Can India and China coexist in an Asian concert of powers?

Author: Sandy Gordon, ANU

The CIA considers India a ‘swing state’ in Asia, meaning that the way in which it chooses to lock into existing security structures will have important implications for the Asian security order.

India’s emergence is especially important in the context of China’s rise and the apparent relative decline of the US. This confronts Australia with stark choices between its economic imperative not to alienate China and its long-standing strategic reliance on the US. Leading Australian analysts such as Hugh White and Coral Bell advocate that China and India be inducted into a ‘concert of powers’ along with the US, Japan and Russia. They hope to mitigate the perturbations that might otherwise be associated with China’s rise.

A concert of powers consists of an informal agreement among its members not to challenge the status quo, but to consult assiduously and informally to solve regional problems. Only the biggest and most powerful players have a seat at the table, and the possibility that others would set up a power balance against them if they were to challenge the status quo keeps individual members in line. Members also need to retain an approximate equidistance from each other: signs of a strategic relationship between any two or more could quickly degenerate into containment and render the concert ineffective.

According to advocates of a concert arrangement in Asia, Australia has an interest in helping convince Washington to accord China sufficient ‘strategic space’ so it could be inducted into a concert. But those of a realist disposition have questioned this approach, arguing that Beijing would exploit any sign of weakness toward China.

The concert of powers is a somewhat nebulous idea, delicately poised between incipient power balancing and containment. The abortive ‘quadrilateral’ case in 2007 illustrated the sensitivity around power balancing. In that year, then-US Vice President Cheney and then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe proposed inducting India into the current ‘trilateral’ dialogue process between the US, Australia and Japan, to form what was called a ‘quadrilateral’. Beijing objected strongly and accused these countries of attempting to set up a NATO-style effort to ‘contain’ China.

Both Australia and India subsequently backed away from the idea, and in her 2011 visit to Beijing, Prime Minister Gillard confirmed that Australia had no desire to ‘contain’ China. India’s potential role is thus highly sensitive to Beijing. But in proposing the nuclear agreement with India in 2005, offering sensitive military technologies and seeking an extensive military relationship, the US is attempting to put China off its stride by assisting the rise of another large Asian power — one with democratic norms and abiding territorial differences with China. Such activities are not consonant with China’s induction into a concert and would need to be modified.

But White argues that the prospect of a deepening US–India relationship would be unlikely to jeopardise the formation of a concert. According to him, India is too large ever to be another power’s ‘ally’. He is correct insofar as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would like India to retain its strategic independence and manoeuvrability.

Even so, several factors should be kept in mind.

First, White is correct to say that a formal alliance between India and the US is unlikely, but this does not mean that the two might not continue to draw strategically closer. Second, thinking in the MEA on China is not universally shared in senior policy circles in New Delhi. Some elements are increasingly wary of China, especially of its persistent claim over the Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh and of its growing footprint in the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. There is a growing feeling in some quarters that the only way to deal with China is to stand up to it. And third, although India is a rising power, China is still growing more rapidly and is continuing to draw away from India in capability. If this persists, the incentive for New Delhi to draw closer to the US would increase.

These factors, and potential complications in the US–Japan–China relationship, mean that a future concert of powers could be unstable. Prudent policy would therefore dictate that attempts to develop a concert by providing strategic space to China should be supported by other measures. Any military effort to coordinate a response to China that goes beyond the current bilateral system between the US and its key allies would, however, need to be handled more sensitively than was the 2007 attempt to construct a ‘quadrilateral’. But that does not mean more cannot be done to achieve a better coordinated military outcome, perhaps initially by using the US as a ‘strategic go-between’ — though stopping short of any formal new multilateral security arrangement targeting China.

Nor should we abandon attempts to establish multilateral security structures in Asia, which might be a useful means of supporting the emergence of a concert of powers ‘in the wings’. And here, the East Asia Summit (EAS), which includes all the major players but which is simply at this stage a summit of leaders without any on-going capacities, may appeal particularly to India. With Rudd’s suggested new security body effectively dead in the water, perhaps the EAS could receive stronger Australian support as the key regional institution.

Sandy Gordon is a Visiting Fellow at RegNet, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

A version of this article was first published here on the South Asia Masala blog.