Geopolitics by Other Means: The Indo-Pacific

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Geopolitics by Other Means: The Indo-Pacific

DATE: 1 pm, 24th May 2019

VENUE: Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, Westminster, SW1P 4RS

SPEAKERS: Axel Berkofsky – Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI), Dr. John Hemmings – Director of the Asia Studies Centre and Deputy Research Director at the Henry Jackson Society

EVENT CHAIR: Dr. John Hemmings – Director of the Asia Studies Centre and Deputy Research Director at the Henry Jackson Society


Dr. John Hemmings: So I think we’re going to start pretty soon everybody. Good afternoon everyone. I’m Dr. John Hemmings, I’m Director of the Asia Studies Centre here at the Henry Jackson Society and it gives me great pleasure to bring to London and to have as our speaker today, Dr or I should say Professor Axel Berkofsky. We work very hard for these titles. As you can tell, Axel and I are friends, as well as colleagues, so it’s even more of a great pleasure. So this is what we’ll be talking about, a lot of you are aware that the Asia studies centre has done some work on this but to be honest Axel was a gateway drug for me. I’m in there as a co-author on the Australia chapter and really I was impressed, you know, when new ideas and new concepts emerge, particularly when they have stigma of government strategy attached to them, be they Indo-Pacific or Belt and Road or what have you. There’s a lag in academia and think tanks. People tend to be a bit suspicious and interested where it’s coming from and you know there’s a few bold (people) who are willing to go forward and approach these ideas and tussle with them and engage with them and Axel has been, I think on the European circuit, I think fairly unique in being early at the gates. There’s others out there, Francois (inaudible) has done some stuff, formerly ECFR and now (inaudible) institute with Matthew (inaudible) but Axel has been one of the ones who has really engaged with it. His current position is the Professor at University of Pavia in Italy, so he’s living a Mediterranean lifestyle. However, he’s also research fellow at ISPI, the actual think-tank that is the origins of this, and of course this is one of Italy’s, like RUSI, very old, very traditional and I’ve been very pleased to have been brought in as an author for a number of different things that Axel has invited me to contribute. We have a bit of time to go through the concepts and ideas, this is a nice group of people who are both practitioners and also intellectuals on the topic. I think just to set straight forward right now that all this is off the record and so if people want to contribute ideas, that we don’t quote each other, that would be very helpful for all of us. What else can I say. I suppose that I’ll just give some outline in terms of the structure. If we could probably have 10-15 minutes of you introducing the book, I will then take a little bit of time to throw some questions and maybe frame some things, because I’m deeply interested in the topic as well and we don’t agree on everything by and large but we do have many commonalities and interests overlap and so with that Axel the floor is yours.

Axel Berkofsky: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to come over here. John has been writing for ISPI a couple of times and he’s been very active and he’s been very good always and he’s one of Europe’s finest Asia scholars and he’s not even European. Neither are you by the end of the year! Good, this is a booklet, it’s 140 pages long, it’s an edited volume, six chapters and we’re trying to analyse what the Indo-Pacific is, who is doing what in the Indo-Pacific in terms of economic, political and security cooperation. We say Indo-Pacific, we mean mainly the US, Japan, Australia, India, minus the elephant in the room, this is not Boris Johnson but China, and the book of course is also about China and it’s always when you speak about Asian security, China, and when you talk about what is going on especially in terms of security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, it is very much about China and I’ll come back to this later, what is the Indo-Pacific, formerly known as the Asia-Pacific, it was transformed a couple of years ago, the idea of enlarging the concept of the Asia-Pacific was first brought up by (inaudible) in 2007, the then Japanese prime minister, even today Japanese Prime Minister to include the Indian Ocean and to include India and I’ll come back to this later why India is very much part of the equation today, to enlarge this concept of the Asia-Pacific towards the Indo-Pacific and when (inaudible) brought the Indo-Pacific on the agenda, he also spoke about cooperation, creating the so-called Arc of Freedom, the Union of democratic.. countries, which of course was back then and still today is perceived in China as a US-Japanese driven contain policy, the Arc of Freedom, encircling China, balancing China, balancing against China, which of course is very much perceived in China as a battle style Cold War containment and I’ll come back to this later and of course China has a point. The kind of security cooperation going on in the Indo-Pacific in between the US, Japan, Australia and India and the framework of the QUAD which stands for quadrilateral security cooperation, those four countries have indeed very much been expanding their bilateral and multilateral security cooperation balancing against China, deterring China, containing China if you will, so when China says it feels contained, it feels encircled, it certainly has a point, but I don’t have to tell the Chinese they have a point because they know this. Of course when you think about security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and China complains about encirclement and containment, it has a point but it also, China against the back of what China is doing, in terms of regional security, foreign policies, or in terms of territorial expansion is in Asia in general and in the South-China sea in particular, it had to expect some sort of reaction and this is where things become a bit unpleasant when speaking to Chinese colleagues and Chinese policy makers in China or here in Europe or anywhere else, is that they don’t understand officially why China should be contained because what China is doing in the South-China sea, meaning building military and civilian facilities on disputed islands is China doing only what it is allowed to do, because China says that the islands, the disputed islands, China is building facilities on and building military bases on, are part of Chinese territory, which of course is a very very Chinese perspective because the islands China is building facilities on are disputed islands and in 2016 the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China’s territorial claims are to these islands are not valid, the International Court of Arbitration said that these territorial claims are not valid and China is not allowed in theory and also in practice to build military bases on islands that might belong to somebody else but from a Chinese perspective of course it is China only building facilities on what has been belonging to China for hundreds or thousands of years and China is thereby basing its interpretation or conclusion that those islands belong to China on the so called Nine-Dash line which was drawn 1947 by China’s former ruler Chiang Kai-shek which basically defines that 97% of the South-China Sea is Chinese territory so what China is doing in the South-China sea is China building facilities on islands that belong to China, that is a very Chinese perspective, what the US is doing in the Indo-Pacific and also in the context of the QUAD it is conducting so-called Freedom of Navigation operations, FON, but to really no avail, the US is, US vessels are sailing into international territorial waters from a Chinese perspectives, Chinese territorial waters, as a signalling to China that the territorial waters that China claims as territorial waters are actually international territorial waters, the Chinese complain, the Chinese protest but they keep on building the facilities, so even if the US, together recently, right John, with the Japanese, with the Australians, even some European officials, European Union officials, have been on board some of those vessels, even if they sail into those territorial waters which China says is a violation of Chinese territorial integrity it doesn’t change. China keeps on building those facilities, ignoring the verdict of the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague, it is saying we don’t care about, it’s just Chinese territories, we have all the maps, going back to the Ming Dynasty going back to the Ching dynasty, going back to the Chinese empire, so we don’t really care and in fact the more the US is sailing into international waters around those disputed islands the quicker the Chinese are building facilities so you might argue these freedom of navigation operations are counterproductive because they speed they even make the construction of those facilities quicker. Coming very briefly, another 5 minutes, coming back to, to the indo-pacific, what is going on, we covered Japan, John covered Australia, we have the US, we have India, we have two very good Indian authors and of course we cover China not by Chinese author, but by an Italian colleague of mine, Sergio Miracola, the co-editor of this book. Japan is very, very active in the Indo-Pacific, Japan is doing two things essentially, Japan is doing many things but two very important things. It is engaging very actively in what Japan calls quality infrastructure, it is engaging in infrastructure projects in Asia, in South-East Asia, India, South Asia, many countries in South Asia, North-East Asia, building infrastructure, quality infrastructure. Why quality infrastructure? Because this is clearly a counter initiative to China’s belt and road initiative, massive Chinese infrastructure development projects along the new Silk Road and often being accused of being non-transparent, non-accountable, not economically viable, sustainable, so on and so forth and the counter concept that the Japanese have been putting on the table a few years ago is quality infrastructure – accountable, transparent, economically viable, environmentally sustainable, this is the Japanese counter-initiative and when you look into this it’s very technical, it’s also very boring but I’ve looked into this in detail, it’s not as big as the (inaudible), it’s much smaller but it very big, it’s still very big, so Japan has been investing a lot of money in making sure that there is a Japanese counter initiative to infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific so Japan is very much on the forefront of all of this, infrastructure development, Japan has been doing this very successfully over decades so Japan has got a lot of experience doing this and what we have seen coming out of those initiatives is indeed very impressive. The second thing Japan is doing, it is expanding its military ties with India, above all, with Australia. Australia maybe is a bit the odd man because Australia is very far away from everything and Australia is not a big military power, it’s part of the QUAD but geographically it’s very far away but India is of course very important, Japan of course, as we all know, has a very close security alliance with the US and so Japan has been expanding, has been diversifying, its defence ties are complementing it with a lot of defence cooperation with India. Why India or why is India on board? And we will see what will happen in the months and years to come after the renewed Mandate of Prime Minister Modi, he is of course very much concerned about Chinese foreign and regional security policy and in particular with its territorial ambitions and of course China is being accused of in India of trying to turn the Indian Ocean into a Chinese lake, China has been investing very heavily in South-East Asian and South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, lots of investment in ports and other structures in Pakistan of course, China is building apparently, obviously reported building its second military base in Pakistan, China is investing into a big port infrastructure development project, so there’s a lot of Indian concern about Chinese territorial ambitions and that’s why the Indians or that’s why India at least so it seems and it remains to be seen to what extent this is true, has kissed farewell part of its non-alignment policies and has made it very clear that it is interested in expanding in security and defence ties with Japan and this is going on if you look at the details and we’ve done this here in the book, is also very impressive. There’s a lot of on the ground, day to day, military and security cooperation going on between Japan and India bilaterally. The Europeans, the EU, very briefly… I don’t want to sound like Nigel Farage, but the EU is not doing very much, it is not doing very much, the EU has endorsed on paper the concept and the importance of the Indo-Pacific but it’s not doing very much, it is publishing every once and a while statements in support of increased security cooperation, political cooperation with the aforementioned countries but it’s not doing very much. 2016 at the (inaudible) Security Dialogue in Singapore, the former French Defence Minister, he put onto the agenda, the idea of the EU or not the EU but the Europeans, not only the French and the Brits because the French and the Brits are already doing it, they have military presence in the Indo-Pacific or in the Asia Pacific so they are patrolling already territorial waters in the East and South-China seas but the idea of former French Defence Minister, the Europeans should be much more interested in security in the Indo-Pacific they should be deploying or they should be considering the possibility of patrolling disputed territorial waters in the East and South China seas, this was the idea in 2016, nothing really came out of this, I talk to European policy makers often and they say No, it’s too controversial, we don’t have the resources, we don’t have political rule, there is no consensus as it is often the case in the EU, the Germans, they don’t have the naval capabilities, which is true, they don’t haevt the political will, there is a reluctance to offend China but it is very easy to offend China because China is always offended very quickly but you know the EU jointly patrolling territorial waters in the South China Sea will of course be the ultimate offence to China but the idea is out there that the Europeans have embraced the concept and the idea of defending its political and security interests and economic interests in the Asia Pacific is out there but to no avail until today. I stop here and then we can go to you and then we’ll open up.

Dr. John Hemmings: Thank you very much, Axel. That was a Tour de Force. I won’t take up too much time. I think it’s 34 past. I’ll talk for about 10 minutes just to maybe act as a discussant to throw some things into the mix and then we can open up for discussion. Essentially, I think I’ll talk about three, I mean you mention already the EU reaction to your paper and to responses and I think I’d like to probe that a little bit, but before I do, I think I’ll talk about three areas, one is US-China relationship and where that is now. The second one is the others, how do they react to that dynamic and the third one is the UK-EU role going forward, so I mean I think it’s no surprise to everyone that the US-China dynamic has changed dramatically even just few months. You see much more in the media, the tech Cold War language used, we’ve heard amongst Western intellectuals, debate about a new Cold War for some time, I mean that’s nothing new, that’s about two or three years old but of course that language has become kind of subsumed into the trade conflict and the tech conflict, which we’re seeing with Huawei and CTE, and other things and so there’s some of us who, perhaps I say this unfairly, but I’ve seen structural trends, seem to have always been pointing to greater competition unless there was dramatic change from the Chinese, in terms of their outward expansion in the South East Asian region and in terms of their trade policies, I think it was pretty clear to me that ultimately the US would reject that relationship that the Chinese were trying to build with the US and to some extent, there was a, despite the win-win language, there is a win-lose strategic battle beginning to take shape, but of course all of that could change overnight, just as we saw the tweet from Donald Trump saying that Huawei could be on the cards negotiation point for the Cold War. Tactics aside I think the long term trends take us that way so I suppose throughout the audience and throughout, to Axel as well, the Indo-Pacific strategy for the moment has been very good at collecting lots of followers on the premise that it was not hardened, balancing against China, it was a kind of room for other things, it looked like it was infastructurally driven, it had elements of geopolitical competition, but they were kind of softened, they were subsumed and you could also see that the Indo-Pacific strategy to some extent, the more the Americans pushed it into that geostrategic direction, the more the Indians and the Japanese were pushing back a little bit, being a little bit concerned about going too hard on that so I’d be very curious if you would tell me about that, the second one, all of the calculations must be also shifting I think a little bit in terms of watching the US, to some extent, in international relations, we generally define state options as like three choices you know you balance, you engage or you hedge, one of those ones, balancing I suppose for the smaller states, balancing means building up alliances, hardening your military capabilities internally, developing cyber commands, developing closer links, in other words, you taking more the competitive route, you realise that that other state, you perceive it to be a threat and so you begin to move your policy basket that way which was traditional during the Cold War, the other one of course is the engaging or bandwagoning if you’re a smaller state. For example, the Philippines, you could describe President Duterte as bandwagoning, he decided he saw a potential threat but rather than balancing and going with the US which perceived negatively for a number of different personal reasons and he had an alliance commitment which he was not sure of. You begin to try to befriend the potential threat, you try to kind of show that you’re able to work with them in some way or another and then hedging is the third one. So where does Modi take us in the future? That’s a question we could ask, do we see Abe, Abe has been a massive intellectual driver for the Indo-Pacific, does Japan continue to go in this direction in the context of the US-China shape and Australia given the new government that’s come in, will they be continuing, there not conservative than labour, is liberal trajectory to be the same, I think people like Rory Medcaffe have been tweeting recently that of course it will, that both sides of the aisle in Australia have accepted the Indo-Pacific concept. But you know Australia also has a lot to lose if the US-China relationship becomes really defined by its competition. Then finally, given that we’re here and we all love this country and it’s going through tough times, what is the rise and fall of Gavin Williamson, will we have a carrier going out to the region or not or is that something, is the policy very much tied to one man, he was the driving force behind the deployments to the region, I love what you said about the EU, I think it was very useful for me to hear that, you do hear some encouraging shifts in the EU relationship towards China, particularly that grand strategic document that came out three or four months ago but since then we’ve had a number of things that point against that or is the EU going to develop and you’ve recommended in your paper their own infrastructural concepts and ideas, will they snuggle up to the QUAD, will they keep their distance, will they hedge, so those kind of three questions for you, I would be delighted if you would and I hate to ask you if you can run through your answers but run through them pretty quickly.

Axel Berkofsky: Thank you John and I’ll be quick so you can open up to the audience. The EU one and China, you know sure, we have been part of the EU-China relationship, conferences, lectures, seminars, millions of times. Yes, there is certainly a change in the EU or the EU has become much more realistic about its relationship with China, many many years it has been (inaudible) engagement and win-win, not only in China but mutual interests. But the problems that the US under Trump has with China in terms of trade, in terms of investment, identical, the same problems the EU has with China so the EU has been, and the US are very much on the same page, so the trade frictions (inaudible), government procurement are exactly the same issues so the tendency in Europe to be more cautious with China to look more carefully at how and what China is investing in in Europe and strengthening investment guidelines in countries like Germany and concerns about Chinese companies buying high tech German technology, not only in Germany, but in other countries as well, so there is certainly a push back, a caution, it’s not as outspoken as the US. I mean nobody is as outspoken as the US under Trump but still there’s a shift, but you know, and I am sceptical and I have lived and worked in Brussels and I am familiar with the EU machine a little bit. I’d say that yes you hear things like this, yeah we embrace the concept and we become more critical and we are ready to become more outspoken and be part of a concept but until I see a real commitment, until I see the EU patrolling the South China Sea with the Americans and Australians and Japanese I’d be cautious to say there’s a fundamental shift or change of the EU’s approach to the Indo-pacific against the background of Chinese perceived threat but certainly the EU has become more realistic about China and what it means. I don’t know, Abe has been very smart recently, he has said very little, more is less, less is more, he has said very little about the US-China dispute because Trump is doing all the talking anyway so there’s no need to say very much and Japan has also been very smart and this is probably the good news, at least in theory, in practice maybe not, Japan has never categorically excluded to be part of the Belt and Road initiative, (inaudible) we have own quality infrastructure, they don’t call it counter concept, we have our own approach towards infrastructure, but we are in principal willing and able to talk with China about joining the BR if certain preconditions are being met and this is transparency, accountability, sustainability, economic sustainability, environment sustainability, many of the projects China is involved in, are the very opposite of what Japan is asking that these projects must be. It’s only theory, China says we, Japan says we are able to join those projects when those preconditions are being met but knowing that these preconditions are not being met, it’s prepared us to participate in principal, and then in the meantime, we will continue the hedge, Japan has its own territorial dispute with China and the East China Sea, China thinks that it has a territory dispute with Japan, Japan says it doesn’t have a territorial dispute because the Senkaku islands are de facto part of Japanese territory since 1895, since the first Sino-Japanese war, but China still insists that they should be reintegrated into Chinese territory to which they never belonged to by the way but that’s of course only me. So who knows, Abe has been very smart with hedging, he’s not making too much noise but he’s still very much committed to what he has been committing himself to so he is certainly not shy of following up on what has been decided in terms of infrastructure, in terms of defence, defence ties. With India, I am a little bit on shaky ground because…. I don’t know enough about the India, sure India, for decades has had a non-alignment policy, which has been successful, adopting a non-alignment policy, trying not to offend anybody, but when I look at China’s, I don’t want to turn into a China basher, but when I look what China is doing in the Indian Ocean, what China is investing in and that China is expanding its defence ties with (inaudible) with building a military base in Pakistan, India’s arch enemy, then I would say that, Muri in a second mandate, could be becoming, could be become more assertive and making sure that India is even more part of the equation of the Indo-Pacific concept of balancing, hedging against China but I don’t know but I know too little about India, thanks


Dr. John Hemmings: Off the record, if you could just introduce yourself and your affiliation and if you can keep either your remarks or questions under a minute or two minutes.


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