A Concert of Democracies
© Asian Age, July 3, 2007
In keeping with its growing geopolitical pragmatism, India ought to avail of multiple strategic options in international relations. Its long-standing preference for policy independence indeed demands a web of diverse partnerships with important players to pursue a wide variety of interests.
Having helped found the non-aligned movement, India today is positioning itself to be multi-aligned, while preserving the core element of nonalignment — strategic autonomy. In recent years, India has attempted to forge varied partnerships to pursue different objectives. It has sought multilayered engagement on the world stage — from a “strategic and global partnership” with Japan and a trilateral venture with Brazil and South Africa, to a Eurasian bloc involving Russia and China and an “Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate” with Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and the US.
If India is to be accepted as an important global player, it has to have a broad vision and extensive and active engagement with the world. The various partnerships India is building dovetail well with that imperative and with its security interests.
A new partnership — the Quadrilateral Initiative — is founded on the attractive concept of democratic peace. It is well documented in the international-relations literature that established democracies rarely go to war with each other, even though democratic governments may not be more wedded to peace than autocracies. Leaders in free nations have little political space to wage war against another democracy. This has prompted several scholars to hypothesize that the closest thing we have to a law in international politics is democratic peace.
The quad held its inaugural meeting in confidentiality in Manila on May 25 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum gathering. It was this analyst who first unveiled that meeting in a June 2 column. Since then, this Australia-India-Japan-US initiative has hit the headlines. Significantly, the quad’s foundational meeting was preceded by the first-ever U.S.-Japan-India joint naval exercises near Tokyo.
As a concept, democratic peace holds special value in Asia. Democracy may have become the political norm in Europe, but that can hardly be said about Asia. While the community in Europe has been built among democracies, the political systems in Asia are so varied and some even so opaque that it is not going to be easy to build trust. India’s troubled neighbourhood bristles more with failing states than with democracies.
Yet, if Asia is to enjoy durable peace and power equilibrium, the coming together of democracies to promote common norms is necessary. Such a constellation of democracies tied together through interlinked strategic partnerships could be a guarantor of political cooperation and stability founded on a community of values.
No nation thus needs to be apologetic about promoting democratic peace. Yet the quad’s first meeting was unpublicized so as not to raise the hackles of the world’s largest autocratic state, China. Now, some quad members are straining hard to reassure Beijing that this initiative constitutes no axis of democracies.
Such defensiveness is unwarranted, given that what has happened so far is just one inaugural meeting over breakfast. In any event, the quad’s aim is not to establish a military alliance but a political network on shared values and concerns.
India has sought to assuage Beijing, privately and publicly, that it has no intent to work against Chinese interests. China, however, has set up proxy military threats against India, going to the extent of transferring tested nuclear-weapon and missile designs to achieve that objective. While New Delhi certainly has no desire to repay Beijing in the same coin, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that China does not continue to exercise a cost-free containment option.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh revealed last Wednesday that, at the recent G-8 Outreach Summit in Germany, he spoke with Chinese President Hu Jintao about the quad meeting and “explained” that there was “no question of ganging up” against China. The PM went on to deny the undeniable: “There is no security implication in the quadripartite group.”
If India can openly join hands with China and Russia in a Eurasian strategic triangle intended to help promote global power equilibrium, why should it be diffident about partnering other states to seek democratic peace and stability in Asia? When China pursues actions overtly designed to contain India, does it bother to “explain” its actions to New Delhi? Rather, it determinedly presses ahead with steps antithetical to Indian interests, including a “string of pearls” strategy that aims to pin down India.
Take the latest Chinese moves. Has Beijing cared to explain its new hardline stance on territorial disputes or its disinclination to set up what President Hu Jintao had agreed to during his visit to New Delhi last November — an interstate river-waters mechanism? Besides continuing to dam rivers upstream in Tibet without sharing any information with India, Beijing has repudiated a key principle of a 2005 agreement — that the two sides would craft a territorial settlement that safeguards “due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”
Instead of shedding light on its increasing assertiveness toward India, China has taken to preaching the virtues of transparency, stating that the quad members should be “open and inclusive.” New Delhi certainly can learn from Beijing about an important building block of national power — the capacity to unswervingly pursue clear, long-term goals. But China’s lecturing on the values of openness is like an Al Capone instruction on law and order.
India’s response to such a jarring sermon should be to encourage China to democratize in order to qualify for membership in the evolving concert of democracies in the Asia-Pacific. Today, China’s rulers are reluctant to allow even the development of a civil society, fearful that such growth would unravel their dictatorship. China still executes more people every year than all other nations combined.
India should do what is strategically sound over the long run, not what appears easier in the near term. Despite being defensive on the quad formation, New Delhi has displayed refreshing candour on China’s land-grab strategy, with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee cautioning recently that “the days of Hitler are over” and making clear that no government can constitutionally cede “any part of our land that sends representatives to the Indian Parliament.”
China has yet to learn that a muscular approach is counterproductive. By setting out to “teach India a lesson” in 1962, China helped lay the foundation of India’s political rise. Beijing has turned a pacifist, China-friendly, aid-doling Japan into a strategic rival in just the past decade. Now, China’s hardline stance on India threatens to achieve what it is seeking to stop: a US-India military tie-up.
An important component of India’s security strategy has to involve cooperation with likeminded states to advance democratic norms and practices in the Asia-Pacific. The democracies of Asia are natural allies. Strategic accommodation and partnership with Japan, for example, will not only materially aid India’s defence interests but also have a profoundly positive bearing on Asian security. Few countries face such implacably hostile neighbours as India and Japan do.
In fact, Tokyo was instrumental in helping expand the US-Japan-Australia security arrangements to include India. The quad idea was proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his book, Utsukushii Kunihe (Toward A Beautiful Country), published in July 2006, wherein he says: “It would not be a surprise if in another 10 years, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties.” Tokyo also played a key role in frustrating Chinese opposition and getting India into the East Asia Summit (EAS) initiative, which is to fashion an East Asian Community (EAC).
Despite being a rising power, India cannot expect to balance the Asian power situation on its own. It is too reticent and internally engrossed to be a major power player by itself. It needs reliable partners to help build a stable Asian order. A key template in that endeavour would be a constellation of democracies working together to fashion what Dr. Singh calls “an arc of advantage and prosperity,” to which China itself might eventually belong as events from within and from without compel it to politically modernize.
To quote the PM, “If there is an ‘idea of India’ that the world should remember us by and regard us for, it is the idea of an inclusive and open society, a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual society. All countries of the world will evolve in this direction as we move forward into the 21st century. Liberal democracy is the natural order of social and political organization in today’s world. All alternate systems, authoritarian and majoritarian in varying degrees, are an aberration.” The quad jibes well with the imperative to harness democratic values for strategic goals.
© Asian Age, 2007