Finding the balance between India and China in the Asian ‘concert of powers’

The East Asia Summit could be a useful start on the road towards a ‘concert of powers’. EPA/Christophe Archambault/Pool

AUSTRALIA IN ASIA: In the eighth part of our series, Sandy Gordon of the Australian National University looks at the possibility of an agreement which would draw the key Asian states together.

The CIA says India is the “swing state” in Asia. It’s a rising power, but we don’t know yet how it will choose to lock into the existing security structures. The way India finally jumps will have important implications for regional security, especially considering the rise of China and the apparent relative decline of the US.

Although not as important in Asian security structures, Australia faces its own dilemma: a stark choice between preserving its economic imperative not to alienate China and maintaining its long-term strategic reliance on the United States.

Concert of powers

Leading Australian analysts such as Hugh White and Coral Bell have advocated for China and India to be inducted into a “concert of powers” that would also include the United States, Japan and Russia.

They argue that such a concert, which involves an informal agreement between members not to challenge unduly the status quo, and to commit to working together to solve regional problems, would hopefully mitigate the concerns that might otherwise be associated with China’s rise.

Within this structure, only the biggest and most powerful players would have a seat at the table and individual members would be kept in line by the possibility that the others would set up a power balance against them.

Crucially, both Bell and White argue that for China to be inducted into such a concert, the US would need to make “strategic space” for China by according it an equal voice in Asian affairs.

The alternative might be a new “cold war”, with a catastrophic impact on regional trade and prosperity, or even the possibility of armed conflict.

But realists question conceding this space, arguing that would be a sign of weakness likely to be exploited by Beijing.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said India and China were “friends not rivals” when he met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh late last year. AFP/Files/Raveendran

A balancing act

The sensitivity around power balancing was illustrated by the case of the abortive “Quadrilateral Initiative” of 2007 when US Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, proposed adding India into the existing “trilateral” dialogue between the US, Australia and Japan.

Beijing objected strongly to the individual countries concerned and accused them 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 visit to Beijing earlier this year Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirmed that Australia had no desire to contain China.

So India’s potential role is highly sensitive to Beijing. But it’s clear that the US, in proposing the nuclear agreement with India in 2005, offering sensitive military technologies (including through Israel’s proxy) and seeking an extensive military relationship, is attempting to put China off its stride by assisting the rise of another large Asian power. And a power with democracy and abiding territorial differences with China at that.

US President Barack Obama visited India last year to strengthen ties with the country. EPA

A real alliance?

For a concert to work, no two or more countries within it can draw too closely together.

Hugh White argues that India is too large ever to be another power’s ally and that the US-India relationship will, as a result, be to an extent constrained.

He is correct in so far as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would like India to retain its strategic independence and manoeuvrability.

But several factors should also be kept in mind.

Although India might not ever become formally allied to the US, it may draw strategically closer.

The thinking within the Indian MEA on China is not necessarily universally shared in senior policy circles. Some in New Delhi 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.

These people think the only way to deal with China is to stand up to it.

Economic power

Although India is a rising power, with growth rates typically in the range of 7-9%, China is more than twice as large economically and spends almost three times more on defence. And it is still growing more rapidly.

If China continues to outgrow India, the incentives for New Delhi to draw closer to the US would be increased.

These, and other possible complications in the US-Japan-China triangular relationship, mean that any concert of powers could be unstable, and would need to be buttressed by other measures. Although the concert is worth trying, it should not be adopted as the sole strategy for dealing with China’s rise.

What can be done?

Coordinated military preparedness would also be useful, but as illustrated by the “quadrilateral” initiative, would need to be handled with great sensitivity. It showed that Beijing is very sensitive to attempts at coordination beyond the current bilateral “hubs and spokes” model already used by the US in its Asian engagement.

But that doesn’t mean more can’t be done. The US could initially be used as a “strategic go-between” between the other players, thus achieving an element of multilateral coordination without appearing formally to be doing so.

Nor should multilateral regional security and economic arrangements which include China be abandoned. Although they may never provide security in themselves, they are a means of supporting the emergence of a concert of powers “in the wings”.

And here, it seems, the East Asia Summit, which includes all the major players but is simply, at this stage, a summit of leaders, appeals particularly to India.

Australia does a have a role to play here, and could give the East Asia Summit stronger support as the key regional institution.

A fuller version of this article can be found on the South Asia Masala blog.

This is the sixth part of our Australia in Asia series. To read the other parts, follow these links:

- Part one: Is Australia ready for the “Asian Century”

- Part two: Australia in Asia: How to keep the peace and ensure regional security

- Part three: The lucky, lazy country shows how not to win friends in Asia

- Part four: How Australian aid in Asia can benefit those at home

- Part five: Learning to live in the Asian Century

- Part six: Colombo plan: An initiative that brought Australia and Asia together

- Part seven: Why Australia’s trade relationship with China remains at ground level

- Part eight: Finding the balance between India and China in the Asian ‘concert of powers’