The multi-alignment in the Indo-Pacific: an opportunity, an index of equilibrium or a sign of weakness vis-à-vis China?


The United States has never had a coherent foreign policy and in the Indo-Pacific it lacks credibility with the current administration still considered transitional, despite wanting to induce their Asian partners to maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, ostensibly to prevent to China to become a regional hegemon.

The United States fears - and demonstrates it all too openly, weakening itself - that Beijing may gradually convince its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States, accept Chinese supremacy and defer to Beijing's wishes on key foreign policy issues.

The dilemma therefore becomes whether to continue on this line or to worry in a different way about Chinese hegemony in Asia: fears can sometimes be interpreted as a potential prophecy, a spiral of conviction of something that will later happen.

It is interesting to trace some of the precedents of this erratic policy: in 2018, for example, the then US Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that China “hatch long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order”...“The Ming dynasty seems to be their model, albeit in a more muscular way, asking other nations to become tribute states, bowing to Beijing.”

Thesis steadily resumed, with similar arguments, certainly bolstered by China's claims to be a "leading global power" and its continued attempts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea.

The Indo-Pacific is not a monolith, there are those who have made decisive choices, there are those who opt and hope for a third way (calling it non-alignment again makes no sense) and there are those who have already chosen it, with the multi-alignment formula

It is too simplistic to speak of "recalcitrant" States: these are States which, in a framework of recomposition of global structures, reject zero-sum geopolitical binaries in favor of multi-alignment.

Washington recently tried to get the so-called "recalcitrant" - countries with different shades in this position, such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam - to join its coalition to counter China, the United States has proved weak.

A weakness that emerged precisely a trip by President Biden to the Indo-Pacific to strengthen the credibility and image of the United States: He aborted a high-expectations mission for domestic political reasons, a decision that provoked an avalanche of criticism.

It was the moment of greatest pressure from the United States on some countries to redeploy (someone said "de-risk") their economies, from imposing semiconductor export controls to banning Huawei from their 5G networks, to alert and prevent Chinese investment in infrastructure.

The result has not been that of greater consensus, greater sensitivity or widespread attention, but that of a region divided into two camps: those who support the United States and those who lean towards China.

According to this view, countries currently hedging are simply postponing an inevitable decision to align, in part because they fear that the United States is not a reliable partner; if this were certain, with more attention, visits, presences and investments, Washington could or could have tipped the balance in its favor and won the "loyalty" of these countries (time would tell how exclusive ...).

Few countries in the Indo-Pacific view the choice before them in dichotomous terms, and many have already made a choice: the multi-alignment, that of forging overlapping relationships with several major powers.

For these states it is not a fallback option, but their first choice. It will also be because indecision if not commuting can lead to dividends.

Many countries in the region are certainly expressing growing concern about some Chinese behaviour, in particular about Beijing's aggressiveness and the lack of respect for international standards in the South China Sea, but at the same time many countries, often with an ostrich attitude and a short-term view, they share neither the US perception of the Chinese threat nor the Biden administration's simplistic view that the world is separated into autocratic and democratic states.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has helped build a regional order based on mutually beneficial cooperation, and its member states, along with Pacific island nations, welcome China's contribution to economic growth and development .

They are unlikely to give up on deepening trade and investment ties with China as well se the United States and its democratic allies they should succeed to deliver on the promise of "sustainable development for all" no matter how often and for how long a US president visits the region.

Washington's regional approach ignores this point.

Unless there is a substantial change in policy and leading alliances (AUKS / QUAD ?) the "substantial presence" of China in the region means that the countries "must all learn to live with China".

It is interests (often immediate), and not values, that guide the political choices of the Indo-Pacific states, which also find themselves in the need to work with those who "not quite like-minded, but with whom you have a lot of trouble and whose interests align" as stated by the prime minister of Singapore, certainly not a Chinese vassal.

The current US Administration appears to be deaf and blind, appearing to underestimate the reluctance of Southeast Asian and Pacific island states to align unequivocally with the United States as a symptom of temporary indecision as states weigh more options, including as strategic potential of the partners in the new block order.

In fact, these many states have already chosen multi-alignment as the best way to protect their interests.

An example for all, following the latest events, the starting point for these considerations: Biden had planned to sign a new defense cooperation agreement in Papua New Guinea, but the agreement itself is not a sign that the country is choosing Washington compared to Beijing.

In contrast, Papua New Guinea, which has extensive economic and security ties with China and Australia, seeks to further diversify.

Multi-alignment, such as that adopted by Papua New Guinea, is not neutrality, it is not joining a new bloc like the Cold War non-aligned, but rather an active decision to build friendly ties with larger powers, working in close contact with the partner who best serves the country's economic and security interests on a given issue.

But... then, this multi-alignment game, in a confused picture which sees Russia taking the field again, which sees new European interests (but also needs), which sees a European projection in the Indo-Pacific, could not offer a role also for the EU and in a few specific cases, even for its members... being there is important, it can lead to some short or long-term dividends, not being there is harmful and would be beyond logic.

As far as Italy is concerned, in particular, the Indo-Pacific is not just the Far East, as is often, deliberately, implied...

Gian Carlo Poddighe (CESMAR)

Photo: prime minister's office of Japan