Can a Japan-India-Russia-China-South Korea coalition cement the Indo-Pacific?

Examining new paradigms and alternate formulations often leads to game-changing events,  writes Lt Gen PR Kumar (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) Sep 28, 2021
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Historically, before Westphalia, the Sinic and Indian civilizations coexisted peacefully for many millennia. The Himalayas were surely not the only raison d'etre for it; as Hannibal (crossing the Alps in Europe) and other raiders into India have proved, by coming through the high Himalayan passes or using the maritime route. If there were major cultural, religious, ethnic, demographic, or any other fault lines, periodic forays would have been attempted by either civilization (if I am not wrong even that was never truly contemplated).

Some would say that both ignored or were even oblivious of each other, except for occasional travelers who extolled each other’s virtues and competencies. These were two great civilizations that have been contiguous but never clashed. There is a major geopolitical lesson here, for the current turbulent world; the ever-growing chasm between China and India can revert to normal since that was the status for thousand plus years,

The Chinese people were never antagonistic towards India which their scholars and academics repeatedly point out. Things did change post-independence between the two countries, and unemotional and critical analysis of events including the 1962 debacle in the Sino-Indian war, topographical chronicles of Aksai Chin (Chinese including the Taiwanese always viewed Tibet as part of China), indicate that both countries were irrevocably drawn into geopolitical maneuverings, some unintentionally, corroded further by ideological differences and an unsettled boundary issue.

However, geo-politics keeps changing course, as tellingly illustrated by the AUKUS agreement – a coalition among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States - which conclusively consolidated the geo-political and strategic pivotal role of the Indo-Pacific.

Global and regional security zones
     
International Relations theory states that territorial pre-eminence (military) is more potent than non-territorial domains in the security calculus. Regional security zones are fairly independent of globalization and global political trends due to their strong emotional, geographical and historical links.

The Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT) enables one to understand new alliances/structures and to evaluate the relative balance of power, and mutual relationship within it between regionalizing and globalizing trends. The capabilities of global powers (the USA and China) enable them to transcend distance, while lesser powers are satisfied with the subsystem level interplay whose main security environment is their local region. The central idea in RSCT is that, since most threats travel more easily over short distances than over long ones, security interdependence is normally patterned into regionally based clusters/security complexes.

Globalization and technology logically should be a path to the steady erosion and eventual elimination of these regional security zones (and in more radical liberal views, even the state). The hope was that economic liberalization (penetration by globalization) will eventually generate political liberalization and a lowering of threat perceptions especially amongst non-liberal states like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea. Only the US and now China (Russia’s decline has reduced its power projection potential) play a truly global game, treat each other as a special class, and project their power into far-flung regions.

But for the great majority of states, the main game of security is defined by their near neighbors. China dominates the regional security zones of Asia (East, South-East, and South Asia). India unfortunately is caught in the classical power play of global and regional security dynamics as it is not yet a great power.

Interestingly, these very same dynamics could both prevent or provide opportunities for India to emerge as a great balancing power. India needs to play its cards very carefully and deliberately (no zero-sum games), continue to relentlessly build all verticals of its comprehensive national strength slowly and surely, and create conditions - not just hope - for dominating the security environment regionally in South Asia and beyond.

Nuanced ties with China 

A more nuanced China-India relationship is within the realms of pragmatism as is being seen in the economic and trade statistics. Despite relations hitting their nadir, bilateral trade has grown by a whopping 62 percent in the last two years.

It certainly is worth pondering that visionary statesmanship can upend the current course of confrontation to cooperation and win-win import, rather than the cold war approach adopted by the US. The bottom line for the US is to perpetuate its ‘largest power’ status, if not that of a unipolar behemoth. To the China watchers who are predicting tough times for the country in its inexorable march towards Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ of being a superpower (of late there is talk of shattered dreams forever: which could unleash a more belligerent and illiberal China), one would counsel restraint and caution as China is not done yet.

China is not USSR and is completely integrated into the economic, diplomatic, and geopolitical framework of the globe, with many supporters and well-wishers, both genuine (including nations who prefer their ideology and governance models like autocrats, dictators and military regimes), and some compelled due to multi-domain connections which cannot be shaken free.

China and especially its President Xi Jinping are aware of their vulnerabilities and fault lines, and keen watchers are constantly observing course corrections in the ‘Chinese Way’ (cutting corporate giant monopolies to size, revamping CCP, anti-corruption drives, resorting to ‘common prosperity’ priorities).

However, the complex cross effects of CCP primacy, Xi Jinping’s ambition, nationalistic fervor, slowing economy, aspirations of the people, social and economic asymmetry, undeniable 'almost there' aggressiveness, these outcomes will keep the world second-guessing, and it is going to be truly exciting to prophesize as also watch.

India is in the center of it all. China's inevitable rise does not appear so certain after all. Many think tanks and media outlets like Nikkei Asia, Bloomberg and South China Morning Post have opined that China’s rise has peaked; and adding to it is the irreversible demographic headwinds and population decline and aging which is the fastest in the world with strategically adverse fallouts, like lower workforce and output, fewer consumers, more dependents with social, political, economic fallouts. China is aging fast, and it is impacting her ‘Dream’.

One must take a leaf out of China's pragmatism and flexibility as regards its economic approach seen against its adherence to communism. It is time to reassess the confrontation vis a vis cooperation with strength approach. Management of Covid-19 and vaccine diplomacy, adept, mature and confident handling of the critical security situation on the borders against a belligerent China and temporary leadership of the UN Security Council, Afghanistan crisis with fallouts in entire Asia and Indo-Pacific region and the perceived neutral and positive role of India bolster India’s candidature for being the ‘Geopolitical Balancer of the World’.

Add to that India’s rising economic and military power status, democratic traditions, following non-intervention practices, and these only reinforce the point that a risen India should be seen as an equal or near equal by China, not worth the risk to confront, let alone conflict.

A possible new coalition

The world is full of multilateral groupings (economic, political, security, military) like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and QUAD, each serving its strategic purpose. 

Can an economic and trading coalition/grouping of Japan, India, Russia, China and South Korea (JIRCK) be formed which will cement the Indo-Pacific region as the global pivot?

Russia is an important member bridging Asia with Europe. Imagine the economic, demographic (including population), technological, political, market potential, and even military power of this grouping. The economic potential alone of JIRCK will dwarf anything the others can come up with.

Just imagine, India offering sea access into IOR to China; a secure CIEC (China India Economic Corridor) which will counter the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and reduce adverse impacts of Pakistan and Myanmar; energy pipelines flowing into India from China and Russia; streamlined trade routes within South Asia and ASEAN; a secure Indo-Pacific by slowly resolving confrontationist and conflicting issues between nations due to this multilateral grouping, leading to reduced defense spending by nations.

This will lead to stability and hence prosperity in the entire region. Statesmanship of a high order from each nation’s leadership can make this a reality, as its potential is truly phenomenal. The world will benefit with even Africa and Latin America providing raw materials to the JIRCK Five. Progressively, it can include a strategic and security (even military is in the realms of possibility) understanding/agreement. 

Other groupings like QUAD – comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India – AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US) and the European Union (EU) would like to be associated too. France, Germany and UK are prime examples of realpolitik, where implacable foes became allies. Russia and China resolved their boundary issues. Hence, JIRCK appears pragmatic given its payoffs and for providing a win-win to all. One hastens to add that the bonding can progress in a calibrated manner.

Is China ready for a JIRCK respecting the equality of partners and without the ambition to dominate? Can China and India trust each other, as can the others? Examining new paradigms and alternate formulations often leads to game-changing events. Can JIRCK be a feasible, workable and realistic proposition? It would certainly require statesmanship and vision to implement. 

It is worth mentioning that even the US and China are engaged 24X7 in strategic balancing to retain/expand/ create strategic space to achieve their national aims and ambitions, as no nation can go it alone and the era of multilateralism has truly arrived. India-China relations are not so intractable that it prohibits rapprochement. In fact, realpolitik dictates it, providing a strategic win-win opportunity.

It is a truism that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. India-China relations cannot be a zero-sum game; neither can it be hostage to the US-China adversarial plays. India as a regional player showcasing its potential as a global balancer, must think differently and seriously examine and create its narrative towards attainments of its aspirations.

(The writer, a retired Indian Army officer, writes and talks on international and regional geopolitical, security and strategic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at prkumarsecurity.wordpress.com and kumapa60@gmail.com.)

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