Obstacles to overcome in the development of a concert of Asia-Pacific democracies

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The new Australian government is signaling a wish to turn its back on an initiative bringing four major democracies of the Asia-Pacific together, even as U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has vowed to institutionalize that venture.

Whatever its future, the nascent Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quadrilateral Initiative” symbolizes the likely geopolitical lineup in the coming years.

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 driver.

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.

For example, as revealed by a new book, “China’s Great Leap,” edited by Minky Worden, China won the right to host the 2008 Olympics on the plea that awarding the Games would help it improve its human-rights record. Instead, Beijing has let loose new political repression in the runup to the Games. 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.

It is established that democracies rarely go to war with each other, even though democratic governments may not be more wedded to peace than autocracies.

Today, China’s best friends are fellow autocracies, including pariah states, while those seeking to forestall power disequilibrium in the Asia-Pacific happen to be on the other side of the values-based divide. In that light, political values 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 thus conceivable in the Asia-Pacific theater 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.

After all, a major challenge in Asia 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 an essential step. On the other side is the interest of many Asian nations and outside powers in a cooperative order founded on power equilibrium.

It was China that took the lead in 2001 to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to help unite it with 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 today shaping up as a potential “NATO of the East.”

Yet, when Australia, India, Japan and the United States last year started the Quadrilateral Initiative, Beijing was quick to cry foul and see the apparition of an “Asian NATO.” A Chinese diplomatic protest to each Quad nation 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.

Rudd is so mesmerized by his Mandarin fluency that he feels an inexorable itch to cozy up to Beijing.

In a strange spectacle, the Rudd administration has proclaimed it will sell uranium to Beijing (without adequate safeguards against diversion to weapons use) but not to New Delhi, even if the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) carves out an exemption for India. The previous John Howard government, which was in office for 11 years, had concluded uranium deals with both China and India.

Rudd’s reason for overturning the decision to export uranium to India is that New Delhi has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith explained at a Feb. 1 news conference in Tokyo, “The current government will not authorize the export of uranium to a country which is not a party to the NPT.”

That rationale is seriously flawed: The NPT has no explicit or implicit injunction against civil cooperation with a non-signatory. The treaty actually encourages the peaceful use of nuclear technology among all states. All it requires is safeguards application, which its Article III (3) stipulates shall not hamper “international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities, including the international exchange of nuclear material and equipment for the processing, use of production of nuclear material for peaceful purposes in accordance with the provisions of this Article and the principle of safeguarding set forth in the Preamble of the Treaty.”

Any restriction on civil cooperation with a country like India is not in the NPT, but it is in the revised 1992 rules of the U.S.-led NSG, a cartel that was formed outside the framework of international law and the United Nations. The Rudd government, interestingly, has not come out against the proposed NSG exemption for India. On that issue, in Smith’s words, “the Australian government has not come to a concluded view on those matters. We will give consideration to those matters and will do that in an orderly way, having listened to the views of the Indian government and the U.S. government.”

In rushing to abandon uranium exports to India — that too on the pretext of wishing to uphold the NPT — Rudd, however, made no similar effort to go through “an orderly way” and solicit the views of others. Indeed, underscoring a holier-than-thou attitude, Rudd, despite his leftwing political base, sees no contradiction in pledging to keep Australia ensconced under American nuclear and conventional deterrence, yet refusing to accept India’s sovereign right to build nuclear security in a highly troubled neighborhood without any breach of its legal commitments.

With the Australian economic boom being driven by Beijing’s ravenous resource imports — which helped China to overtake Japan and the U.S. as Australia’s largest trading partner in 2007 — the Howard government wasn’t exactly enthused by the Quad proposal when it was first floated. Beijing had already taken a dim view of Canberra’s U.S.-backed bilateral and trilateral defense tie-ups with Tokyo. But Howard was persuaded by the U.S. to take part in the initiative.

Now the Quad’s future has come under a cloud following the Rudd administration’s statements. With the visiting Chinese foreign minister by his side, Smith said in Canberra on Feb. 5: “One of the things which caused China concern last year was a meeting of that strategic dialogue plus India, which China expressed some concern with. And I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.” Smith later called the Quad meeting of last May, held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gathering in Manila, “a one-off” affair.

Australia’s growing wariness, admittedly, may be no different from India’s. After having called liberal democracy “the natural order of social and political organization in today’s world,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on the eve of his China visit last month that the Quad “never got going.” Even the U.S. has publicly downplayed the initiative, whose real architect, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had spoken of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” stretching across Asia, was driven out of office last fall.

Yet, it is significant that the Quad staged weeklong war games in the Bay of Bengal five months ago, roping in Singapore. Those war games came close on the heels of major military exercises involving practically all SCO members in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. The Quad was not intended to be a formal institution. McCain, however, in a recent article published in Foreign Affairs, said: “As president, I will seek to institutionalize the new quadrilateral security partnership among the major Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, Japan and the United States.” McCain also has larger ambitions: “A ‘worldwide League of Democracies’ that could be a “unique handmaiden of freedom.”

The more modest Quad, founded on the historically valid hypothesis of democratic peace, is supposed to serve as an initial framework to promote security dialogue and interlinked partnerships among major 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 what is likely to come. With the Asia-Pacific region becoming more divided in the face of conflicting strategic cultures, major democracies are likely to be increasingly drawn together to help advance political cooperation and stability through a community of values.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins).