The ongoing violent occupation of Israeli forces in Palestine has exposed the talons of militarization of aid in Asia Pacific and most especially, of US interventionist strategies. With Israel receiving a total of USD 3.8 billion worth of financial assistance from the US alone this year, they persist as the top recipient of US military aid. WIth such a great amount of financing, Israel continues with its brazen acts of violence against the Palestinian peoples. Out of the USD 3.8 billion provided by the US, half a billion is being used for Israel’s missile defenses in 2023. Comparing this with humanitarian assistance provided to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which only stands at USD 2.1 billion, we can see how much critical funding is lost to finance occupations and injustices against global South peoples.
In the broader scheme of things, it is not only Palestine bearing the brunt of militarism, but also Myanmar, Northeast India, Syria, Yemen, and several other countries in the region.
In RoA-AP’s article last year tackling the issue of aid securitization in Asia Pacific, we unpacked the role of the region’s bilateral donors in promoting the militarization of aid despite evidence showing its negative impacts to communities. Collaborations among Japan, Australia, and the United States demonstrate how they use resources to forward national interests and to fortify protectionist interventions against China. Meanwhile a China-Russia alliance continues to forward their own economic and political agendas.
In the past year, powerful countries in Asia Pacific have bolstered their military spending in order to promote and protect their respective agendas. China, for instance, is the second biggest military spender in the world, allocating USD 292 billion for it in 2022 alone. Japan, on the other hand, increased its military spending by “5.9% between 2021 and 2022, reaching USD 46 billion, or 1.1% of GDP”. This increase goes hand in hand with Japan’s new security strategy called Official Security Assistance (OSA). In addition, India and Saudi Arabia have made it to the top ten list of countries with the most military spending, allocating USD 81.4 billion and USD 75 billion, respectively.
In this follow up article, we examine security alliances among Asia Pacific donors that continue to prioritize vested interests over meaningful development processes and outcomes. Discussion on the Quad, AUKUS, and further unpacking of China’s role in the region will add evidence to how aid is being instrumentalized to leverage the geopolitical agendas of a number of Asia Pacific donors.
Quad’s Revival and Catalyzing ODA for Geopolitical Leverage
The United States has been rallying its allies to counter China’s aspirations to establish itself as a significant player in the global geopolitical stage. The revival of the Quad alliance, composed of Japan, India, Australia and led by the United States, underscores the collective determination of its member countries to assert their combined dominance within Asia Pacific.
Initially formed to provide disaster relief, the Quad has shifted its focus to counter China’s military and economic expansion, and realize their supposed shared vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. They have joined forces in conducting military drills, such as the Malabar naval exercises and in funding infrastructure development. Just this year, the Quad launched an infrastructure partnership which aims to coordinate efforts, map infrastructure needs in Asia Pacific, and coordinate regional needs and opportunities.
One of their main priorities focuses on expanding the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, aiming to partner with countries in the Indian Ocean region. Through this, the Quad will provide “maritime domain data to law enforcement agencies to deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, monitor climate change and natural disasters, and uphold coastal laws.” Unironically, China has been extending its influence in the same area too since 2008.
Data from the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database shows that the total military spending disbursed by Quad members in 2022 amounts to a glaring USD 979.3 billion (constant 2022 prices) – with the US garnering the biggest share of the pie at USD 851.6 billion (constant 2022 prices). Japan, India, and Australia spent USD 53.9 billion, USD 80.9 billion, and USD 32.8 billion, respectively.
As mentioned, Japan even launched a specific framework on security, the OSA program, which shows a stark shift in its development agenda. Aligned with the Quad’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, the OSA seeks to improve military capabilities in surveilling territorial waters and airspace, UN peacekeeping activities, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response activities. Its first recipients are set to be the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangladesh, or Fiji. Japan is considering providing radars to the Philippines to assist in monitoring Chinese activity in the West Philippine Sea. Despite it being a threat to neighbors such as South Korea and to the integrity of ODA, OSA has not received any serious backlash as it appeals to the increased feeling of national insecurity in Japan.
Meanwhile, India’s military and the US armed forces have significantly strengthened their collaboration through the Cope India exercise. These joint exercises, in which Japan also participates as an observer, involve a range of training activities, including airdrops, expertise exchange, fighter training, and air mobility skill enhancement. Its decision to embrace the Quad and strengthen its military efforts in the region was brought about by its tainted relationship with China after the 2017 Doklam Standoff and the 2020 border clashes. India’s post-2020 national interests are anchored on “zone balancing”, which entails approaches that do not directly confront regional rivals but rather, seek to shape the region by “building the capacity and resilience of third-party states to reduce the rival’s ability to coerce them.”
Just this year, Japan and India have jointly embarked on leveraging their development assistance in Southeast Asia. Particularly in the Philippines, where China’s influence is also strong, Japan and India have expressed their plans to broaden its security and economic influence in the country. In Mongolia, India has provided a soft loan of USD 1.2 billion for an oil refinery project, attempting to overhaul Chinese and Russian-led projects.
Australia’s stake in the Quad beginning in 2022 is focused on prioritizing climate action and building more resilience in the region. Despite calls to avoid incorporating security issues in aid, their foreign policy agenda continues to embrace actions related with pursuing stability in Asia Pacific. For instance, in the Pacific Islands where Chinese influence has been gaining traction, Australia has explicitly said that it will respond to external threats together with the US. Australia has been expanding its reach to Southeast Asia as well. For 2023-2034, they aim to increase ODA to AUD 1.24 billion (approximately USD 674.6 million) to fortify relations with ASEAN nations. Pushing for stronger ties with the region is part of Australia’s push to prioritize their economic and security agendas amidst the growing control of China in Asia Pacific.
The AUKUS Pact
Called the AUKUS, Australia, the United Kingdom and the US have established a strategic partnership back in 2021. This alliance aims to “bolster their allied deterrence and defense capabilities in the Indo-Pacific”. AUKUS demonstrates a more deliberate security stance in the region as reflected in its two pillars concerning (1) “acquisition and development of conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy”, particularly through the assistance of the UK and (2) “collaboration on advanced capabilities that will involve technology and information sharing”.
Similar to the Quad, AUKUS was built to counter China’s aggression in the region. Initially, countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia criticized the pact as it may lead to a regional arms race and deeper instability in the Asia Pacific. However, more recently, Southeast Asian countries have “quietly accepted” the presence of the AUKUS in the region, pointing out its possible contribution to strengthen cybersecurity and undersea capability of partner countries.
The active involvement of Australia in AUKUS raises a concern over their development priorities. Humanitarian and development organizations “stressed that Australia spends just USD 1 on aid for every USD 10 spent on defence”. In fact, for eight years in a row, Australia’s ODA contribution has been below the DAC average. In 2022, their aid generosity is 0.17% below the average of all DAC members. Australia’s geopolitical priorities critically neglects their commitment to contribute to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction. The shift towards promoting national interests sidelines effective Asia Pacific engagement especially with countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis.
China and the Changing Asia Pacific Dynamics
China’s rapid economic development has positioned itself as a rising global power, becoming a geopolitical and economic threat to the US. To further reinforce China’s increasing dominance over the region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is being utilized to leverage their agenda. Since its inception in 2001, the SCO “has mainly focused on regional security issues, its fight against regional terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism”. In addition, it aims to prioritize regional development. SCO plays a big role in China’s military ambitions. In 2007, the SCO signed an agreement “outlining the legal rights and responsibilities for military exercises in another member country.” This allows the Chinese military to engage in air-ground combat operations abroad.
Together with member states (India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), observer states (Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia), and dialogue partners (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bahrain, Egypt, Cambodia, Qatar, Kuwait, Maldives, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Sri Lanka), the SCO provides a platform for political, trade, economic, technological, cultural, and educational collaboration.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also considered a “natural partner” to the SCO. It brings forth economic cooperation and regional connectivity, further reinforcing the influence of China in the region. However, it has faced criticisms because its projects contribute to debt distress, securitization of aid, and massive environmental degradation. Despite these impacts, China continues to stick with the BRI to counter the US’ Pivot to Asia strategy which aims to increase engagement in the region through military presence and joint exercises and comprehensive economic strategies with allied nations.
Several members of the SCO are fully engaged with the BRI. At the sidelines of the SCO Summit in 2022, an agreement was reached among China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to construct a railway linking Central Asia and China. On one hand, China and Kazakhstan have advanced the Silk Road Economic Belt project through agreements amounting to USD 23 billion. On the other hand, Chinese-Pakistani allyship is further strengthened through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), boosting defense capabilities and promoting military expansion under the pretext of safeguarding CPEC projects.
Navigating Challenges and Implications: Whose interest does ODA truly serve?
While donors’ provision of aid can be crucial for addressing urgent needs and promoting development, the imposition of geopolitical agendas on recipient countries raises important questions about the true motivations and impact of such assistance. The militarization of aid comes at the expense of impacting the environment and citizens, particularly those within marginalized communities.
With the critical role of the US in molding the geopolitical agendas of donor countries in the region, militarization of aid is further normalized resulting in diminished quality and quantity of aid. Challenged by China’s increasing influence on many countries in the Asia Pacific, the US has been bolstering its relations with regional partners to retain its dominance. Their active involvement in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are concrete examples of US interference in crucial policy spaces in the region.
The US’ Pivot to Asia strategy ensures that Asia Pacific donors become aligned with its geopolitical agenda. Alterations on where aid is supposed to go are compromised because powerful nations are focused on raising their own political, economic, and development agendas.
In the Philippines, for example, US-backed military agreements led to widespread human rights violations in the name of “peace and development”. Similarly, Pakistan’s involvement in CPEC has led to unfeasible projects heavily dependent on foreign loans, exacerbating the country’s current economic conditions. Some of the issues with CPEC include a lack of transparency, ethnic divides, media repression, increasing trade imbalances, and civil-military divide.
As many donors put military and geopolitical interests over peoples’ needs, pressing societal issues that demand urgent action, such as poverty, environmental degradation, and unemployment, continue to be overlooked. Instead of advancing people-centered and rights-based development, militarization of aid redirects resources, leading to a cycle of dependency and instability. The cases discussed above highlight the need to demilitarize aid and advance development effectiveness to ensure that the rights and well-being of communities in Asia Pacific are protected and improved. Only by doing this will aid donors be able to genuinely contribute to positive and sustainable change in the region.