The contours of a new geopolitical line-up in the
Asia-Pacific are becoming clearer
The Hindustan Times, February 13, 2008
By Brahma Chellaney
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
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
The 32-day aggression, which Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar has dubbed "Mao’s India War", helped boost China’s image
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.
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 Organization 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, is signalling a wish to turn its back on the Quad.
Australia’s growing wariness is no different
After having called liberal democracy “the natural order of social and
political organization in today’s world”, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh now says the Quad “never got going”. Even the
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 mesmerized 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
recognized 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
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 institutionalize 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
© Hindustan Times, 2008