Academic Webinar: Balancing the Indo-Pacific

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Executive Director, Observer Research Foundation America; Nonresident Fellow, Lowy Institute


Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Dhruva Jaishankar, executive director of Observer Research Foundation America and nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute, led a conversation on balancing the Indo-Pacific.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Julissa. Welcome to today’s CFR Fall 2021 Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s meeting is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have with us today Dhruva Jaishankar to talk about competition in the Indo-Pacific and balancing China’s influence. Mr. Jaishankar is executive director of the public policy think tank Observer Research Foundation America, and also a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute. Previously he was a director of the U.S. initiative at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. And from 2016 to 2019, Mr. Jaishankar served as a fellow in foreign policy studies at Brookings, India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He currently writes a monthly column for the Hindustan Times, and is published in books, policy reports, and numerous publications.

So, Mr. Jaishankar, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought we could begin with you giving us an overview of the geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific and your policy recommendations for balancing China’s rise.

JAISHANKAR: Well, thanks. Thank you, Ms. Faskianos, and thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for having me as part of this program. I always welcome and appreciate the opportunity to interact with students whenever the opportunity arises, and with members of the academic community, with faculty of various kinds. It’s been a decade—more than a decade now since I was last in graduate school, but I feel like I never truly left, and still continue to learn from my colleagues in the academic world, and so really look forward to this engagement.

In some ways, this is a timely and important moment to be discussing the power of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific. The idea of great power competition, as many of you will be aware, has been a fixture of international politics really ever since the first stage of globalization after 1492, at least on a global scale. Shortly after that time Spain and Portugal decided to carve up the world between them. And whether or not they could actually implement much of that is another matter.

This was followed, of course, by a series of conflicts between primarily European powers that led eventually by—competing coalitions led by Britain and France through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which waged war as far afield as North America and the Indian Ocean. And my own country, India, and this country, the United States, were both in many ways defined by those conflicts. Great power competition also was a feature in the rise of Germany and Japan and the two world wars in the early twentieth century. And perhaps the last period of really well-acknowledged great power competition was the Cold War between 1945 and 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union.

But the period that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union may well be thought of as one where such competition between the world’s most powerful political entities went on something of a holiday, a hiatus, it took a break. And we saw something of a debate as to what would be the defining characteristics of that post-Cold War world. The end of history was what Francis Fukuyama, of course, famously proposed. Or Samuel Huntington argued that there would be a clash of civilization, a view that gained particular relevance after the 9/11 attacks. But others argued that this period would be defined by enlargement and engagement of the U.S.-led world order, particularly in Europe. Others said that there would be a new kind of economic and soft power competition, with a more unified European Union. Others thought the global war on terror would be the primary prism by which the world politics would be defined. Others saw the growing irrelevance of the state and the empowerment of corporations and individuals.

And these are the kinds of debates that occupied the study of international politics in the two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But at some point over the past thirteen years or so, and we can discuss whether that was after the 2008 global financial crisis or after the rise of Xi Jinping in China, or the election of Donald Trump in 2016. But at some point there was a growing acknowledgement that great power competition, in some form, is back. And let me briefly get into why I think this is the case. And in doing so, I’ll try to address what I see, at least, as some of the defining features of this new competition, centered as it is in the Indo-Pacific region.

Four reasons, at least, for intensifying global competition have to do very much with China itself. And I’ll start with the security aspects of China’s rise. For many years we—there was this sort of mantra attributed to Deng Xiaoping, China’s previous paramount leader, that was variously translated as “hide your time and bide your strength,” or, “hide your brightness.” And this was seen as the sort of defining feature of China during its rise, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s. But today China is very actively engaged in security competition, often over territory and occasionally over resources, with at least nine of its neighbors, depending on how you define such competition. This extends to Japan in the East China Sea, with Taiwan over the possibility and terms of reunification. It extends to the South China Sea, with a variety of claimant states there. And it extends to India and Bhutan over territory in the Himalayas.

The significance of the latter two, the South China Sea and the Himalayan competition in particular, I feel are often underappreciated in the United States. In the South China Sea, China has dredged artificial islands, laid claim to the surrounding waters and airspace, and militarized these entities in clear contravention of international law. It has engaged in intimidatory military standoffs with the Philippines and more recently with Malaysia, effectively taking control a few years ago of Scarborough Shoal, one of the disputed reefs. With India, China undertook perhaps it’s biggest military mobilization in four decades last year. The resulting standoff, which is still partially continuing, was marked last year by the deaths of twenty Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers. These were the first Chinese combat casualties outside of U.N. peacekeeping since 1988.

But it’s not just the security competition which defines the emerging great power competition in the Indo-Pacific. In international relations, as most of you would be well-aware, liberal theories posit that the pacifying or cooperating effects of interdependence, ideas, and institutions. But all of these today have become domains of competition. Today’s there’s widespread recognition that China does not offer a level economic and commercial playing field, with restricted market access in many sectors, technological theft, heavy state subsidies and predatory lending. Nor has its governance structures become more open and liberal, with a consolidation of power by Xi Jinping and the extension of a wide-ranging national security law to Hong Kong, in contravention of promises made previously to allow multiple systems of governance within one country. Finally, China has been eroding multilateral institutions and norms, whether with respect to nuclear nonproliferation, cybersecurity, outer space, freedom of navigation and overflight, financing standards, and even the Arctic and Antarctic treaties.

But it’s not just Chinese territorial revisionism, economic mercantilism, institutional degradation, and intensifying authoritarianism that are driving the new great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, although these are arguably the primary drivers. In many other countries, not least the United States and Europe, we’re witnessing in some ways a backlash to globalization and a refocus on job-related growth, national industry policy, a greater scrutiny of migration policies, and so forth. In short, we’re seeing greater nationalism around the world. Moreover, other trends are adding further to competition, as we’ve seen more recently in Afghanistan. China’s role there in facilitating the Taliban’s return to power is perhaps an important indicator of the kinds of instrumental alliances it will seek, including with Russia and Pakistan, which have their own agendas.

Finally, I should mention that technological developments, both civilian and military, are transforming the nature of competition. On the military side, we have seen perhaps a sneak peek of what is to come in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But technological competition is playing out increasing in domains such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, 5G telecommunications, and quantum computing—all of which have both civilian and military applications, and therefore have significant implications for the future of economic growth and for military conflict.

So these, as I see it, are the key drivers developing—that are shaping and fueling the balancing behavior on the part of many other actors in the Indo-Pacific, beginning, of course, with the United States, which has five treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific. Namely, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia. The United States is also, of course, a resident power in the Indo-Pacific, with both military forces and territory, as well as citizens, in Guam, America Samoa, and Hawaii. Beyond the United States, Japan is the U.S.’s closest ally and, despite a pacifist constitution, has in the last few years assumed many of the features, roles, and responsibilities of a normal military power—again, often in response to—as they see it, to Chinese assertiveness.

Australia, once more conflicted, has experienced China’s use of economic coercion and political interference, resulting in a strong backlash from Canberra, and a reaffirmation of its alliance with the United States, most recently in the form of the AUKUS agreement, along with the United Kingdom. This, of course, is quite significant because it involves, amongst other things, the acquisition of nuclear propulsion for attacks submarines, with the support of the U.S. and U.K.

India too has been slowly improving its security relations with the U.S., Japan, and Australia since about 2000, and especially after about 2014, and has also engaged in balancing behavior—reorganizing its military forces, rebalancing assets towards China-related military contingencies, and deepening defense technology relationships with the United States and its allies. The coming together of these four countries, the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, under the Quad—whose leaders met for the first time just a few weeks ago—is perhaps the best encapsulation of the emerging balancing relationships in the Indo-Pacific.

Beyond these four countries something of a question mark remains about other actors in the region. These include South Korea, the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the smaller states of South Asia, East Africa, and the South Pacific. And Europe too is looking at all of these developments that I outlined with keener interest, given their own economic agendas, domestic politics, and, in some cases, European security roles in the Indo-Pacific. In all of these cases, countries will strive to balance relations with China on the one hand and the United States and its partners on the other. But the room for maneuver may be narrowing, and the proposition that economic and security policies can be kept separate will certainly be tested in the years to come.

Finally, I’ll just mention that there’s some key differences between the emerging Indo-Pacific balance and the Cold War of the 20th century. The most important is the continuing economic interdependence and social interchange between the various actors. So, for example, China and the United States are still major trade partners with each other, and still enjoy significant people-to-people exchanges, research collaborations, and personal relationships. These are all much thicker than they were between the U.S. and the USSR during the height of the Cold War. The same story, in some ways, applies, with variations, to other relationships in the region. So it is right to question some of the lazy analogies that are made between what some have described as the new Cold War and the original one.

But the principal catalysts of great power competition that I outlined very briefly are unlikely to dissipate in the near future. And for both students and scholars of international relations, it’s all the more reason to be focused on how the Indo-Pacific balance shapes up in the coming years and decades. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for that. Let’s go to all of you now for your questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The first question will go to Helen You, whos’ a student at New York University. And, Helen, if you’re happy to ask it live, please do.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much for your time and for your expertise. I really appreciated your remarks.

My question is also written in the Q&A box, but how has the recent moves to U.S.-India relations, particularly vis-à-vis the Quad, affected Russia’s relationship with India? And how might India-Russia relations be leveraged by New Delhi to push ack against China with respect to the Indo-Pacific? Thank you.

JAISHANKAR: Thank you for that question. It’s actually a fascinating one, and one to which there are now easy answers. India and Russia have enjoyed a close partnership for a long time. In 1971 the two—the USSR and India signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. And during the latter half of the Cold War, India’s closest partner amongst the great powers was the Soviet Union. That has changed a little bit, obviously, in the post-Cold War period, although Russia does remain India’s largest defense supplier. The U.S., France, and Israel are also significant suppliers, but Russia remains the most important one. And there is some convergence between India and Russia on a number of international issues. So India does see Russia as—continues to see Russia as a privileged partner.

I think the big change actually occurred after about 2014 with the Crimea crisis and the subsequent sanctions placed by the United States and Europe on Russia. And in the years that followed, we’ve seen a much closer Russia-China relationship emerge, and together there’s some growing convergence on a number of issues, including Afghanistan, sometimes, in the case of Afghanistan, counter to what India sees as in its interest, so—namely, in some ways, the normalization of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So I think this is going to be a challenge; it’s a major contradiction, in a sense, because, on the one hand, India does—is partnering more closely with the U.S. and its allies, motivated in large part by a shared concern about China, and yet, you have a growing convergence between Russia and China. So I think that the challenge will be, you know, for India and Russia to manage relations on their own terms. India will continue to try and preserve that relationship with Russia, but in some ways the larger forces will be pushing Russia and China together and that will really create, and has created, a real stress on the Russia-China relationship.

So, overall, I don’t see a—sort of anticipate there being a major break in India-Russia relations; in fact, this year India will be importing a major anti-aircraft system, or is expected to import a major anti-aircraft system from Russia which will actually make it eligible for U.S. sanctions, and navigating that will actually be quite tricky in the coming weeks and months. But I do—that being said, I think the larger interests of China and Russia will be pushing them together over the near future.


We have several great questions from Rishav Gupta, who is a graduate student at the Symbiosis School of International Studies. They’re all focused around the Quad: Does it hold the same relevance even after the formation of AUKUS? Will it be able to balance China in the Indo-Pacific? And would it be more useful if the Quad were more of a security alliance rather than just a forum for multifaceted, multilateral cooperation between the four powers?

JAISHANKAR: Sure. All good questions and all related to one another.

I mean, the question of will the Quad be able to balance China is the big question. I would actually look at it slightly differently, which is, if the Quad are unable to work together, that would—you know, that would significantly set back the sort of attempts at balancing—creating a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. So, in some ways, these are the four key countries and so their coming together, possibly with other partners as well, in the future will be, in some ways, the big test of whether—you know, whether you do end up with a favorable balance of power.

On the other question, I certainly don’t think AUKUS undermines it in any way. In fact, I think the general consensus is that it seems to complement the Quad. It is much more military-focused. It’s a way of keeping the U.S. and U.K. engaged by reaffirming the U.S.-Australia alliance. And you know, I certainly think that the steps have been cautiously welcomed in Tokyo and in New Delhi. So, you know, I think it’s a very different beast and really is about reinforcing the U.S.-Australia relationship, in much the same way India and the U.S. and India and Japan do many things on the security front together that don’t involve the other Quad partners, so it’s certainly not an either/or, and might in fact be quite reinforcing.

And finally, on should it be doing more on security, it’s funny because, you know, a year or so ago the commentary on the Quad was generally it’s doing too much on security and should be doing more non-security coalition building and now it’s sort of, in some ways, the inverse. And I think the—you know, the most significant—I’ve written about this but the most significant developments on the Quad on the security side have really been at the bilateral and trilateral level amongst the four Quad countries. So today, you know, all of them have senior-level two-plus-two dialogues involving the foreign and defense ministries with each other, all four of the countries. All of them do advanced military exercises with each other of growing sophistication involving more and more services with more frequency as well. All of them are entering into logistics agreements with each other that would enable the militaries to work more seamlessly together. So I do think that, you know, there’s quite a lot happening on the security front, not all of it under a strictly Quad umbrella. The one major development that is happening under—you know, involving all those four countries is the Malabar naval exercises which take place roughly once, sometimes twice a year which are nominally India, U.S. bilateral naval exercises, which Japan has now been included as a permanent member and Australia’s taking part in both this year and last year. So that’s certainly a quadrilateral exercise; it’s a quite sophisticated maritime exercise. The Quad countries are also doing exercises with the U.K. and with France and have done in the last year or two.

So, I mean, I do think there’s quite a lot going on in the security front, although not all of it under the Quad umbrella.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We will now go to Miguel Híjar-Chiapa, who has a raised hand.

Q: Thank you so much for your enlightening talk.

I have a question regarding this area of the so-called Quad-plus. There are many countries that have already published or released strategies on the Indo-Pacific, from ASEAN to New Zealand, of course the Quad partners, and also European countries—Germany, the U.K., France, and so on. And due to all the meetings that Quad countries held with other countries during the pandemic, all over the 2020, there was a lot of talk and a lot of fuss about a potential Quad-plus. Do you think that there are—there is fertile soil for a Quad-plus to emerge and for a new regional order that is centered on this idea of the Indo-Pacific of this free and open Indo-Pacific against China-dominated Asia Pacific order?

JAISHANKAR: So a good question. I think, you know, the idea of expanding the Quad, you know, has been floated, but I think the reluctance—my understanding is that the reluctance has often been on the part of other partners, not the Quad countries per se. And, you know, there are, for example, concerns about, amongst the ASEAN member states, about whether joining the Quad will somehow undermine ASEAN unity or, you know, undermine ASEAN as an institution. They’ve been—you know, I think the keenest interest, in some ways, has been shown by the U.K. in recent months but—and France certainly has done things with the Quad countries and has the capabilities. But I think there’s some question marks about the comfort levels and capabilities and willingness of other partners to work, so, again, some trepidation on the part of South Korea about working with the Quad countries. There are a lot of questions that are raised—Germany as well on the European side. So, you know, I mean, I won’t rule it out, but I think the stumbling block is often not the Quad countries itself, it’s actually the others about partnering with the Quad and worried about what the, you know, what the implications that may be for its own—you know, their own positions, whether it’s the domestic politics, whether it’s the regional architecture, or whether it’s their relationship with China.

And that being said, I do see a lot of issue-based coalition building around what is an expanding menu of items that the Quad is dealing with with other partners. So to give you an example: You know, all four Quad countries are doing some work on artificial intelligence with a bigger coalition of fifteen countries, of which all four Quad countries happen to be members as well. But that includes a lot of European countries, includes South Korea, Singapore, and others. I think you’ll see narrower coalitions on other things, on infrastructure financing possibly, on space cooperation, on cybersecurity. So I think—on maritime security. You know, France, I think, is an important player in that domain. Indonesia might be more interested in certain issues than it is in others. So I suspect we’ll see a kind of loose coalition building, often issue-specific, where these countries are comfortable working with the Quad partners. But as of now, there’s still a lot of curiosity; there are more questions than answers. And I think greater clarity on the part of some of these capitals, Seoul and Berlin, Singapore, Jakarta, on how they want to engage with the Quad would really be very helpful.

Q: Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to a written question from Ivona Kulusic-Ho, a freshman at Brooklyn College: Talks of Taiwan preparing for war with China have recently emerged. Do you think the country will risk a war? Also, if there is a war, will any countries come to Taiwan’s aid?

JAISHANKAR: A big question, not one I’m best placed to answer, although just in the last few weeks I’ve been doing a bit more on the Taiwan side. The U.S. has a certain security relationship with Taiwan that I think would automatically embroil it in any Taiwan-related contingency. And we saw this in 1995-96, when there was the Taiwan Straits crisis, and increasingly I think there is sort of, you know, a firm commitment on the part of the U.S. to—that will be involved in any cross-straits contingency.

Increasingly, Japan is involved, and I think they see it—and, you know, the ministers have been vocal about it quite recently. They see it as certainly impinging upon their own territorial interest in the East China Sea and part of the U.S. alliance. So I think the United States and Japan will certainly be involved in the event of any Taiwan-related hostilities that might emerge.

With other countries, then, it’s a bit more questionable, so, you know, it’s less clear about, say, Australia, which may provide some support functions but may not directly be involved. It’s certainly less clear with all the other ASEAN countries. It’s certainly less clear with India, whether it would be directly involved in any Taiwan-related contingency. It does not have the same type of relationship with Taiwan as the United States has, for example.

So, you know, I think all of those are question marks. Many may offer some kind of support, you know, secondary assistance, if you will, but certainly I think it will implicate the United States and, to a lesser degree, Japan.

FASKIANOS: There’s a follow-on question from David Woodside at Fordham University: Is there a specific event or decision that could be taken by the Chinese, America, or Taiwanese governments that you believe is most likely to set off an armed conflict?

JAISHANKAR: Again, with the big caveat that I’m not a close Taiwan watcher at all, I think that the general consensus that I’ve seen is that the one big issue will be sort of an overt declaration of independence by Taiwan, we know will do that, and the current government has shied away from doing that, although, you know, has a more independent-minded streak. So I think that will certainly be one. But that may not be the only one, and I think a lot of the—what seems to be driving a lot of the tension recently has been actions on the PRC side, on the People’s Republic of China side. So clearly there are other factors at play beyond simply this—that. But that has often been communicated as a singular trigger for a Taiwan-related crisis.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

So a question from Colonel Barney Barnhart at the National War College: What do you see as India’s top threat to its own security?

JAISHANKAR: I would say the number one threat today—and there’s a growing consensus about this and this is also demonstrated in public opinion surveys—I think is really China. That is today—you know, for a long time, Pakistan was seen as the major challenge for India, but today—but, you know, given the events of the last few years and particularly last year, there is now a hot border between India and China. There is—you know, there were fatalities last year. China is seen as having much greater resources that makes it hard for India to compete, whether, again, on the military level or political level. So I think today there’s a growing view—there’s a growing consensus in India that China represents the number one challenge.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Arnav Gautam, Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University: How do you consider the role of the energy transition on Indo-Pacific relations? He’s thinking about China-Australia coal relationship, natural gas transportation in the region, China’s rapid expansion of solar panel manufacturing and other energy technology. How do you see these changing relationships bringing actors closer or further apart?

JAISHANKAR: You know, that’s a good question and I don’t think there’s an easy answer because I think there’s several countervailing trends. You know, the biggest transition will really be a dependence—you know, over time will be a greater—growing independence and less reliance on fossil fuels. I mean, clearly—right? And the bigger exporter of that is actually the Middle East, you know, the Gulf Arab states, Iran, and others, although there are new finds all the time, including in Southeast Asia and Africa and Latin America and so forth. But over time, I think, you know, greater independence and resilience on that front will be a defining characteristic. And the competition will shift to other areas of, you know—lithium, for example, which is, you know, integral, a key natural resource for solar power and other critical minerals like that.

You know, I think it’s interesting to see the kind of tests. On the one hand, many people thought that, you know, China’s punitive actions against Australian coal would hurt Australia, and yet you’ve seen global demand has largely offset that, which meant that, you know, Australian coal industry hasn’t collapsed as a result of steps that China’s taken. And in fact, it seems to have partially boomeranged in the sense that the coal crunch in Mainland China today is at least partly—not wholly but partly—attributable to a lack of being able to source from Australia. So, you know, I think these energy dynamics will be driven to a large extent by market forces rather than geopolitics and will have its own logic that will often run counter to geopolitical facts on the ground. So, I mean, to give a very different example: Europe still remains very dependent on Russian energy imports, despite the tensions between the two. So, you know, it’s very hard to say how that will play out.

I will say—my final point on that, I guess, is there is an attempt, though, to, you know, to try to align those things, so Australia has been very keen about diversifying its energy and general commercial exports away from China to Southeast Asia and to India, amongst other places. And, you know, there’s now essentially a restart of India-Australia trade talks driven by, in part, by the motivation to diversify away from Mainland China.

So there will be attempts, I think, to align energy security with the geopolitics, although market forces will play—could play spoiler.


Just a reminder to people to raise their hands. We’ve got some written questions, but I always want to encourage people to ask their question too.

So, with that, we’ll go to Gary Prevost, who is the professor at College of St. Benedict.

Q: Yes.

I was very much struck by Obama’s pivot to Asia and the tone toward China that was set in it that stressed more cooperation than confrontation and led to things such as the agreement on climate, the nuclear deal with Iran, better relations between the United States and Cuba. During the Trump period, clearly there was a different tone that was taken. But what I’m struck by is, as the Biden administration takes office, the emphasis on cooperation has largely taken a back seat, and that focus is now predominantly on the confrontation issues. Big New York Times article in the last day about trade. How do you see that? I see some danger here in the part of international affairs that requires cooperation between the United States and China inadvertently taking a back seat over issues of inevitable confrontation.

JAISHANKAR: Thanks. And it’s great to hear from Minnesota, I believe, where I was undergrad as well, at Macalester. But thank you for that question. You know, it’s really been fascinating to be watching a lot of those developments you spoke about, starting with the pivot to Asia. I would actually frame it a little bit differently, which is, you know, I think there’s a growing consensus view in the U.S. national security community and this, I think, is broadly bipartisan, amongst both Republican and Democrats, with variations, that cooperation with China, at least prioritizing cooperation with China over some of the other elements, has not really paid dividends. And so a broad policy of engagement, as it’s sometimes called in shorthand, starting—which started with Nixon’s visit to China in the early 1970s, ’71—hasn’t really paid off and that China hasn’t lived up to many of its commitments. And even on issues like climate—you know, on cybersecurity, the deal that the Obama administration brokered with China, China has really not lived up to its end of the bargain. Climate change—you know, Beijing pursues its objectives irrespective of any kind of agreement with the U.S. because it has more advantages. So that, I think, is largely a factor. The pivot or rebalance to Asia in 2011 came about largely as a consequence of that, so between 2009—the first two years of the Obama administration, in some ways, there was an attempt at a sort of what was described as strategic reassurance, where the U.S. officials tried to say, listen, there are areas where we will try not to pass—you know, to cross certain Chinese red lines but we want your cooperation on currency manipulation, on climate change or North Korea, on Iran, on a bunch of other issues. And some of the frustrations with that not paying off really resulted in the pivot to rebalance to Asia.

In the second Obama administration, there was a bit of a reset and the more confrontational aspects of the pivot/rebalance were, in some ways, watered down. The main agenda item really became the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was a trade agreement that was intending to compete—you know, basically to set the U.S. to compete better with China in the Indo-Pacific. That did not come to pass because of opposition in Congress and the Trump administration essentially backing out of that.

You’re absolutely correct that during the Trump administration a much more confrontational approach emerged, particularly in late 2017 with the National Security Strategy that came out in December of that year. But the Biden administration does seem to have taken on a lot of that. There’s a speech expected by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan shortly on China. But the broad approach of, you know, the Quad engagement on the Indo-Pacific, the economic policies that are emerging are actually broadly consistent with what the Trump administration did, although the tone and tenor have changed quite significantly.

The one big question mark is about sort of reentering some of the trade relationships, but on that there’s still significant bipartisan concerns about reentering TPP and it’s unlikely that that would—that Congress would give that authority to the president to reengage on that, at least in the next two years or two to three years.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

I would like to go next to Morton Holbrook, who has written his question. But, Morton, do you want to just ask your question? Putting people on the spot here. Yes. With Kentucky Wesleyan College—go ahead, Morton.

Q: Hey. Thanks.

So given the influence, or the growing influence of China across the entire Eurasian arena, what’s the American geostrategic view on the role that Europe should play in a new multipolar, balance-of-power configuration, and particularly with regard to the possibility of growing European military capacity?

JAISHANKAR: So great question. I think on this also there’s been growing consensus, although the tone certainly shifted during the Trump years, but there is some growing consensus. Starting with Obama, which spoke—you know, Obama spoke quite explicitly about European countries needing to do more to burden-share, which essentially meant sort of increasing military expenditure and playing a more active military role, at the very least in its own periphery with regard to Mediterranean and Russia and Africa-related contingencies, but that would free up essentially American resources to focus on—focus more on the China challenge. So Europe could play a complementary role. That was at least the idea. And while many Europeans are receptive to that idea, partly because many want a more autonomous security policy, starting, you know, with—I mean, amongst many other people. Ursula von der Leyen, who’s now the European Commission president, has spoken quite explicitly about that, about creating sort of an independent European army. Despite that, the steps really haven’t been taken for a variety of reasons, political reasons, budgetary reasons, and so forth.

So, you know, I think largely the view is, it would be great if Europe—you know, in Washington, I think the general view is it would be great if Europe could play a more active role that is complementary to the United States. But there are questions about capability beyond France and the U.K., whether Europe really is willing to invest in power-projection capabilities and play that active role, and a big question mark surrounds Germany in particular. We’ll see if some of that changes with the new coalition government in Berlin after the recent election, which seems a little bit more receptive to that idea. So some of it’s really about capability.

Another question mark really surrounds—and unfortunately, the AUKUS discussion involving France has complicated this, which is France, which is certainly more capable than most European countries of playing that active role in the Indo-Pacific, has—you know, is—certainly wants more to play a more equidistant role between the U.S. and China, and certainly, at least in the immediate aftermath of being spurned by the AUKUS agreement, France seems to be sort of in that—motivated by that spirit.

So I think the two question marks is, really, will Europe be capable and willing to invest in playing that security role, and, second, how complementary will that be to the United States and its Asian allies? And I think that that’s really where the question marks arise. And in this, some of the other countries—India and Japan in particular—can play a bit of a mediating role in terms of engaging some of the European countries in, you know, acknowledging their concerns—India in particular has a strong tradition of strategic autonomy itself—and finding ways to work in a sort of partnership in areas where Europe certainly has the capabilities and willingness to play a role.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from—it’s a written question from Kyle Gardner. It’s two-part, one general, one specific: Do you see in this latest round of emerging great power competition any qualitative differences in the criteria for great power, or is it fundamentally more of the same? And on CAATSA, how concerned should the U.S. and the Quad be about the fallout in the U.S.-India relationship from the imposition of sanctions of any sort? And I neglected to say, Kyle is at George Washington University.

JAISHANKAR: Thanks, Kyle, for the question. Somebody I know as well, and it’s great to be interacting with you, at least virtually.

Two excellent questions. On the first, you know, how do we define great power? I think it’s a great academic question. I’ve actually written something on this, which is, there are multiple dimensions by which you can look at power, which is, you know, capabilities, influence, but also the perception of power. And to give just one example, I mean, Prussia during the nineteenth century was treated like a great power despite having, at that time, at least, the early nineteenth century, none of the trappings of a great power. So, you know, I think it will really depend on the context in that sense.

I think in terms of material capabilities, we will be in for a stage, at least in the near future, where the U.S. and China area clearly one and two or, you know, two and one, are in a different league from the others, but where other countries can play an important, pivotal role in the balance of power, and that’s at least how I would define a great power, which is countries that play—can play some meaningful role in shifting the balance of power on a global level. And so these other countries would include, conceivably, Russia and Japan, India, and possibly some of the European countries, Germany, France, U.K., at least for the foreseeable future, and, on some issues, the European Union as a whole. So I think we’re in this period where, you know, those would broadly be the major powers, although other countries—you know, a Turkey, on some issues, you know, and Indonesia, Brazil—could play a sort of outsized role when it comes—on certain issues and in certain regions. But it’s largely an academic question and I think it’s certainly prone to subjectivity.

On the CAATSA sanctions, we’re hearing a lot of concerns about it, particularly amongst the India-watching community that, can this lead to a real break? I would put it this way: I think the consequences of the U.S. imposing sanctions, even nominal sanctions, on India at this point in time would really set back the India-U.S. relationship by a decade or more. That is, the story of the last twenty-plus years has been India trying to emerge out of a sanctions regime, largely because of its nuclear program. And, again, even a nominal sort of slap on the wrist would really set back U.S.-India defense cooperation by a long, long time.

That being said, I’m reasonably sanguine that something can be found. There isn’t yet a sense of panic that we’re headed for some sort of unforeseen disaster. There’s a very regular and high-level engagement between U.S. and India security officials. We’ve just had the chief of defense staff from India here in the U.S. You know, we’re having a two-plus-two meeting of the foreign defense ministers later this year. So I don’t think you’re heading for that showdown. But obviously I think certain skeptics in Congress will have to be—who are more concerned about the implications for Russia than they are for India. Some of them will have to be engaged in the coming weeks and months.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Neila Horton, who is a junior international business major at Howard University. And essentially: What do you think is the best way for India to utilize the competition, tension between the United States and Russia?

JAISHANKAR: I’m sorry, I can’t see that question, but how India can—

FASKIANOS: It’s the first one.

JAISHANKAR: How India can—

FASKIANOS: Yeah, how India can utilize the competition between Russia and the United States and leverage it to India’s advantage.

JAISHANKAR: Right. Great question. I think, you know, there was a notion, which was pretty prevalent in India until, you know, even five years ago, I would say, that the—you know, India was best placed by playing off different great powers amongst each other; that is, you know, it would increase India’s bargaining power, lead to a virtuous cycle of better relationships, if they could play those off. Again, I think that window has partly closed, although not on all areas, where today I think countries look more askance at, you know, taking a sort of negative view. And again, AUKUS is a great example of that and, you know, choices have to be made and, you know, for Australia working more closely with the U.S. and U.K. came at a significant expense of working with France. So I think it’s going to be more difficult now. It certainly has been since 2014, since the Crimea crisis, for India to work with the U.S. and Russia to play off each other, to derive the best from its relationships with both. And I think while attempts will be made to do that, particularly in some noncontroversial areas like—India, for example, has extended its—has increased its investment into Russia, particularly the Far East, has tried to improve its trade, its nonmilitary trade relationship with Russia. So while I think attempts will continue to be made on that front, it will be increasingly difficult, particularly on sensitive areas, both civilian and military technologies, for India to use that competition to its advantage. And I fear that, you know, for India that would mean making some harder choices in the years ahead.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

Let’s go to Michael John Williams, who is the director of IR graduate programs at Syracuse University: What processes or dynamics enable the international community to effectively manage the Chinese territorial expansion?

JAISHANKAR: That’s a great question and, again, not one with easy answers. You know, I think many of these are bilateral disputes and that has largely been to China’s advantage as the bigger power. So it really, unfortunately, comes down to many of the other countries to stand up for their own territorial integrity. And, you know, Japan did that reasonably successfully in the early 2010s on the Senkaku-Diaoyu island dispute. India has done that to some degree on its border disputes, which is pushing back and reasserting its—you know, trying to ensure that there’s not a change to the territorial status quo using military force. But there’s been less pushback in other areas, most notably in the South China Sea where many of the countries that are contesting Chinese territorial revisionism don’t—haven’t invested in the capabilities to do so and are therefore reliant on the United States and others to assist them, but have also been ambivalent about the U.S. coming to their assistance. So, you know, to give just one example: There was a standoff last year involving a Malaysian oil rig and a Chinese vessel. The U.S. and Australia came to the assistance of the Malaysian vessel and Malaysia subsequently seemed to be very evenhanded in placing the blame on both sides for contributing to tensions in the region. So, you know, I think that some of that really undercuts the ability of these countries to enforce their claims and push back against revisionism. So I think the short answer is it really comes down to these countries in building up their own capabilities to contest it.

But that being said, I think a sort of broader coalition response of unanimity, increasing unanimity in terms of contesting the idea of territorial revisionism, particularly when negotiations are underway, supposedly in good faith, would be helpful. So to the extent that, you know, countries can sort of speak with one voice about the principle—without getting into the details because, for example, many of those countries don’t actually have an official position about that specific territory. You know, the U.S. does not have an official view about the Senkaku—about who has the rightful claim to the Senkaku Islands, but it does contest the use of force to change the status quo on the ground. And since the Obama administration, the U.S. has been quite clear that falls under the U.S. treaty obligations as well.

So I think while that ambiguity can be retained in some cases, contesting the idea and, if necessary, imposing costs for territorial revision, may be one way forward.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Jun Otani at Carnegie Mellon University: Quad and ASEAN are promoting the establishment of a mini-lateral relationship between their respective countries. In order to realize the Free on (sic) Indo-Pacific, which is more desirable: building an order led by the U.S. or Quad, or building a multipolar order in cooperation with ASEAN and other countries?

JAISHANKAR: Yes, just getting to the—it’s an interesting question because I think it gets to the heart of what some of the concerns have been about the Quad, which is, does it—here, I see it now—does it undermine this idea of ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity, or does it actually reinforce it? Now, you know, I think a lot of eggs were put into the basket—when it came to some regional-order building, particularly after the 1990s, about investing in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, being ten, you know, somewhat smaller countries operating by consensus and being the sort of central venue and agenda-setting organization for regional—you know, for regional institutions. So, in some ways, the major political institutions in Asia have really been outgrowths of that, ASEAN Plus Three, ASEAN Plus Six; eventually the East Asia Summit that involves eight other—eight other countries, including the United States and Russia. So, you know, that has been the sort of central building block.

Now, because that was—you know, I think it suffers from two problems: one is that it’s been driven by the smaller powers, which is very unusual; it’s very unlike Europe where Germany and France were really the driving forces behind the creation of what became the European Union. So that, I think, has been one of the problems. The second has been, because it operates on consensus, it means that by sort of—some of the other powers, by picking off one or two of the countries, can essentially ensure that these organizations become impotent and aren’t able to be as effective as they could be.

So this has led to, in some ways, a proliferation of other institution building, sometimes involving the ASEAN countries, and they’ve been also quite selective in decrying certain organizations as undermining ASEAN centrality and unity while accepting other ones, so, for example, there is something called a five-power defense arrangement, which involves Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K., which somehow does not seem to undermine ASEAN centrality and unity. There are various other—you know, TPP does not seem to even though some of the ASEAN members are part of TPP and others are not. So there has been sometimes selective criticism. I think the argument in favor of the Quad is that it actually is meant to reinforce ASEAN centrality, rather than undermine it. And so it is about sort of ensuring the rules-based order or providing a safety net for that rules-based regional order, rather than undercutting the regional rules-based order. And I think a lot of work has gone into it; perhaps more is needed to assuage the concerns amongst the ASEAN member states about that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Garret Hampton, undergraduate student at Washington & Jefferson.

How do you see the conflict between India and Pakistan over the control of Kashmir impacting their role in diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other allies in future trade relations?

JAISHANKAR: I would say less and less. You know, in some ways, you know, India and Pakistan disputes, including over Kashmir, although that wasn’t the only dispute between the two, kind of colored relations with most other countries, in fact, for decades. It really led to—that competition kind of defined in some ways, you know, Pakistan reaching out to China and eventually the U.S., India reaching out to the Soviet Union and the early sort of alliances and partnerships. In some ways, that is less and less relevant with time and the U.S., certainly since 2000, has pursued a very twin-track approach to South Asia, which has sometimes been called dehyphenation, treating Pakistan on its own terms, treating India on its own terms, and has offered very different types of relationships to India and Pakistan. You know, the U.S. offered a nuclear, civil nuclear waiver to India; it has not offered something like that to Pakistan. It has worked with Pakistan in Afghanistan-related scenarios. It has worked less with India on those. It has worked more with India on China-related scenarios and less with Pakistan, which is seen increasingly as a close—one of China’s closest allies. So, you know, I think in the U.S. there’s been a reasonably successful dehyphenation and that issue has become less salient. The same is, I would say, arguably true for all U.S. allies and certainly in the European countries, which no longer see India and Pakistan simply through that prism. But obviously, you know, there is a continuing—there are continuing differences between India and Pakistan and continuing competition between them.

Sorry, I think you’re mute.

FASKIANOS: I am muted. After all this time, you would think I would remember that. (Laughs.)


FASKIANOS: So the final question I want to throw to you is from Doug Jackson, who is a visiting military fellow here at CFR. Just, if you could close with, what do you see as the emerging opportunities for U.S. and Chinese cooperation in the region? So we can maybe end on a positive note. (Laughs.)

JAISHANKAR: Positive note. You know, it’s hard to say because I think the—you know, the window is closing. People often talk about climate change as one of them, but—and we’ll see again what happens at this year’s climate summit in Glasgow and future climate negotiations. But again, you know, just my sense—and others follow this much more closely than I do—is that even that is actually emerging as an area of competition. Green technology is today an active area of competition between many countries, including China and the U.S. And so the fact that they’re pursuing what may seem like altruistic climate goals has really been actually subsumed by technological competition and the, you know, the desire to be the leading power when it comes to certain renewable energies and so forth. So even, I think, climate, which is often touted as one of the issues where the U.S. and China could be working more closely together, isn’t actually that ripe for cooperation, and certainly not, you know, compared to many other areas.

You know, again, trade could be one of those areas. We just saw a speech by Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, and there will be talks on that, but even there, there are significant differences on issues such as market access and equity, labor standards, and so forth. So, again, don’t really see that—and there’s an active move underway by many U.S. companies to diversify away from mainland China because they worry about the risk and competition from Chinese national champions. So, again, it’s hard to see trade being that much of a unifier as well.

It could be people-to-people cultural contacts but, again, there are question marks about, you know, how much U.S. media companies today have to toe a particular line that aligns with the Chinese Communist Party and there’s been a little bit of pushback against that. So, again, if you run through the list of areas, even what may seem like quite obvious low-hanging fruit, you’re increasingly seeing a sort of clash of systems, the clash of ideologies, a clash of interests between the U.S. and China, and so I fear sort of—I say this somewhat pessimistically that I think, you know, we will—that competition, which—again, there’ll be periods of intensification and periods of relative calm or management, but that competition will be quite defining for global geopolitics in the years to come.

FASKIANOS: Well, Dhruva Jaishankar, thank you very much for being with us—we appreciate you sharing your insights and analysis with us—and to all of you for your great questions and comments. You can follow Dhruva on Twitter at @d_jaishankar. So thank you.

Our next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, October 27th at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. Sanam Vakil, who is deputy director and senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, will lead a conversation on “Geopolitics in the Middle East.” So, again, please follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Academic, and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for new research and analysis on global issues.

And thank you again, Dhruva Jaishankar.


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