A recent cover of India Today magazine has Prime Minister Narendra Modi dressed up as Superman, fist outstretched, flying around the planet and restoring his country to its rightful position as a “global force”.
The image might seem odd when viewed from Australia, where geo-politics is usually framed as a binary contest between the United States and China, but Modi’s refashioning of India into what he calls “a leading power” is a harbinger of the emerging multi-polar world that Australia will have to navigate.
Figures released this week show India has just overtaken China and is now the world’s fastest-growing major economy. The redistribution of power, confidence and nationalistic bravado is accelerating. “China’s over, China has had its run,” an Indian minister told me during a visit to New Delhi. “The game now shifts to India.”
China is far from over, but India is at the top of a list of fast-growing economies that are refusing to “accommodate” their growing demands.
India, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and a reinvigorated Japan are accumulating weapons and repositioning themselves, as the Pax Americana that has held since the Vietnam War is tested by China.
Australia’s defence planners and diplomats have to work much harder to preserve influence and interests as relative economic and military advantages decline. Primarily they are doing this by strengthening old security partnerships and building new ones.
The US remains the cornerstone, Japan is rapidly gaining importance, and India is the latest piece in the strategic puzzle to fall into place.
India was moving in this direction under Manmohan Singh, but Modi has made it a priority since coming to power last year. “Modi deftly reached out to Japan and Australia along with deepening relations with the US, signalling that India was not averse to teaming up with others to contain China,” says the India Today story.
Leaders of these four nations don’t use the two C-words – China and containment – in close proximity with each other except to deny such links exist. Nevertheless, this is the direction in which their engage-and-hedge strategies are heading, as the hypothetical risk of coercive Chinese behaviour evolves into something more immediate and tangible.
Increasingly they are united by their shared anxieties about China’s rapidly growing military power. They are worried about China’s brinkmanship with Japan in the East China Sea, its building of military-capable artificial islands in the South China Sea, and its incursions across the “line of control” with India.
Their goal is to push back against and deter Chinese territorial adventurism in its early stages, while the stakes are still relatively low.
Contrary to some popular mythology, neither India, Japan nor Australia are being passively drafted into conflict with China by a hegemonic US. They are all protagonists in this story.
Strikingly, the four established major democracies of the region are sharpening the divide with China by explicitly building their joint security arrangements upon a platform of common values.
“The strategic partnership between India and Australia is based on a shared desire to promote regional and global security, as well as their common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law,” reads the joint security declaration signed by Modi and Tony Abbott in November.
Modi and US President Barack Obama used similar language in January when they signed a joint strategic vision statement as “the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies that bridge the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region”.
Japan’s Shinzo Abe has even talked about “Asia’s democratic security diamond”.
The four major established democracies of Asia won’t repeat an earlier mistake of institutionalising and advertising their four-way partnership, which would gratuitously provoke China. They are proceeding in pairs, like the unprecedented Australia-India naval drills that took place in the Bay of Bengal last month.
And in threes, as with the ambitious India-Japan-US naval exercises that have been taking place in the same area over the past week.
They are talking publicly and with each other about principles of “freedom of navigation” and how to put those principles into action around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
It is all coming together just in time for Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne‘s forthcoming Defence white paper, which will shape the nation’s strategic choices for decades to come. The white paper will talk about the “Indo-Pacific” rather than the Asia-Pacific, to give due deference to India.
One weakness of a defence architecture built upon fine principles is that it can be undermined by hypocrisy. India, Japan, the US and Australia have each been domestically inconsistent in upholding the principles of democracy, pluralism and rule-of-law that they expound abroad.
If Modi’s loyalists like to see him as a super man, then Hindu chauvinism is his kryptonite. In recent weeks the Indian press has been consumed by his failure to convincingly condemn the murders of Muslims for allegedly killing cows and eating beef. This undermines the international quest for shared values, just like Japan’s air-brushing of history and Australia’s obsession with unilaterally turning back refugees. It makes it harder to build bridges with the fifth and sixth major democracies currently missing from this story, Indonesia and Korea.
When the white paper does arrive there will still be commentators who insist on seeing the document in binary terms, as if the Indo-Pacific can be reduced to a ping-pong match between the US and China. But a close reading will reveal how Australia has moved beyond the super power-and-primary-challenger dichotomy and is coming to terms with a far more interesting multi-polar world.
It’s time to afford India the attention it deserves.
- India plays soft power game in China’s backyard (chinadailymail.com)
- United States succeeds in pitting India against China (chinadailymail.com)
- India’s Modi calls for greater cooperation with China, as India aims to rival China economically (chinadailymail.com)
- China’s delusions of regional hegemony – other Asian states want to squash Beijing’s leadership ambitions (chinadailymail.com)
- As Obama visits, signs that India is pushing back against China (chinadailymail.com)
- India’s growth expected to top last year’s, hit from China minimal: Arun Jaitley (ibtimes.co.in)
- Indian Leader Modi to Make Splashy Appearance in U.S. (wsj.com)
- What’s Making India Attractive to Western Manufacturing? (industryweek.com)
- Pakistan, China in pact to keep JF-17 tech away from US, India (nosint.blogspot.com)
- Asian Development Bank cuts growth forecasts for China and India (theguardian.com)