At a time when a qualitative reordering of power is reshaping international equations, major players in the Asia-Pacific are playing down the risk that contrasting political systems could come to constitute the main geopolitical dividing line, potentially pitting a China-led axis of autocracies against a constellation of democracies. The refrain of the players is that pragmatism, not political values, would guide their foreign-policy strategy. Yet, the new Great Game under way plays up regime character as a key element.
India has already faced such a values-based geopolitical divide in its region, but singly. The Sino-Pakistan nexus against India is unique: never before in history has one country armed another with nuclear weapons and missiles so as to contain a third nation with which the two share common frontiers. Authoritarian bonds have also been employed in more recent years to try and open a new Chinese flank against India via Burma.
Indeed, the stated aim of the 1962 Chinese invasion — ‘to teach India a lesson’ — was rooted in a geopolitical divide centred on incompatible political values. For Mao Zedong, that war was a means to humiliate and demolish India as an alternative democratic model to totalitarian China. The 32-day aggression, which Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar has dubbed “Mao’s India War”, helped boost China’s image at India’s expense.
More than 45 years later, the speed and scale of Asia’s economic rise is bringing new players, including India, into the world’s geopolitical marketplace. The eastward movement of power and influence, once concentrated in the West, has been accompanied by a high-stakes competition for new strategic tie-ups and greater access to resources, making strategic stability a key concern in Asia.
In the absence of a common identity or institutional structures, one challenge Asia faces is to develop shared norms and values, without which no community can be built. Yet, with only 16 of the 39 Asian countries free, according to Freedom House, creating common norms is a daunting task, especially when some States still flout near-universal values.
A bigger Asian challenge is to banish the threat of hegemony by any single power (as Europe has done) so that greater political understanding and trust could be built. This challenge pits two competing visions. On one side is the mythical ‘Middle Kingdom’ whose foreign policy seeks to make real the legend that drives its official history — China’s centrality in the world. Its autocrats believe that in their calculus to make China a “world power second to none”, gaining pre-eminence in Asia is vital. On the other side is the interest of many Asian nations and outside powers in a cooperative order founded on power equilibrium.
Ordinarily, the readiness to play by international rules ought to matter more than regime form. But regime character often makes playing by the rules difficult. As a new book, China’s Great Leap, edited by Minky Worden, reveals, China won the right to host the 2008 Olympics on the plea that awarding the Games would help improve its human rights record. Instead, it has let loose new repression. But just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics set the stage for Nazi Germany’s collapse, the 2008 Games could help trigger radical change in China.
Today, Beijing’s best friends are fellow autocracies while those seeking to forestall power disequilibrium happen to be on the other side of the value divide. Political values thus could easily come to define a new geopolitical divide. What may seem implausible globally, given America’s lingering tradition of propping up dictators in the Muslim world, is conceivable in the Asia-Pacific theatre as a natural corollary to the present geopolitics. But for the divergent geopolitical interests at play, the differing political values would not matter so much.
It was China that took the lead in 2001 to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to help unite it with the Eurasian strongmen in a geopolitical alliance. Designed originally to bring the Central Asian nations — the so-called Stans — under the Chinese sphere of influence, the SCO is shaping up as a potential ‘Nato of the East’. Yet, when Australia, India, Japan and the US last year started the exploratory ‘Quadrilateral Initiative’, Beijing was quick to cry foul and see the apparition of an ‘Asian Nato’. A Chinese demarche to each Quad member followed.
Through sustained diplomatic pressure, mounted on the back of growing economic clout, Beijing has sought to wilt the Quad. A new opening has come with the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd being elected Australia’s prime minister. With the Australian economic boom being driven by China’s ravenous resource imports, the previous John Howard government wasn’t exactly enthused by the Quadrilateral Initiative, as Beijing had already taken a dim view of Canberra’s US-backed bilateral and trilateral defence tie-ups with Tokyo. But the new Rudd government, as reflected in its foreign minister’s remarks last week, are signalling a wish to turn its back on the Quad.
Australia’s growing wariness is no different than India’s. After having called liberal democracy “the natural order of social and political organisation in today’s world”, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh now says the Quad “never got going”. Even the US has downplayed the initiative, whose real architect, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was driven out of office last fall. Yet, the Quad staged week-long war games in the Bay of Bengal, roping in Singapore.
Rudd, though, is so mesmerised by his Mandarin fluency that he feels an inexorable itch to cosy up to Beijing. In a strange spectacle, Canberra has proclaimed it will sell uranium to Beijing (without fail-safe safeguards against diversion to weapons use) but not to New Delhi, even if the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group were to carve out an exemption for India. The reason proffered for overturning the Howard government’s decision is that “India has not signed the NPT”. That rationale is flawed: while the NPT carries an Article I prohibition on transfer of nuclear military technology outside the club of five recognised nuclear powers, its state-parties are actually enjoined by Article IV to pursue peaceful nuclear cooperation with all countries.
If Rudd has read the NPT, it probably was a Chinese translation, because there is nothing in its official text that forbids civil cooperation under safeguards with a non-signatory. But why blame Canberra for trotting out an indefensible excuse when the Indian foreign minister is smitten by the same myth? Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament in December that the Hyde Act was passed because “the US cannot enter into any civilian nuclear cooperation with any country which is not a signatory to the NPT”. Unknown to the minister, US law does not condition cooperation to NPT membership.
The Quad was never intended to be a formal institution, although John McCain has vowed to institutionalise it as US president. Founded on the historically valid hypothesis of democratic peace, it is supposed to serve as an initial framework to promote security dialogue and interlinked partnerships among an expanding group of Pacific Rim democracies. Such collaboration is already being built. As an idea, the Quad will not only survive the current vicissitudes, but it also foreshadows the likely geopolitical line-up in the years ahead. For India, close strategic cooperation with Quad members plus Russia holds the key to Asian peace and stability.