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Indo-Pacific Charter gains support in India, US, Australia and Japan

NewsIndo-Pacific Charter gains support in India, US, Australia and Japan

The four countries that form the Quadrilateral Alliance would be the ideal initiators of such a move, just as the UK and the US were in the case of the Atlantic Charter.


New Delhi: On 14 August 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, which laid the foundations for Atlanticist primacy for over six decades and led to the tectonic shifts in global geopolitics that saw the United Nations get formed out of the Atlantic Charter-inspired Declaration of the United Nations on 1 January 1942 that was signed by KMT China, the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States. On 15 August 1947, just six years after the Atlantic Charter was made public and despite Winston Churchill’s refusal to give colonised nations the rights of European countries overrun by Germany since 1938, India became free, followed by a procession of other countries in Asia and Africa. The Atlantic Charter changed the world, but from 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to Beijing by London, it became clear that the Atlanticist world was giving way to the Indo-Pacific. The economies of Asia now outstrip those of Europe, while across the Pacific Ocean (or what this writer has long called the eastern segment of the Indo-Pacific, with the Indian Ocean forming the western segment), a new superpower arose that in brief years gave evidence of eclipsing the US as the primary economy and therefore power on the globe.

The rise of China got accelerated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, and by 2012, when Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping took over, most observers were not asking whether but when China would overtake the US. Enter Trump, Abe and Modi, with their own plans for a 21st century world order. In 2020, except for romantics lost in their perpetual fantasyland, it is clear that as when there was a Soviet bloc and a US-led bloc (ambitiously if inaccurate in view of some of its members, named the “Free World”), there is now a Sino-Russian bloc and an alternative bloc led by the US. Whether it be logistics matrices, supply chains or technology regimes, the two sides are now increasingly competing with each other rather than working in a cooperative and complementary fashion. India is not in the China bloc, nor in the US bloc, in that its most important defence supplier is Russia, and with the commissioning of the S-400 will remain so for at least a generation.

The S-400 is inter alia a superb intelligence-gathering mechanism of any object flying over the skies of the territories where it is located. Which is why the US shut down its proposed F-35 manufacturing base from Turkey, a country where the Russian-built system has become operational. Given the vulnerability to interception of performance parameters by a system which is reportedly soon getting replaced in Russia and perhaps in China by the S-500, it would be foolhardy of NATO to permit its high-performance assets to now even overfly its member, Turkey, now that the S-400 system has begun functioning with its complement of Russian crew and maintenance workers.

While the Lutyens Zone is still enamoured of “non-alignment” (which now, as in the past, means an alignment between Moscow and Delhi), more and more voices—including from within policymaking levels—are calling for a reset. Prime Minister Modi may need to balance the world view from within the Lutyens Zone with those of others concerned about India’s long-term security. The latter are looking towards an alternative strategy that would ensure (in Modi’s words), equal access to all in the waters of the new geopolitical pivot of the globe, the hinterland of the Indo-Pacific. Just as the security structures that came out of the Atlantic Alliance prevented another war in Europe, this time caused by the USSR seeking to expand the boundaries of the Warsaw Pact the way successive US administrations did with NATO during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period. President Vladimir V. Putin has halted further expansion by making it clear through action (as in the Ukraine, Georgia and Crimea) that any such outcome would result in an unbearable cost to the Atlanticist alliance. Had he been in charge during the Soviet 1979-88 Afghanistan occupation, it is certain that the theatre of conflict would have widened to include Pakistan, thereby shutting off the conduit which kept the fighters alive who bled the Soviet armies to defeat within a decade. In the Indo-Pacific world, which has replaced the Atlanticist world, what is essential for prosperity is the avoidance of a war between the US and China. Whether it be in the Korean Peninsula, the borders of India or Vietnam or the China seas, military conflict can only be ruled out if the balance of forces is such as to deter recourse to such kinetic methods.

An Indo-Pacific Charter, a concept first discussed on NewsX some months ago, is rapidly emerging as an option that is picking up adherents steadily, especially in the US, India, Australia and Japan. In all four countries, key policymakers are close to (or are already) informally examining the possibility of working on the proposed Indo-Pacific Charter. The four countries that form the Quadrilateral Alliance (Australia, Japan, the US and India) would be the ideal initiators of such a move, just as the UK and the US were in the case of the Atlantic Charter. The purpose of the Charter would not be war but its prevention, and this through the participation of countries in Asia determined to safeguard their territorial sovereignty from any effort at nibbling away at their boundaries. While the four Quad members are democracies, the proposed Charter could in time also include countries such as Vietnam, and Oman, besides South Africa, the only essentiality being that they should form part of the Indo-Pacific littoral and not be outside these waters. India could emerge as a key platform for the manufacture of advanced defence systems, such as the F-35 or nuclear-powered submarines, besides helping to perfect cyber and space defensive capabilities. This would hinge on a holistic policy of defence and security rather than the silo-based basket of sometimes conflicting policies that has long been a staple—including in procurement—in India. The emphasis will need to be on the creation of capacities to ensure “active defence” in a multi-front conflict, i.e. the ability to launch a punishing offensive against all aggressors. Only such a capability will deter future efforts at taking away bits and pieces of national territory.

The Lutyens Zone is a “tar baby”, which once embraced paralyses through its gluey hold on individuals and institutions. It is also a policy quicksand, where those who step into it find themselves drowning in a morass of objections one after the other to any innovative idea that offers genuine promise of the massive changes that this country has been hungering for since 1947. A visitor to China in the 1980s who returns to that country now would be astonished at the transformation, while the same is not usually said of India despite the wealth of brainpower and other human resources it has been blessed with. Over the coming months, it will become clear whether the country has escaped the long-term stasis that Ides of August planners are anticipating, or whether Prime Minster Modi will show his mettle get free of the policy quicksands of an official machinery obsessed not with growth and welfare but with control, and the more control the better. Even when that stifles and retards growth impulses. Effective security is significant in promoting a climate for growth, and an Indo-Pacific Charter could be an effective means towards ensuring that. Those who expect PM Modi to win three consecutive Lok Sabha elections in the manner he prevailed in three state Assembly polls are confident that massive and beneficial changes are on the horizon. The Indo-Pacific Charter is already engaging the attention of policymakers in Washington and Tokyo and possibly in Canberra as well, although such an innovative idea would be toxic to the Lutyens Zone, which is as good a reason as any why it should be actualised by dynamic diplomacy on the part of PM Modi.

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