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Indo-Pacific Region Faces High Risk of War, According to ASPI Report

Isha Desai | Indo Pacific Fellow

U.S. Navy aircraft assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 fly above the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in the South China Sea June 24, 2014. Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a paper in February 2024 claiming that the outbreak of war was a real possibility’ in the Indo Pacific. Ultimately, war in the Indo Pacific would be a proxy conflict between the powers of the United States (US), China and Russia. Whilst these global superpowers could catalyse conflict, it is the Indo Pacific nations (such as Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines etc.) who would become embroiled in a conflict over which they have little control.


ASPI analyst Willian Leben explores four driving factors of potential regional war and three possible scenarios for its execution. However, ASPI’s report is limited in its Australian foreign policy focus. It neglects the disproportionate and damaging impact of potential conflict on the broader Indo Pacific.


Causes for concern


Leben ascribes the risk of war in the Indo Pacific to four key features of US-China dynamics. The first is uncertainty in the maritime sphere. Leben describes the Indo Pacific as a ‘maritime theatre’ of mobile ships. Any withdrawal of ships therefore fosters regional uncertainty.  This coupled with the vulnerability of modern ships to missile strikes could incite pre-emptive action from anxious states for self-preservation.


A second driving factor is the emergence of space and cyberspace domains of war between US and China. This also increases the pressure of pre-emptively acting via an Indo Pacific proxy. Finally, Leben’s third and fourth factors are the uncertainty about nuclear deterrence dynamics and the existence of human error, miscommunication, and miscalculation in tense geopolitical environments.


Sovereignty dispute


One path to regional conflict entertained by Leben hinges upon a sovereignty dispute between China and an Indo Pacific country such as Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam. If the US defends China’s opponent, this could escalate into war. The Indo Pacific middle power would be used as a pawn; the status of its sovereignty and freedom sacrificed to great power agendas.


This scenario’s eventuation is unlikely, as these Indo Pacific states continue to successfully avoid escalating sovereignty concerns into a physical conflict, despite extant tensions in the South China Sea. Finally, whilst being a cause of dispute, the notion of sovereignty can also be a building block for global order. Treaties and agreements created for border sovereignty are frequently instrumental in enforcing peace and safeguarding diplomacy if conflict does arise.


Korean crisis


Alternatively, Leben hypothesises that South Korea, China, and the US may have to collectively manage a potential North Korean regime collapse, which could result in misunderstanding and ultimately conflict. For example, Leben posits that the North Korean government might misinterpret US tolerance for nuclear brinkmanship, or the US might miscalculate the North Korean regime’s thresholds. Miscommunication in the Korean Peninsula could insnare the Republic of Korea and subsequently the entire region in a war.


This second scenario is moderately likely. North Korea launched their highest number of missiles in 2022, tested a missile over Japan for the first time since 2017 and had a record of testing 23 missiles in a single day in November 2022. Such developments coincide with Leben’s factor of ‘unknowns in the nuclear balance’ stoking pre-emptive incentives and ‘human frailty’ – both precursors to conflict.


Taiwanese tensions


Leben’s final and most probable scenario stems from a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, where a declaration of independence from Taiwan or a Beijing decision to overly pressure or invade Taiwan could spark a region-wide conflict. The Indo Pacific would become entangled in a war as US maritime forces harnessed the Pacific Ocean to attack China’s capabilities.


This scenario is most likely to transpire given China’s distinct knowledge and resource-based advantages. The US has underinvested in critical regional engagement strategies, while China has actively developed their anti-access and area denial weapons to signal their exclusive access to the Taiwan Strait. Though the US has gradually been refocusing on the Indo Pacific to “defend and deter around the globe…[as] the backbone of joint operations in the Indo Pacific,” this newfound attention could become a catalyst for conflict.


Further commentary


ASPI’s report is supplemented by stakeholders which highlight the vulnerability of the Indo Pacific to China and the US. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr reiterated that the Indo Pacific was under threat, stating that they must face ‘common challenges confronting the region’ and that ‘no one single country can do this by itself’. According to the President, the South China Sea is ‘crucial to the preservation of regional peace’ and any great power conflict must be curbed immediately to protect the region.


Another emerging risk of conflict escalation is Russia’s increased investment in the Indo Pacific, where it commissioned eight warships and auxiliaries, including nuclear capabilities between January 2022 and October 2023. Curtin University’s Alexey D Muraviev notes that Russia’s war on Ukraine did not halt their modernisation efforts in the region. Russia has subsequently led over 19 bilateral and trilateral joint naval exercises with China between 2005 and 2023. Consequently, the capabilities of Indo Pacific countries are woefully unmatched with those of the great powers operating militarily in their territory.


Ultimately, the report concludes by recommending the implementation of crisis management strategies and investing in war games to understand the threshold of escalation. Despite these directives, it doesn’t address the largest issue of how Indo Pacific nations are expected to survive and mitigate a war they have no direct power in.


This high-level discourse means that smaller Indo Pacific states must rely on a regional grouping, namely ASEAN. ASEAN has strengthened relations with the US through their regional forum and the Quad whilst cultivating mutually beneficial relations with China. Indo Pacific nations must not underestimate their power as fundamental geopolitical actors.  Together, they must adopt strategies such as limited bandwagoning, dominance denial and indirect balancing to influence the future moves of the global powers.

Isha Desai is the Indo Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is a graduate from the University of Sydney in Politics, International Relations, and Political Economy.

Isha is an emerging researcher and policy analyst with a keen interest in Australia’s future in the Indo Pacific, climate security and foreign policy. She has worked as a policy researcher for the Australian Humans Rights Commission, the United States Studies Centre and most recently Legal Aid NSW where she co-authored a literature review that was awarded the 2023 Sydney Policy Reform Project Prize.


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