The Quad is dead

Australia has decided that it pays to be nice to China

There’s an interesting discussion going on down under about the death of the “Quad”, a grouping involving India, Japan, Australia and the United States. It was not only seen as an Asia-Pacific “concert of democracies”, but more importantly, as a quiet attempt to balance China’s rising power in the region.

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Raoul Hienrichs argues that more than the election of pro-China governments in Japan and Australia, the Quad died because China killed it (peacefully, of course).

But there is also something quite revealing about this dynamic. That the Rudd Government did not have to explicitly defer to China’s concerns, because Tokyo and New Dehli had already backed away from the quadrilateral arrangement, is itself a clear indication of China’s rising influence and perhaps Washington’s gradual relative decline in Asia. Moreover, China’s willingness to use its considerable diplomatic weight to prevent the emergence of a regional grouping perceived to be inimical to its interests suggests a new level of confidence in China’s foreign and strategic policy, and an increased awareness among its policy makers of their capacity to independently shape China’s strategic environment. [Lowy Interpreter]

Clearly, at a time when the Australian economy is witnessing a sustained boom thanks to resource exports to China, and that the economic news coming out of the United States is getting worse, the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government might have calculated that now is not the time to attempt to balance China. Snubbing Japan, though, was wholly unnecessary. For if ever Australia changes its mind on its own position vis-a-vis China’s strategic rise, Japan, India and the United States are the only ones it can count on. For them, the interests that led to the move towards the quadrilateral initiative are fundamental—even if current governments are lukewarm about a showy new regional grouping.

On the front foot

When will India step out?

Captain Bharat Verma’s latest opinion piece in the Indian Defence Review (available online on Rediff) covers a lot of ground. He advocates a muscular approach to internal security and purposeful geopolitical power projection, through a mix of ‘carrot and stick’.

One point he makes is that India can only be a great power “if instead of being an inward looking nation, New Delhi’s footprints extend outwards”. That’s an important one. Unlike European states or China, India has historically never been an expansionist power. The territorial ambitions of Indian emperors have generally been limited to the Indian subcontinent. It is easier for states with an expansionist historical tradition to appreciate the value of power projection.

In its reluctance to get on the front foot, India, in some ways is like the United States. During a recent conversation, C Raja Mohan noted that the British government had to mount a public information campaign (including employing MI6) to get the United States to enter the Second World War. It took America almost four decades—from around 1900 when it acquired the capacity of a great power to the 1940s when it entered the war—to ‘shoulder its share of global responsibility’. President Woodrow Wilson might have been instrumental in establishing the League of Nations after the First World War, but the US Congress refused to let the deal go through. The US too, until that time, had an inward looking culture. It took Pearl Harbour for that to change.

Perhaps it is to be expected that like the US, India will take time to get onto the front foot. Let’s hope it won’t need a Pearl Harbour.

Parag Khanna welcomes you to the tripolar world

The beginning of history?

Parag Khanna’s attempt to envision the big geopolitical picture for this century is noteworthy. Ahead of his book, he argues his case in a long essay in the New York Times Magazine (linkthanks Pragmatic):

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world. [NYT]

The main question befuddling students of geopolitics is how are post-Cold War multi-polar cards going to fall? Mr Khanna’s answer is that the United States, the European Union and China will be the three superpowers, and the rest of the big powers will constitute the “second world”.

What we can say about Mr Khanna’s thesis is that he underestimates the United States, overestimates the stability and diplomatic style of China and gives too much credit to Europe. And, in the essay at least, is selective in his analysis of demographic trends. But he makes one important point—that 20th century multi-lateral institutions will be increasingly unable to address the world’s challenges as they become increasingly less reflective of the global balance of power.

Regardless of current events—in Iraq, Afghanistan or in global financial markets—it is too early to write off, or even discount the United States as the pre-eminent global power. In fact, among the Big Three, only the United States is founded on “sound business model”: from democracy and capitalism, to immigration and creativity, it is hard to see how the EU or China could change sufficiently to acquire the necessary genes. Until China demonstrates that it can ride out a domestic economic downturn it is premature to place it in the same league as the United States. And let’s not forget that it too has increasingly acute demographic problems of its own. As for the EU, well, it remains to be seen how much geopolitical power it will have—as an entity—if it is no longer under the security offered by NATO.

Perhaps the book will provide stronger arguments, but there is too little in the article to conclude that the geopolitical configuration of this century will be a Big Three and the second world. US primacy in the coming decades is by no means guaranteed, but it is still harder to prove that any other country can match or overtake the US. Moreover the US will be the only power that is unchallenged in its own geographical sphere. Neither Brazil and certainly not Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela fit the bill of a serious geopolitical challenger. Not so, for the EU and China. The EU faces Russia, and possibly the Arab world, in its own geography. China faces Japan, India and Russia in Asia. In this reading, it is the US that could play a “swing” role in influencing the outcomes of these regional competitions.

Mr Khanna’s goal is to compel the United States to transform its foreign policy institutions and behaviour, which may explain why he has deliberately cast his thesis in this manner. It would be nice if it rankles strategists and policymakers in India as well.

Related Posts: By Daniel Nexon at the Duck of Minerva, by Hari at Thirty letters in my name, and by Ethan Zuckerman in My heart’s in Accra. [30 Jan] And Dan Drezner weighs in too.

Sunday Levity: Lessons on strategy from a kindergartener

Checkers, candy and rules of the game

This Saturday, the father thought, he would complete a few more chapters of the book he was supposed to reading. But before long, the kindergartener was back in the room.

“Let’s play checkers”, she said. “I like checkers”. [For the uninitiated, her likes change roughly every 45 seconds]

“Okay”, said the father, putting away the book.

She took out the board and the coins. Then she noticed a tube of candy on the table.

“Can I have a candy, please?” she asked, sweetly. [For the uninitiated, she does this every 45 seconds, until the tube is empty]

The father worried about what the mother would say if she found out that the father had allowed the kindergartener to have yet another candy. He had to think fast.

Firmly, he said “Do you want to to eat the sweet or play checkers?” He complimented himself for coming up with this masterstroke. She could either eat the candy and leave him in peace, or play checkers and let him show his wife that contrary to popular belief, he was serious about discipline and all that.

“I’ll want to eat the candy first, and then let’s play checkers.” The reply strangely made him feel rather proud.

“Let me teach you how it’s played. You need to place your coins (she wanted the red ones) on these squares like this. I’ll place mine at the other end. Then we move…and if I jump over your coin, I’ve ‘killed’ it, and it goes off the board. The objective of the game is…”

Before he could finish, the kindergartener was neatly taking her coins off the board, and placing it behind her.

“Wh..what are you doing?” he asked. “How can we play the game if you take your coins off the board?”

“If my coins are going to be killed, I don’t want to put them on the board”, she said.

The father thought she had won. And he could read the book now.

“Let’s play Memory”, she said. “I like Memory.”

How China went back on its commitment

…and India doesn’t even realise that it has been had

Did anyone notice how China’s support for the India-US nuclear deal has been matched by its backward movement on settling the border dispute? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came away with a “Chinese nod for him to underwrite India’s independent foreign policy”—as the Indian Express put it with dreadful (and unintended) irony—the Chinese breach of promise over settling the border dispute went unnoticed. The clever men in Beijing have every reason to be happy with Dr Singh’s visit: they gave away nothing while appearing to give a great deal, and in the bargain, ensured that they clawed back what little they had conceded in the border dispute. The best part for them was that despite all this, it was the Indian media that was celebrating!

Here’s the net outcome of Dr Singh’s visit: China has gone back on its position that the eventual border between the two countries will not disturb existing population centres. It did not show any enthusiasm to exchange official maps—a step that would have set the parameters of a final settlement. It is now not only quibbling over the meaning of the term population centres, but also sending its troops to demolish Indian bunkers. It is bleeding obvious that China wants to keep the dispute alive.

The gains that India achieved under the Vajpayee government have been lost under the UPA. Dr Singh’s visit only confirmed that. China could do this because it realised that Pakistan could no longer be used as a strategic lever against India after 9/11. It also realised that it could use the divisiveness of India’s domestic politics instead. The Left parties were anyway batting for Beijing, the BJP played into its hands and the Congress Party lacked the political sagacity to forge a non-partisan consensus on the nuclear deal. The Communists have reason to be pleased with the visit. But for others, there is no reason to celebrate.

The passage of the nuclear deal was only a matter of time. It was essentially a fait accompli for Beijing. Yet the UPA government and sections of the media projected Beijing’s blessings as a way to secure the approval of the Indian Communists. This came at a terribly expensive price: India didn’t lift as much as finger while China turned back on what it had agreed on the border dispute.

Related Posts: K Subrahmanyam, Brahma Chellaney & Manoj Joshi