WASHINGTON – The United States must join with India, Japan and other regional democracies to provide the foundation of a moral and economic counterweight to China’s rapidly growing vise grip on the Indo-Pacific region, a panel of experts urged on Wednesday.
“China’s peaceful rise is no longer peaceful,” said Husain Haqqani, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Launching an economic alliance akin to NATO is an imperative, he said, since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “has a romance with China.”
The panel on “Realizing a Free and Peaceful Indo-Pacific” was presented at The Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that has the goal of stimulating interdisciplinary studies in defense, international relations, economics, health care, technology, culture and law.
China, through its “Belt and Road” strategic initiative, is metastasizing economic and naval power into the region. Some regional countries have been enthusiastic about the enormous economic potential, yet many remain apprehensive about the prospect of unequal and unfair economic relations and the real risk of deepening geopolitical tensions.
One key to offsetting China is strengthening India, the world’s largest democracy. Panel members said India has long-stalled economic plans that, if implemented, would make the nation a formidable economic and democratic example of a true alternative to China.
Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, said China is using “sharp power” through economic investments to gain influence directly or through subterfuge. He said an economic network anchored by India – what he called a “grand and robust democracy” – supported financially and in other ways by the U.S. is vital to keeping the region from China’s grasp.
China “is using a new tool kit on power and influence, and we need to catch up,” Twining said. “The more we can do to knit these networks together the better we are.”
For example, panel members said the U.S. should help India finance and jump start long dormant plans to expand and upgraded its rail system, as well as creating rail and highway routes through Thailand to Vietnam.
That will make it easier and economic lucrative for southeast Asian nations to conduct East-West trade with each other instead of north-south trade with China.
China routinely provides the lowest bid for projects, despite providing tepid quality of work and never finishing on time, said John Balfe, senior adviser to XMS Capital. He noted that China provided a $3.1 billion loan for construction of a port in Sri Lanka that had no economic potential. When Sri Lanka was unable to pay the debt, it was refinanced and China now has a 99-year lease on the port – perfect for its navy.
“Who bears the cost and who got the benefit,” he said. Balfe suggested creating an exchange program of economic advisers similar to military officer exchange programs to help nations sniff out similar Chinese gambits.
“China’s infrastructure projects are related with their foreign and military policies ,which is a concern for countries such as Japan and India,” said Satoru Nagao, a visiting fellow with the Hudson Institute. “The advent of a bright future or a darker one will depend on the strength of achievements that Japan, India and U.S. collaboration can show to the world [and] would mitigate Chinese influence in south Asia.”