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Is war coming to the Indo-Pacific?

The Council on Geostrategy asks seven strategic experts about the likelihood of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, and how the United Kingdom (UK) should respond.

Sari Arho Havrén, Business Finland and RUSI*

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) challenges a free and open Indo-Pacific through its militarisation of the South China Sea and determination to ‘unite’ Taiwan with the mainland, even by force if necessary. The PRC’s progressively assertive position and actions in the region have increased tensions and the risk of conflict. Moreover, growing defence budgets and armament in the region, and the deteriorating relationship between the United States (US) and PRC, begs the question: is war coming to the Indo-Pacific? 

Against this unwanted scenario, how should Europe, including the UK, position and prepare itself? For the PRC, a Europe that is not interested in a free and open Indo-Pacific is ideal. But because this is not viable, a divided Europe is Beijing’s second-best option. 

It is important that Europeans continue to counter Chinese actions with the US. This in itself negates the PRC’s strategy to disunite free and open countries. Secondly, democratic allies need to begin following through on their talk and communiques. Ambiguity that follows indecisiveness is not a strategy. Enforcing commitments communicates to the PRC that there are ramifications if it breaks the status quo in the Indo-Pacific. A war in the region would be a multi-level global shock, and Europeans should also prepare themselves by stress-testing the consequences.

Humphrey Hawksley, former BBC Beijing Bureau Chief and Asia Correspondent

Since 2012, the US has allowed the South China Sea to become a Beijing-controlled global trade route. By building military bases on disputed territory there, the PRC can now project power from its Spratly Island bases on the east and Paracel Islands to the west. Shipping moves between the two as if traversing a strait. The South China Sea, therefore, is a clear and present flashpoint in which both sides continue to test the other’s resolve. 

There is increasing risk of a miscalculation resulting in loss of life, leading to heightened tensions and possible conflict. This risk increases during American elections. While Britain should remain part of US-led defence operations in the Indo-Pacific, it ought to build on the April 2023 Mansion House speech of James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, which paints a less polarising and more nuanced picture of the PRC’s global role.

Britain should shed Cold War rhetoric to create a more accurate and electorally compelling narrative surrounding the rise of the PRC. It can act as a tempering bridge between American and European extremes to construct a more balanced, unified approach within liberal-democracies. And that approach needs to take into account Indo-Pacific views that repeatedly argue against choosing sides.

Eerishika Pankaj, Organisation for Research on China and Asia

The complex geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific are impacted by factors not just in the maritime domain. The India-PRC row in the Himalayas, which encapsulates conflicts ranging from boundary disputes to water politics, has a direct impact on the Indo-Pacific, and flare ups are becoming more frequent. 

India-UK ties are gaining momentum as they build upon a ‘mutually agreed roadmap’ to further deepen the relationship by 2030 with the goal of developing a comprehensive strategic partnership. In case of conflict in the region, the UK’s role will derive both from responses of its allies like the US, and Britain’s own national interests. Strengthening alliances such as the Five Eyes and the UK’s bilateral partnerships with regional powers like India through deepening security cooperation and expanding intelligence sharing are methods which the UK can use to further build goodwill and enhance interoperability. As is continuing to contribute to Indo-Pacific humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.

In the event of conflict, power over information will be key. ‘Victory’ in an Indo-Pacific conflict will be heavily reliant on who controls information, that is, submarine communications cables. Here, the UK should work with India in securing the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which in the case of conflict would be a critical base vis-à-vis undersea logistics and docking capabilities. However, the protection of these cables under blurred international governance is not guaranteed. Britain can also play a role in fostering stronger governance structures for this vital infrastructure.

Charles Parton, Council on Geostrategy

Is Taiwan a flashpoint? Militarily, invasions by sea are highly risky, even if the Americans stay out – and they may not. Failure would end Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’, probably his rule, and possibly his life. Economically, invasion (and blockade) would crater the global and Chinese economies. Within the PRC, unemployment, already high, would be massive, as the roughly US$200 billion (£162 billion) of Taiwanese components dry up and foreign trade and investment withers – to say nothing of semiconductors (Taiwan produces 90% of high end, and 50-60% of all chips). With no social security net, hungry and angry Chinese would turn on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): all good things come from the party, but the obverse of that coin is blame for all bad things too. Xi is not stupid: he can work this out.

Like Vladimir Putin, might Xi be overconfident, or wish to distract from a bad economic situation? But Russia is not the PRC; Xi’s power is great, but not unfettered. To use invasion to distract would destroy the economy further and faster. If Xi is mad enough to try, the CCP will stop him.

And talking of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), economic deterrence in the form of a promise of sanctions should be the policy of the UK and its allies. MAD worked with nuclear war. It should be leveraged economically over Taiwan.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

The competition between the PRC and free countries is becoming a geopolitical struggle between two utterly incompatible political visions for how the Indo-Pacific, and perhaps even the world, should be run. 

But the ‘Pax Atomica’ will continue to exert its chilling effect. The threat of nuclear punishment – MAD – in the event of an armed attack, deters nuclear-armed powers from going to war with each other.

Yet, systemic wars are more likely to begin in a power vacuum surrounding an ascendant nation, particularly where it has identified a key interest. In the Indo-Pacific, this means the South China Sea, the East China Sea (especially the Senkaku islands) and Taiwan – even Bhutan in the Himalayas. In those regions, a ‘vacuum war’, no matter how irrational, cannot be ruled out, particularly if the PRC feels the cards are stacked in its favour. 

As Ukraine has shown, power vacuums are dangerous and should be filled as quickly as possible. Weaker countries in areas of interest to the PRC ought to be made more resilient, while a forward presence should be established to deny the Chinese access. Deterrence through denial is a game of cat and mouse.

The UK is already involved: through its military deployments, AUKUS, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), and the Hiroshima Accord. Working with allies and partners to fill Indo-Pacific power vacuums will be central to ensuring the Second Cold War does not turn hot.

Kevin Rowlands, Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre*

Conflict is not inevitable, anywhere. Each decision to fight is taken, for now, by a human mind and always for reasons that are completely rational in that mind, no matter how peculiar or self-defeating they may appear to anyone else. Reasons could be political or economic, domestic or international. They could be based on faulty assumptions or incomplete information, or for personal or national ambition. Or even a feeling of being threatened and isolated, however misplaced that may be. But conflict is not inevitable because human minds can be changed and the cost-benefit calculus seen to be so overwhelmingly negative that peace, or at least not war, is the obvious choice.

Translating the general to the specific, many or all of these factors are at play in the Indo-Pacific. What role does the UK have? Britain can indirectly help the deciding mind to choose a path of non-conflict. It can use its position to promote the positives of the calculus – working for a free and open Indo-Pacific and ensuring that those that have gained the most economic success in recent decades from the current global order can continue to do so. But the UK can also help to strengthen the status quo, too, contributing to security partnerships such as AUKUS, the FPDA and Global Combat Air Programme. Its low footprint forward presence also allows it to nourish relationships and raise regional awareness, contributing to the tapestry of deterrence along the way.

Philip Shetler-Jones, Council on Geostrategy

The long period in which the Indo-Pacific has prospered without large-scale interstate war since 1979 has been termed ‘The Asian Peace’. Most of the factors contributing to it (respect for principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention, regional economic integration, rising prosperity and quality of governance) persist, though they are at risk of erosion. But the main factor, which is Chinese-American detente, is gone, replaced by competition for regional pre-eminence. Competition threatens to turn into conflict, and even if the UK is not directly involved, the consequences for the balance of power in the Euro-Atlantic would endanger Britain’s national security. 

The UK’s role should therefore be to reinforce those factors that support the long Asian Peace, while deterring moves that would end it, and directly damage wider British interests. This means: (a) play a full role in regional partnerships like the CPTPP, AUKUS, and FPDA; (b) defend principles that unite the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific – namely the right to exercise collective defence – against attacks by revisionist states; and (c) signal deterrent power through exercises demonstrating capability to control the seas across the main sea lanes connecting Asia to vital imports such as energy and food. Also, the UK actively should explore options to join a regional coalition with allies such as the US, and partners including Japan and Australia.

*Authors write exclusively in a personal capacity.

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