On September 21, India and China held their sixth and latest round of talks to tamp down tensions along their unresolved border in Ladakh. The marathon meeting, which began in the morning and continued late into the night, assumed importance as it was the first such exercise since the foreign ministers of the two countries had met in Moscow eleven days prior to that, agreeing on the need for de-escalation of troops and arms build-up at the border and disengagement of troops who are almost in eyeball-to-eyeball standoff. But the tensions and standoff show no signs of a resolution. The mistrust between the two sides has only deepened in the last four-five months.
While the overwhelming focus has been on the bilateral dimensions, one equally important—and a somewhat less discussed—dimension is the manner in which China's increasingly military assertiveness has had the effect of expediting a new world order and realignment of forces at the international level.
An idea in the labyrinth of international relations takes time to germinate and there is a time for it to grow. Nothing could be truer for the "Arc of Democracy" proposed across Asia by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007. It is an idea whose time has come, to quote a favourite expression of former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Thirteen years ago, Abe, with an eye on China, had proposed the Arc as a loose alliance of democracies in Asia. His idea at that time was nebulous. But as he stepped down as PM, he may have derived some satisfaction from the recent developments that saw his proposal taking concrete shape. Nothing illustrates this better than two events that happened on September 10: (1) India, France and Australia had their first dialogue in a trilateral dialogue; and (2) India and Japan signed an agreement allowing defence forces of the two countries to access each other's logistics and facilities. What is common between the two is the firm focus on the vision of an Indo-Pacific where China is aggressively ramping up its military and economic presence.
This is a far cry from the initial days when Abe's Arc of Democracy idea was met with a tepid response across much of Asia as country after country, including Australia and India, did not want to be seen too keen about it as they did not want to rub China the wrong way. Each Asian country had its own strong economic engagements with China. Not that the situation has changed much now. Over the years, democracies in Asia, or for that matter across the world, have tended to underplay China's worldview. That, however, began changing once Beijing came out with its white paper on the Asia-Pacific in 2017 suggesting major powers to be sensitive towards each other and medium and smaller powers to stay neutral. That was the time when China, with a bulging moneybag, went about hard-selling its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the world and its territorial claims in several parts of Asia. China's worldview is one to dominate the international order by putting in place its own rules governing the international order. The values of a democratic society—individual rights and openness—are not in the lexicon of China's worldview.
Beijing may or may not have factored in that there may be countries which can come in the way of its desire to hold sway, refuse to accept its territorial ambitions, join the BRI, debt-trap diplomacy and look at a maritime security coalition and compete for influence in South East Asia and Africa. This is what appears to be happening as India, Australia and France held the trilateral dialogue virtually on September 9. What is noteworthy is that this was the first time that a European power was brought into the Indo-Pacific scheme of things as opposed to China's Asia-Pacific picture.
The two main focus areas of the meeting were: collaborative efforts to ensure free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and enhance the resilience of reliable global supply chains. This should also be seen in the context of Japan and Australia that recently took an initiative for ensuring resilient supply chains. It remains to be seen if France also joins it. Besides, India and the US are also expected to ink an agreement for maritime information sharing that gels well with the overall Indo-Pacific strategy. There already exists the quadrilateral grouping involving the US, India, Japan and Australia viewed as another forum for ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. India already has a trilateral forum with Indonesia and Australia. The common thread running through this surfeit of tri-nation or quadrilateral groupings is the convergence of strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.
China views the idea of Indo-Pacific with suspicion, without apparently realising that its own actions to tailor the world order have pushed and expedited such irreversible alignments of countries. On the face of it, these alignments are separate but one should not underestimate the ability of these countries in the groupings with focus on the Indo-Pacific to coalesce when the necessity arises, because their worldview has certain shared values like individual liberty and a spirit of accommodation for all.
It is important to listen to Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who was speaking at a function in New Delhi on September 18. He underlined that the military logistics pact between India and Japan is a very practical manifestation of the ability and intent of the two countries to work together and expressed the confidence that "it would be both a big plus for the evolution of the Indo-Pacific vision of both countries as well as adding to the stability and security of Asia." His remark could be an indicator of the shape of emerging Indo-Pacific narrative in the midst of growing Chinese assertiveness.
The real challenge for the votaries of the Indo-Pacific vision is to sustain the initiative without being distracted by short-term interests or change of guard in the countries. After all, the foreign policies of democratic countries are underpinned by certain common values and convergence of interests. China may be going wrong in expecting medium and small powers to be neutral in international power play. Neutrality may not be an option for these powers if they are pushed by China to a corner. Shinzo Abe's Arc of Democracy may have been in the incubator for a long time, but China's actions may have given that idea a decisive push to get off the drawing board.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.