A New Great Game
Asian Age, June 2, 2007
A new enterprise focussed on security dangers in the Asia-Pacific — the Quadrilateral Initiative — has kicked off with an unpublicized first meeting. US, Indian, Australian and Japanese officials, at the rank of assistant secretary of state, quietly met last weekend on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gathering in Manila.
Given the qualitative reordering of power underway, with Asia boasting the world’s fastest-growing economies and fastest-rising military expenditures, strategic stability has become a key challenge. The shifts in international
power — most conspicuous in Asia — are occurring not because of battlefield victories or new military alliances but due to a factor unique to the modern world: rapid economic growth.
A new world power brings with it new challenges, especially if it is opaque or harbours imperial ambitions. China’s emergence as a global player is transforming geopolitics like no other development since the time Japan rose to world-power status during the Meiji Restoration. Ironically, it had been the Qing dynasty’s failure to grasp the dramatic rise of Japan that led to China’s rout in 1895 in the Sino-Japanese war, opening the way to Western imperialistic intervention and China’s quasi-colonization over the subsequent decades.
Today, major powers don’t wish to make a similar mistake over China’s rapid rise. All important players, including China, are manoeuvring for geopolitical advantage through new equations and initiatives. Just as China, for the first time since the Ming dynasty, is pursuing security interests and seeking allies far from its shores, other powers are working to build new equations and partnerships.
The “quad” is just one of several initiatives currently being developed. Yet its preliminary first meeting was not made known for fear of raising China’s hackles. If the China-India-Russia “strategic triangle” can hold high-level meetings with fanfare, why should India, the United States, Australia and Japan shy away from acknowledging discussions on issues of common interest?
With Asia becoming more divided in the face of conflicting strategic cultures and weak regional institutions, the accent has to be on cooperative relationships among the major players. Initiatives like the 26-nation ARF, the
16-state East Asia Summit (EAS) and the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, however, are too large and unwieldy to bear enduring results by themselves. They need to be complemented by smaller initiatives involving important powers in different permutations.
In that light, the “quad” is an appealing idea. In fact, New Delhi ought to also explore the establishment of triangular Russia-India-Japan and Japan-China-India initiatives. Along with the “quad,” they could contribute to building strategic transparency and understanding.
A Russia-India-Japan triangle is of immense strategic import. It can help deter power disequilibrium in Asia. But its formation depends on Tokyo and Moscow settling (or, in the interim, setting aside) their Northern Territories
dispute and fully normalizing bilateral relations, which remain underdeveloped and riven by mutual distrust since the end of World War II.
How the “quad” initiative shapes up will hinge on the resolution of a key issue: will India be a Japan or an Australia to the US (in other words, an ally), or will it be a strategic partner? An ally has to follow the alliance leader, while in a partnership there is at least the semblance of equality.
This question won’t go away easily. Australia and Japan not only have a bilateral security treaty with America but also trilateral security arrangements with Washington. With India, the US has worked out only a
defence-framework agreement. New Delhi agreed in the framework accord signed in June 2005 not only to “conclude defence transactions” and share intelligence with America, but also to participate in US-directed “multinational operations” and join the US-led non-proliferation regime. India,
however, is going to be reluctant to outsource its security in any way or slavishly follow Washington.
It is Tokyo that pushed for India’s inclusion to turn the existing trilateral security arrangements into quadrilateral. Even before becoming Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe had proposed the “quad” idea in his book, Toward A Beautiful Country, published last July. In the book, Abe says, “It is of crucial importance to Japan’s national interest that it further strengthen ties with India,” adding, “It would not be a surprise if in another 10 years, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China relations.”
The “quad” idea was supported by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when he visited Japan and Australia earlier this year.
The “quad” seeks to involve India in activities to which it is already committed bilaterally with the US — from promotion of democracy and collaboration on homeland security to joint disaster-response operations and building greater military interoperability. Significantly, the initial “quad”
meeting was preceded by the first-ever US-India-Japan joint naval exercises.
Indian naval ships first went to Okinawa for a joint manoeuvre with US forces before taking part in the trilateral exercises off the Tokyo Bay. The trilateral exercises, interestingly, intersected with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s Tokyo visit. New Delhi, however, had taken care to placate Beijing by despatching two-three ships to China from Okinawa for a friendly exercise immediately after the bilateral manoeuvre with the US.
Just because Washington, New Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo are coming
together to build a four-way arrangement based on shared values and interests doesn’t mean that they intend to jointly countervail China. Such a mechanism, at best, can give the four democracies extra leverage with Beijing as part of a common desire to ensure that the fast-rising Chinese power does not slide into arrogance. For each “quad” member, a stable,
mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing remains critical to national interest.
In reality, the four have still a long way to go before they can synchronize their approaches toward China. Given their geographical proximity to China and the direct impact Chinese power and ambitions hold for them, Japan and India view power equilibrium as a more pressing imperative. Yet the
growing asymmetry in power with China puts them at a disadvantage while dealing with Beijing just at the bilateral level, making broader security arrangements or initiatives attractive.
US strategy, however, is geared toward maintaining a calibrated balance between strategic hedging and greater engagement with Beijing. The China
factor is so overplayed — as on the much-touted Indo-US nuclear deal — that it obscures the fact that America today has much deeper political and economic engagement with Beijing than with New Delhi.
As part of the hedging, the US is eager to co-opt India, an important geopolitical swing state. But such co-option is unlikely to be at the cost of America’s closer engagement with Beijing. After all, America now relies on Chinese savings and trade surpluses to finance its super-sized budget deficits, hold down US interest rates and prop up the value of the dollar. China indeed has become a locomotive for US economic growth. Politically, the US depends on Chinese assistance on challenges ranging from North Korea’s future to the Iranian nuclear programme. Once allies of convenience during the Cold War, the US and China today are partners tied by interdependence.
Australia’s extraordinary economic boom, likewise, is being driven by exports to a resource-hungry China, and Canberra is loath to take sides between Japan and China, or China and India. Once regarded with distrust, China has gained respectability in Australia, securing a controversial deal to import Australian uranium for power generation without having accepted verifiable measures of the kind India is ready to embrace against diversion
for weapons purposes.
The “quad” also doesn’t mean the US is reversing the Asia-Pacific strategy
it has maintained since it took the Philippines in 1898 as spoils of the naval war with Spain — counterbalancing one power against the other to reinforce America’s role as the main arbiter. To underpin that very strategy, the US has in recent years strengthened its bilateral military alliances, reconfigured its forward-deployed military forces, designated Pakistan,
Thailand and the Philippines as major non-NATO allies, and built strategic cooperation with India and Singapore.
America can live with a China that challenges India and Japan but not one that challenges US pre-eminence. To tie down China regionally, the US is not
averse to Japan coming out of its pacifist cocoon as a “normal” military power — but under American tutelage. The revival of the Sino-Japanese
historical rivalry indeed can only help the US retain its position as Asia’s strategic pivot.
Similarly, after having penalized New Delhi for its 1974 nuclear test through stringent technology controls, Washington is now ready to promote India’s “normalization” as a nuclear power, but at a price: India is to bind its interests to America’s, and accept fetters on its still-nascent nuclear-deterrent capability. Given that a stunted Indian nuclear deterrent equally suits Chinese interests, it is hardly a surprise that Washington has kept Beijing in the loop, with Undersecretary Nicholas Burns declaring that China
would not be an obstacle when the nuclear deal goes before the Nuclear
To help preserve US interests and primacy in the long run, American policy seeks to build close security cooperation with friendly democracies and bring them within US strategic influence. India is a prominent case. Yet the US hews to its benighted traditional role as the offshore balancer on the subcontinent. It has not only resumed the rearming of Islamabad with lethal, India-directed weapons, but also is beginning to sell New Delhi the very systems it has transferred to Pakistan. In notifying Congress this week of its intent to sell India six C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft for $1.1 billion, Washington has stressed the sale “will not affect” the subcontinental
The “quad” is one of several new initiatives intended to help shape a new international balance in response to the ongoing power shifts. It seeks not to establish a new security bloc but to evolve common thinking on shared concerns. For India, its geopolitical value lies in the opportunity it offers to better understand the strategic outlook of the other three players.
© Asian Age, 2007.