Home News Is an ‘Asian NATO’ taking shape? Thursday, 02 August 2007 At the urging of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an anti-China group of four countries may be incrementally talking shape, cloaked within an “axis of democracy” rubric.
BACKDROP The four – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – was “born” on the sidelines of an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila last May at senior official level. It was pushed by the now embattled Premier Abe who conceived the concept in a book published a few months prior to taking office. As Japan’s first post-World War II prime minister whose life has been shaped by democracy, the idea of “democratic peace” may hold special import. Significantly, China, the only major Asian country left out in the cold, issued a diplomatic protest to all four countries. In June in Beijing, Qin Gang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters that “China believes that to enhance trust, expand cooperation for mutual benefit and win-win, being open and inclusive is the global trend.” Shortly thereafter in New Delhi, while releasing a study by former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Nepal, M.K. Rasgotra, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that India believes the quadrilateral strategic forum should not worry China because there was no question of them “ganging up” against Beijing. “I have told Chinese President Hu Jintao too there is no question of us ganging up against China. This group is not a military alliance.” However, he observed that “the international system is about power relations, it’s not a morality play.” A Times of India correspondent reporting the event thought that was a subtle reminder to advocates of foreign policy based on ideology that such a thing has never existed in global politics. Of late, many Indian analysts are tending to say that Nehru’s China policy failed as it was based on the notion that good intentions alone are enough. That, of course, is also in keeping with recent revelations culled from declassified CIA documents that detailed what the US saw as Chinese perfidy and Nehruvian naiveté that led ultimately to the October 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. STILL EVOLVING The concept of “democratic peace” that is ostensibly being flogged vis-à-vis the quad is possibly nothing more than a smokescreen to hide its real future shape or purpose. Despite that, there would seem to be a revealing tentativeness about it, with its constituents pursuing divergent priorities and interests at the present time. That was brought into sharp focus in a recent opinion piece in the Times of India by strategic affairs analyst, Brahma Chellaney. Though it has raised the hackles of China, he says, its direction is still undecided owning to differing perceptions within the group. Australia, India and the US, Challaney explains, have sought to assure Beijing that it constitutes no “axis of democracies.” While the Indian prime minister has claimed that the quad carries no “security implication”, Australia wants the initiative to be limited to trade, culture and other issues outside the domain of defence and security. Very pertinently, Challaney questions why such a strategic initiative should be undertaken if it is to be limited to only non-strategic issues.He says Australia appears to be ill at ease in the new grouping, in view of its desire to build a strategic engagement with Beijing and the fact that Australia has been reaping the benefits of an unprecedented economic boom, based on China’s gargantuan imports of resources from Australia. All the same, Australia, whose defence minister Brendon Nelson was in India not long ago – just after a visit to China – according to a Times of India report, now wants to upgrade strategic and defence ties with India, after years of suspicion about India’s growing military power especially the expanding role of its navy in the Indian Ocean region. Incidentally, under the quad accord, Canberra would permit Japanese troops to train on her terrain – not a stipulation that would be warmly greeted by Beijing.Yet in Beijing, Nelson assured Chinese Defence Minister, Gen. Cao Gangchuan, that Australia was not ganging up militarily with the US, Japan and India to contain Beijing in the region! Times of India’s defence correspondent Rajat Pandit was much more frank in admitting that “both India and Australia share a common wariness about China and its rapidly-modernising 2.5 million-strong People’s Liberation Army, coupled with the communist country’s desire to spread its arc of influence in the entire Asia-Pacific region.” The US which has a very significant economic relationship with China, not to mention such important shared strategic interests as dealing with a nuclear North Korea, is also not entirely comfortable with an openly strategic orientation of the quad. After all, quite apart from its potential in upsetting the mutually beneficial Sino-American apple cart, it already has bilateral and trilateral security arrangements with Japan. Why then risk jeopardizing what it already has with China, which for sometime now has been warning against the creation of an “Asian NATO”. Japan’s case is rather different. Aside from being the most enthusiastic proponent of a security-oriented quad, there is the issue of Japan wanting a more independent international role which, eventually, would see the jettisoning of US-imposed constitutional constraints against a resurgence of Japanese militarism.
IMPACT HERE How the “axis of democracy” evolves will be fascinating. From Kathmandu one notes that both India and China have being exhibiting symptoms of being ill at ease with each other’s perceived long-term or strategic intentions, despite rhetoric about improving relations. Recall India’s aggressive penetration of Nepal, Afghanistan, military aid to Myanmar and air base in Tajikistan – all bordering China. Or mull over China’s forceful, even startling, reassertion of her claim to Arunachal Pradesh.Considering that India is now virtually a US strategic ally, and not forgetting their common Nepal policy, many may conclude that Beijing’s increased visibility in Nepal today is not unrelated to moves on the regional and international checkerboard that, ultimately, centre on China’s containment. Have our squabbling politicos had time to figure that out?