Democratic forces must join hands to protect Indo-Pacific from China’s hegemony
If the Australia-India-Japan-US quad fails to guard the Indo-Pacific, China’s illiberal, hegemonic order will prevail. Few would like to live in such an orderopinion Updated: Nov 17, 2017 10:45 IST
With the spectre of a destabilising power imbalance looming large in the world’s most dynamic region, the Indo-Pacific, the imperative to establish what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond” has prompted Australia, India, Japan and the United States to renew efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies.
Close strategic collaboration among key democracies can help institute power stability and equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. At the core of a potential constellation of democracies is the strategic quadrilateral of Australia, India, Japan and the US.
On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Donald Trump, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Abe held meetings between themselves. Foreign-ministry officials from the four countries separately held a joint meeting to examine ways to address common challenges in the region.
Let’s be clear: The alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.
Yet this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now challenging that order, including by flouting established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues.
Before the Manila summit, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office. To succeed, such an endeavour must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain the exploratory Quadrilateral Initiative. After the ‘quad’ held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to see the apparition of an ‘Asian NATO’. Through intense diplomatic and economic pressure, Beijing sought to unravel the quad. Ultimately, it succeeded.
Did the quad’s disbanding help change China’s behaviour in a positive direction? China’s behaviour changed for the worse.
Had the quad stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favour. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarising them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.
The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and co-ordination, especially because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach.
To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace. Democratic powers, however, must proceed slowly but surely, without unduly publicising their meetings or intentions.
Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant US and Australia. An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labour Party, which seemingly favours a China-friendly foreign policy. Having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, Australia remains the weak link in the reconstituted quad.
Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator Xi Jinping during his recent Beijing visit raises the question whether Trump fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad hinges on the US being fully on board. The absence of a joint statement after the revived quad met underscores the challenge the nascent initiative faces. Each quad member-state issued its own statement.
The resurrected quad — the result of Abe’s diplomatic doggedness — is intended to serve as an initial framework to promote a four-way security dialogue and encourage a web of interlocking partnerships among an expanding group of democracies.
Given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional peace and stability. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.
The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. The US-India-Japan-Australia strategic trapezium is best placed to lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific and make sure that liberalism prevails over illiberalism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author
The views expressed are personal