- By Daniel TwiningDaniel Twining is Counselor and Asia Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Democracy has not featured as a theme of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. He took office promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, not to remake those countries in America’s image. The Arab Spring turned into a nightmare, leading Obama to back strongmen in Cairo and Riyadh. Outreach to autocrats in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Havana has sometimes taken precedence over ties with U.S. allies. But in India last month, Obama changed tack, recognizing that a convergence of interests and values makes the world’s largest democracy pivotal to U.S. strategic objectives.
In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who predicted as early as 2006 that Japan’s relations with India could surpass those with America to become “the most important bilateral relationship in the world” on the basis of shared interests and values. For his part, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is treating Washington and Tokyo as India’s most valuable external partners.
Both Japan and India lately have also prioritized ties with democratic neighbors in South and Southeast Asia. Abe and Modi are pursuing the sort of values-based diplomacy that Obama previously scorned. But all three now seem to recognize that unsentimental national interest and shared political ideals require closer strategic collaboration to shape the Pacific century.
Coming from very different backgrounds, Obama, Abe, and Modi are converging around the idea of an Indo-Pacific alliance to manage China’s rise and sustain the peace of Asia. This is a strong challenge to Beijing’s belief in its own preeminence — and its attempts to forge a “new type of major power relations” with the United States over the heads of its allies.
In response to China’s pressure on the Asian balance of power, Japan, India, and the United States launched an official trilateral strategic grouping in late 2011. They have now agreed to deepen trilateral strategic cooperation, particularly in maritime security. The three leaders also are discussing the reconstitution of a Quadrilateral Strategic Partnership alongside Australia — whose current prime minister, Tony Abbott, has supported the idea ever since his predecessor, Kevin Rudd, killed the proto-alliance in a sop to China.
When the “Quad” held some of Asia’s largest military exercises to date in 2007, Beijing protested vehemently, formally denouncing all four capitals and condemning their plans to forge what it called an “Asian NATO.” Although India was the weakest link in that grouping, which otherwise comprised America and its core Asian allies, it was Chinese pressure on Australia as well as a lack of American fortitude that proved its undoing.
However, it did not go unnoticed that Chinese assertiveness against its neighbors and America grew in the wake of the quadrilateral powers’ retreat — rather than appeasing Beijing, the Quad’s retreat seemed to embolden it. The Quad’s resurrection in 2015 is a reflection of how badly Beijing has played its hand in recent years, alarming not only U.S.-allied nations but also non-aligned states like India, and nudging them closer to the U.S.-led Asia-Pacific security network.
This is quite a turnaround for India, which historically stood apart from the U.S. alliance system, and was a bystander during Asia’s economic miracle because of its policies of autarkic isolation. But India is now coming back to the international stage, and its strategic aspirations are expanding alongside its economy.
In 2014, India became the world’s third-largest economy measured by purchasing power parity. New figures reveal its economy to be growing faster than China’s. India’s recent progress, and China’s economic slowdown in the context of a political crackdown, challenge the assumption that Beijing owns the future. Countries across Asia and in the West welcome India’s rise even as they fear China’s growing power. India’s democracy leads other nations to view its emergence as an opportunity, even as they hedge against China’s resurgence. To Washington, Tokyo, and Brussels, India looks like a partner, whereas China looks like a strategic competitor.
Hence the decisions by Obama and Abe to invest in India’s success through closer economic, diplomatic, technological, and defense collaboration. In New Delhi last month, the U.S. president agreed to deepen a “global partnership” that, in Modi’s words, would be instrumental in “shaping the character of this century.” This echoed the Abe-Modi summit declaration of September 2014, in which the two Asian leaders pledged closer defense and economic collaboration “to create a relationship that will shape the course of their countries and the character of this region and the world in this century.”
Implicit in these assertions is that the Indo-Pacific democracies will not submit to a world order dictated by China. Last September, following talks with Abe in which each leader aired his concerns about Chinese assertiveness, Modi publicly condemned Chinese revisionism. In Tokyo, he pointed out that “everywhere around us, we see an 18th-century expansionist mind-set: encroaching in other countries, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.” The United States has taken a similarly firm line against Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South and East China seas. Chinese assertiveness is uniting the Indo-Pacific’s most powerful states against it, reinforcing their interest in working more closely to uphold international rules and norms.
Obama and Modi, like Abe and Modi, sketched out a vision of an Asian balance of power featuring close cooperation among the region’s major democracies. Looking ahead, India could become as important to U.S. security interests in Asia as Japan is today; equally, Tokyo could construct a partnership with New Delhi as intimate as its American alliance to manage threats to regional peace. Although China’s economic and military power is growing, the combined weight of these three democracies is, and will remain, greater.
For both American and Japanese officials, India is the only Asian country with the weight and scale to offset China’s power and influence. Its navy patrols the sea lanes that are the world’s energy superhighway, connecting the oil and gas resources of the Persian Gulf to the big economies of East Asia. India is a historic victim of terrorism and shares a compelling interest with the U.S. and Japan in containing violent extremism. As its economy grows, India increasingly will have the resources to act as a provider of security from East Africa to the Western Pacific — and in the Middle East, where seven million Indians are resident. But to rise, India needs all the capital, technology, and defense hardware it can get; the United States and Japan are among the most likely external providers of these resources, and have the most compelling stake in India’s success.
In New Delhi, Modi and Obama committed to closer cooperation in defense, energy, counter-terrorism, and trade. But they also pledged to “promote the shared values that have made our countries great” and underlined their common commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his earlier summit with Abe, Modi likewise argued that Japan and India derived their strength as nations from their common political tradition. “India is a democratic country. Similarly, Japan is also a democratic country. If India and Japan together think about peace and positive things, we can make the world realize the strength of a democracy.” Obama’s passage to India has reminded him of what Abe and Modi have already surmised: that democracy can be a strategic asset in foreign policy after all.
A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
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