Relevantising Indo-Pacific in Competing Geo-political Interests

The silver lining for Indo-Pacific then is surely greater role that Japan can play towards ensuring a peaceful co-existence of all competing players given the enormous goodwill that...

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Published in Malay Mail, Astro Awani, Sinar Daily, and Mysinchew, image by Astro Awani.

The concept of Indo-Pacific, to a large extent, is due to the Indian Ocean Tsunami on December 26 2004. The size and scale of the destruction led four democracies, at varying state of maturity, to try to assist multiple countries hard hit by the natural calamity. The context was logistical humanitarian supply and support. Thus, the navy of Australia, India, Japan and the United States (US) all acted in unison to making sure that the region could cushion the enormity of the destruction, with the human destitution to follow.

That said, in terms of cartography, the former Australian diplomat, Professor Rory Metcalf is of the foremost thinkers on the concept of Indo-Pacific, is that it has been around at least since 1571, a decade after the circumnavigation of the globe. The map of Indo Pacific then was sketched with rather remarkable prescience and accuracy by a Flemish cartographer.

A reference to an article by Anthony Galloway in the Sydney Morning Herald on  September 16 2021 says it all. Allow me to highlight this highly accurate article:

https://www.smh.com.au/national/forget-asia-pacific-it-s-the-indo-pacific-we-live-in-now-where-is-that-exactly-20210810-p58hku.html

Whether rendered in a nuanced manner from ancient time or demarcated even more clearly by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to which everyone can access:

https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/page25e_000278.html

Irrespective of how Indo Pacific is fleshed out, as a cartogrophy dating from 1571, by extension an idea espoused by all and sundry since the last few decades, the lexicon has entered the diplomatic parlance of government leaders, decision makers, epistemic community and pundits alike.

It is unfortunate that the word Indo-Pacific has been seen by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in terms of a 5-4-3-2-1 Formation not unlike that of Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

By 5, Wang was referring to “The Five Alliance Initiative”;  by 4 he was referring to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; by 3 he was referring to the security and cyber security arrangements of Australia, the UK and the US, known as AUKUS; by 2 he was referring to the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA); and by 1, he was referring to the over domineering role of the United States (US).

Now it is said, at least by The Washington Post, that “Democracy Dies In Darkness,” a view which it espoused since 2017.

Whether democracy is dying or not, there is a growing school of thought, as spelt out by various authors in The Atlantic.com, one of the most compelling and reputable magazine. For the rigor with which this topic is treated one just has to go through all the articles here: the Atlantic.com/projects/is-democracy-dying/  

Now, let us quickly revisit the democratic triumphalism that was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Subsequently, that sense of euphoria was further occasioned by the collapse of Soviet Union on December 26 1991.

What is evidently clear the moniker “the end of history” as articulated by Professsor Francis Fukuyama in 1989, and once again fully fleshed out in his book by the same title in 1992, is that it is no longer a given.

While short of saying that he has completely fluffed his analysis, Fukuyama did admit to an interview which he gave in Vox.com on June 6 2022, based on his book “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” that “for a liberal society to be successful in the long run, you need to link liberalism with democracy because you need a political mechanism to do a certain degree of redistribution —- not to completely equalize, but go mitigate the kinds of inequalities that a market society produces.”

The importance of understanding the present, or, even, the democratic prospect of the Indo-Pacific cannot be complete, unless we have first understood how Indo-Pacific has come about, how various countries have rallied around the concept, to further ensure freedom of navigation and free and open Indo Pacific (FOIP). And, more importantly, how China, to the degree we take Wang’s formulaic concept of 5-4-3-2-1, as China’s perception of a rising Asian NATO, all portend, not a clash of civilizations, but a proclivity to confront each other over every policy mis-step, rather than to try to provide the room for policy errors and policy over shoots, to enjoy the margin and leeway to correct themselves.

When did such a moment occur within the context of Sino US relationship ? With the benefit of hindsight, I would have to concede that it was President Barack Obama who missed the “Peace Boat,” or “Love Boat,” if you may when President Xi Jin Ping explained to him categorically —- that it was important to have a “New Type of Great Power Relationship” in Sunnyland, California in November 2013, President Barack Obama was totally oblivious to its importance.

Indeed, it has been widely noted that President Xi Jinping, repeatedly promoted the framework first at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July 2013, and then at the summit with Obama in mid-November 2013. After the summit, China’s official news agency reported that Xi and Obama “pledged to push forward a new type of major-country relations,” and that “[Obama] is willing to… lift the new type of major-country relationship between China and the U.S. to a higher level.” Xinhua implied that Obama not only accepts, but also actively supports, the “New Type” concept. In fact, the truth is the Obama administration  was cautiously staying away from it.

Now, mind you a year later, all the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) became embroiled themselves with a war against Russia over Crimea in 2014.

Fast forward to February 24 2022, we now have a war between 30 member states, not counting Ukraine and Moldavia, against Russia and Belarus.

One must remember what The Economist once said : “Only one per cent of the world’s total population enjoy pure democracy.” With the world’s global population at 8 billion population, one per cent means 800 million people. By this token, The Economist was using a social political concept of equity, not just political equality. Does the world have true equity? The issue is no. The top richest 80 inviduals of the world enjoy the proverbial milk and honey promised by democracy: not just the rights to vote, indeed to assemble, invariably to speak and reject various tyrannical laws of a majority over the minority.

Yet, when we speak of the fate of democracy in the Indo-Pacific, we are part of what Professor Larry Diamond at Stanford University called a 17-year trends of non-stop democratic recession.

At the risk of skewing the topic of “democracy,” which I have to define in terms of a crucible of progressive income growth, not just more and more political and social rights, the world is not doing well.

While the war between Russia and Ukraine can be seen as a result of NATO’s eastward expansion from 1992 onwards, where the membership of NATO had grown from an original number of 14 member states to 30 member states, with Sweden and Finland poised to join it as the 31st and 32nd member state, had Turkey not put its foot down last month at the NATO Summit in Poland, the fact is all the dissatisfaction of the people of Ukraine since the end of Cold War over the last 30 years, using 1992 as the benchmark as the beginning of Russia and Ukraine relationship, was due not necessarily to conflict but endemic corruption, and its corrosive impact on everything that was worthy of building a proud Slavic nation side by side with Russia another Slavic country.

This is why the analogy between the Pan Slavic war between Ukraine and Russia must not be over drawn to suggest that Taiwan and China will necessarily get into an inevitable war too. No doubt the Cross Strait relationship between China and Taiwan are not at the very best. But the economy between Taiwan and China are preventing the two from a violent decoupling.

When Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor to President Nixon had his secret talks in 1971 with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, to form a relationship that can counter balance the looming threat of Soviet Union, the first word that came out of Zhou: “Taiwan.” In other words, China and the US can go to hell and back to contain Soviet Union, even pull Chinese influence from Indo China to allow the US to achieve an ostensible “honorable exit” from Vietnam, China put enormous premium on Taiwan.

That has been the case and will always be the case in China’s relationship with any country. This is why of the 16 Pacific Islands in the South Pacific Forum, China has made the strenuous efforts to win over 14 of them.

Now, just as equity is important to understand how the prospect of democracy can grow, a case of more rice rather than more rights per se, it is extremely important to understand how it was not just President Donald Trump that had Sino US relationship spiralling downward with trade and tech war, policies with which President Joe Biden seems to be following with his Indo Pacific Strategy where the Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEC) has chosen to exclude China, but how history ought to remember that the rot did begin with President Bill Clinton when he stuck to the gun of “Democracy Promotion,” guided by this school of thought conceived by Professor Michael Doyle that “Democracies do not go to War.” But democracies do go to war when both democracies are unable to grow equitably as Russia and Ukraine have not.

Thus, as much as one want to blame President President Vladimir Putin, and how history will be written, granted how his “Special Military Operation,” in Ukraine has arguably triggered a global food crisis, the U.S. should also re-evaluate its position on the “New Type of Great Power Relations” which China had always wanted. The concept at least from Chinese side was to break old mindsets, challenge realist thinking and erase a cold war mentality; which China had warned again and again, to which the U.S. had been totally impervious to the state of being oblivious. 

Indeed, it was none other than the former President of Harvard University, Larry Summers, who once said, while he could picture a 21st century in which the United States and China can both prosper, he could also envision a 21st century in which both countries failed to prosper, but not one in which one country prospered and the other did not.

What did he mean? Very simple. China wants to be viewed as an equal. By using the term “Great Power” to primarily, if not solely, refer to China and the United States, China aims to elevate itself to a level playing field. Obtaining U.S. support of the concept would imply President Obama’s recognition of China’s strength and power. This is what China’s official media sought to show when it suggested Obama’s support of the concept: parity and respect between the two countries; though American media reported to the contrary that Obama did not agree to the such. In sum, for democracy to enjoy greater prospect in the Indo Pacific region, the US and China should be concerned with both their income inequality and how China especially wants to be seen as an equal.

It is not enough to blame Russia and the Ukraine as the cause as the retardation of peace across the Indo-Pacific unless the analysts make it a point to understand just as the elites of all countries do want to be richer, nor the poor in the developing countries, especially China and India, want to slide behind as the two once did nearly two centuries ago. And the United States having once been the number one major economic power, certainly in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) want to play catch up too. It is this collective fear not to lose out, indeed, to try to retain what ever gains they have made thus far, be they geopolitically or geoeconomically, that are shaping what remains of the liberal democratic world order, not just due to the effects of Coronavirus that has produced a string of lock downs to reduce employment, productivity and the enhancement of skill sets.

The silver lining for Indo-Pacific then is surely greater role that Japan can play towards ensuring a peaceful co-existence of all competing players given the enormous goodwill that Japan has in the region and beyond. 

Dr Rais Hussin is President and CEO at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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