demanding that a G-7 communiqué refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” and blocking mask shipments to close allies are the kind of counterproductive bullying.

Options for Asian countries

  • Beijing’s recent aggression is not an aberration but part of a growing pattern.
  • As Beijing’s confidence in its growing material and military power solidifies, its neighbours will need to think carefully about the long-term decisions necessary to preserve an open regional order.
  • Facing the unprecedented health and economic crises spawned by COVID-19, the U.S. and Asian partners will need to coordinate more closely.
  • Asian countries should strengthen their own regional networks.
  • This Asian network will challenge the views of those in both Washington and Beijing who would see the region only as a sparring ground.


For American and Asian leaders, the choice is stark: encourage and foster this trend, recognising that stronger regional coordination will require more compromises as well as tougher choices, or resist it and risk being left behind.

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Yogeshwar Misal
Yogeshwar Misal
2 years ago