(The article was originally published by Indian Express on March 25, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
At the height of tensions between the US and China over the South China Sea, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018 to unveil his strategy for the Indo-Pacific. He spoke about freedom of navigation and open sealines, but his emphasis was on inclusivity and ASEAN centrality, which distinguished him from then US president Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Five years later, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida chose India to unveil Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy. As the regime change in Washington DC did not mitigate tensions in the region, and the conflicts in Eurasia like the Russia-Ukraine war precipitated the divide between the West and the Russia-China alliance, Kishida’s choice of location had a clear message.
Days before Kishida’s Delhi visit, media outlets in Japan indicated that the objective of Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific strategy was to curb China’s influence. While the ostensible focus of the strategy would be to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), a phrase Kishida invoked at least 35 times in his Delhi speech, the initiative is aimed at “curbing China’s growing regional assertiveness,” Japan Times reported.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fathered the phrase Indo-Pacific, first in his 2006 address to the Indian Parliament, saying that the two oceans are “bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity”. Later, in 2012, he emphasised “peace, stability, and freedom of navigation”. Thus the concept of FOIP came into vogue. While Abe initially looked at the Indo-Pacific from the prism of regional peace and prosperity, developments in the South China Sea led to the concept acquiring a greater security dimension in the last few years.
Kishida insisted that FOIP’s contemporary relevance goes beyond regional security concerns, and it will be the defining feature of the new global order. He emphasised that the world is at a major inflection point today, and argued that the Indo-Pacific conflict cannot be viewed apart from the ongoing conflict in the Eurasian region. Both are symptoms of an emerging global order in which traditional superpowers are diminishing in influence and newly emerged powers are throwing their weight around in an ominous manner. It appears as though a new Cold War has begun.
In his book, The Clash of Civilisations, published in 1996, renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington was categorical that although he was not an advocate of any such conflicts, he was setting forth a hypothesis as to “what the future may be like”. When Huntington wrote his thesis, China was still a subdued power. Hence, his focus was more on Islam. But the challenge that China poses today is much bigger than perhaps all other challenges that Huntington had predicted.
The world order, built by the Western powers in the aftermath of the Second World War, is facing its severest challenge from China today. Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” graduated into a “clash of world orders”. The Western powers insist, rightly, that China intends to undermine the existing liberal global order and replace it with a more hegemonic and less liberal order dominated by itself.
The post-War world order was primarily about “sovereign inter-state relations and a relatively open global economy, characterised by practices of inclusive, rule-bound multilateralism”. That formed the core of multilateral institutions like the UN. As the decades progressed, the Western powers added concepts like democracy, liberalism and human rights to this discourse.
China was one of the beneficiaries of this world order in the last three decades. Its entry into the WTO in 2001 was premised on the commitment that it would adhere to the core principles of this world order. However, as it grew in strength, and more importantly after Xi Jinping took over the reins in Beijing, it started to challenge that order. On the face of it, the Chinese leadership sweet-talks the world into believing that it is not undermining that world order, and instead, protecting it. In Moscow for a meeting with Putin recently, Xi Jinping claimed that China and Russia would together “resolutely defend the UN-centric international system and stand guard over the world order based on international law”.
But in reality, under Xi, China consistently violated with impunity all the core principles of that order. It disregarded sovereign national boundaries in the name of historical claims and disputed the mandates of international agencies. In the name of rejecting what it calls the US-led world order, China is implicitly trying to impose its own version inspired by its past moorings and Leninist principles.
Traditional Chinese wisdom looks at the conception of the universe as tianxia — everything under the heavens with China as the central authority and all other states as tributaries. China is Zhongguo — the Middle Kingdom — between the heavens and those tributaries.
It is this hegemonic and authoritarian order that Kishida wants the world to reject. Russia’s war with Ukraine and China’s support for Russia is seen by Kishida, like his Western counterparts, as a manifestation of that impending world order. He insisted that India is critical to dismantling the Sino-centric order, but also lamented the “considerable discrepancies” in the attitudes across various countries toward Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Some find in it a reference to India’s stand on the issue.
India is committed to rejecting the authoritarian and coercive world order that China promotes. As the world’s largest democracy, its commitment to freedom, human rights and peace also are above board. It contributed significantly to upholding multilateralism through the UN and allied institutions.
Yet, in the debate over the clash of world orders, upholding India’s principle of strategic autonomy is important to ensure that the Global South has a significant role in shaping the 21st-century world order.
The West has helped build a just and open world order in the last several decades. While defending that order, it must also remember Huntington’s words of caution that “the widespread Western belief in the universality of the West’s values and political systems is naïve, and that continued insistence on such ‘universal’ norms will only further antagonise other civilisations.”