Contested Geometries: Has Multipolarity trumped Multilateralism?

Robin Jeffrey | 09 May 2020

The Indian navy’s recent joint naval exercises with a number of its Asia-Pacific counterparts have intensified speculation about that region’s strategic direction. Those manoeuvres are just the latest in what has been a series of developments over the past few months pointing to a new round of power balancing that is shaping a new, highly competitive multipolar regional security order. The risk to those powers most involved in this process is that recent progress in building multilateral arrangements that promise to offer them greater security could be seriously, even fatally compromised.

The signs of a new ‘great game’ encompassing both the Asian land mass and its maritime peripheries are numerous. The United States is moving aggressively to resuscitate its postwar bilateral alliance system in the region into an ‘axis of democracies’. The U.S. India civil nuclear agreement and enhanced intelligence cooperation between those two countries, stepped-up security collaboration between Australia and Japan and the expansion of U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with a number of Southeast Asian states all underscore Washington’s effort to incorporate the region into its global strategic posture that emphasises victory in a ‘long war’ against terrorist threats and anti-democratic forces.

It also illuminates an enduring American tendency to apply the geometry of Realpolitik as its preferred means for realising its other great strategic interest in the region: to prevent a China growing ever stronger from realising uncontested hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. It prefers that China accepts a position of ‘responsible stakeholder’ in a world order Washington still wishes to manage as the international system’s key balancer. Neither the Bush administration nor its potential successors from America’s Democratic Party who would lead a successor government have assigned much credence to an intensified American role in Asia’s burgeoning multilateral security architectures such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or perhaps the East Asian Summit.

Such is not the case with India, however, as the region’s ‘other rising power’ that many believe will soon be capable of balancing Chinese power or hegemony in Asia. India’s old elite and new middle class enjoy being courted again. In the 1950s, when Jawarharlal Nehru was in his prime and V. K. Krishna Menon gave marathon speeches at the United Nations, India’s ‘non-alignment’ commanded interest around the world (and sighs of soporific despair from Western diplomats). But after the defeat by China in the 1962 war, things fell apart.

For more than 30 years, India was marginal to international politics and economics. The rise of China, however, has put India back to the centre of a stage it occupied with China in the 1950s and early 1960s. The question then was: “Who will triumph? Communist China or democratic India?” Today, the questions are: “Whose growth rate will be higher? Whose markets are growing faster?” What’s important for India is that it is back in the big league with its neighbour to the north.

The recent exercises in eastern waters with navies from Japan, Russia, the USA, the Philippines, Vietnam and even China are welcome recognition that India is – and revels in being - a genuine world power. Those exercises have also enabled India’s chief external-affairs bureaucrat, Shiv Shankar Menon, to point out that he ‘needs more people’: the Chinese are out-negotiating India around the world so India needs a larger foreign service. New Dehli has developed a keen sense of appreciation for the advantages of smoothing integrating ‘hard power’ in the form of military prowess and economic clout with ‘soft power’ attributes provided by concerted diplomacy. Its ability to drive a hard bargain with the U.S. on the two countries pending civil nuclear power agreement is a case-in-point.

It is highly unlikely India will become entangled in a Cheney-inspired cob-web of alliances to ‘contain China.’ With bilateral trade between China and India exceeding US $14 billion a year, India’s entrepreneurs and economists want barriers down, not raised. Moreover, in the current governing coalition in India, the crucial leftist group will not support anything that looks like an alliance with the US; and the right-wing opposition has been decrying the ‘betrayal of the nation’ embodied in the proposed nuclear agreement with the US.

There is, of course, another game. India and China will bump hard against each other in central and Southeast Asia over energy and influence. India has no wish to enable China to develop a route to the Bay of Bengal through Burma. And it has long envied China’s ability to fit more smoothly into ASEAN’s community-building agendas than India’s own highly touted but still frustrated ‘look East’ policy directed toward points east of the Andaman Sea. Its current efforts to strengthen its maritime posturing go hand-in-hand with its insistence that it be included in the still nascent but potentially significant East Asian Summit - a status even more coveted by Indian officials still frustrated that India remains outside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Only in this institutional context does more direct multilateral dialogues with Australia, the United States and Japan make any sense to an Indian policy elite accustomed to fighting against institutional marginalisation in East Asia over the past four decades.

But this competition, however rough, is not the main game. The most fundamental Indian interest relates to the prosperity and dignity of India’s growing consumer class. India’s diplomats and politicians need to satisfy those desires. Expanding trade with China, balanced by intermittent but judicious shows of national force and low-key collisions with China in regional theatres, is one way to do this. Ultimately, India would like to establish itself as holder of the ‘pivot’ position in any future Asian power balance. Over the short-term, it would be satisfied in having its declared interests taken into account by the region’s other great powers during times of crises or prosperity – a pattern that would emulate China’s contemporary eminence in regional security politics and order-building.

All this constitutes a highly intricate calculus of material power and diplomatic influence that renders the crude ‘zero-sum’ geometry of expanded alliances for containment of possible threats anachronistic and unproductive. India, Japan and Australia are all too savvy to allow that kind of multipolarity to trump more sophisticated forms of multilateralism, predicated on expanding dialogue and deepening confidence-building. Indeed so are many officials in the Bush administration who understand that the heyday of neo-conservatism is over. It may well be that those who now formulate ‘core American foreign policy’ – including the U.S. Secretary of State and other ‘centrist’ parties who have ascended into predominance since the November 2006 electoral bloodbath that have relegated Republican Party legislators to minority status – have deferred to Vice President Cheney only in those policy areas that they know cannot have great credibility, much less a long lifespan. Chasing hypothetical geopolitical demons with empty strategies of containment cannot have much relevance in the Asia-Pacific. Hard-nosed ideology has long since given way to a prevailing quest for defining and attaining enduring regional stability and the pursuit of ever greater wealth. Fits and spurts resembling classical geopolitics may still occasionally erupt in the East China Sea or in Northeast Asia but these will invariably prove to be the exception to the norm.


Robin Jeffrey is the Director of the Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.
William Tow is Professor of International Relations at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

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