Conclave of democracies won't work for India

The conclave of democracies is fine, but it’s not going to work for India

India has a vastly challenging regional imbalance to worry about

Prime Minster Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI Photo

Twelve days ago, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to each other by video conference and then tried to convey as optimistic a message about the relations between the two countries and about global issues as they could manage. The offices of the two presidents issued statements saying they had just had the most substantial talks between them since Biden took office in January. Both sides highlighted the personal relationship the two leaders shared and that the ‘summit’ was an attempt to ease tensions between the two countries. Yet, no one around the world, and perhaps the two presidents themselves, thought that the talks went well and the world can breathe easy.

The Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times had commented before the ‘summit’ that “The Taiwan question is the ultimate red line of China.” And the daggers were out even before the two leaders had logged off from the video call. China warned the US not to “play with fire” over the Taiwan issue; the US warned Beijing of stricter action against Chinese companies that flout US laws. It is evident that the fig leaf of agreement between the two countries on climate change during the CoP-26 in Glasgow is hardly wide enough to cover all the unpleasant and multiplying differences between the two powers.

Read more: China’s Arunachal strategy comes into full view

The US has continuously raised the issue of human rights violations in the Xinjiang province where the Uyghur population has been systematically subjected to inhuman treatment by the Chinese State machinery. Beijing has dismissed these charges as baseless allegations and dumped the American protestations with contempt. Beijing has warned the US not to “oppress Chinese companies” under the guise of protecting American industry and workers from unfair trade practices.

International politics is all about the rise and fall of nations that once were considered leaders of the world order. In about a century’s time, the ‘superpower’ crown has passed and fallen off multiple heads between the two World Wars and a Cold War and globalisation. Existing powers were challenged by emerging powers, which themselves were sometimes relegated to the background by yet another new comer on the international horizon.

While generally, scholars point out to the exertions of the US post-World War II to build the existing international order, I would think a rather more defining moment to think of in our times is the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – for the strong US decision-making in those 13 days in the face of another superpower’s nuclear threat to the Continental United States itself. Will the crisis brewing over Taiwan blow up into such a situation and test the resolve of the US to stand by an ally and a fellow democracy? If it does, how will the US fare today?

The White House has called a conclave of democracies in the second week of December. More than 100 countries have been invited. Of course, China and Russia can’t be part of it. Will the conclave signal the resolve of democracies to stand up to authoritarian states and to defeat their hegemonic designs? Will such a conclave help prevent war erupting over flashpoints?

Closer home, India has a vastly challenging regional imbalance to worry about. Geographically contiguous but highly heterogeneous in social, political and economic terms, India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood offers both serious challenges and immense opportunities to New Delhi to lead the emerging multipolar arrangement. The Indo-Pacific region requires an institutional framework and platforms for building supply chains and facilitating trade, transport and technology transfers. A large body of estranged democracies with varied agenda and lacking a unified objective cannot be of much help to New Delhi to play a leading role in the region. Ironically, while Bangladesh, which is playing a greater role in strengthening democracy and fighting terrorism, is not invited to the conclave of democracies, Pakistan, which uses terrorism as State policy and which is China’s ‘iron brother’ ally, is invited!

It will be futile to expect such a conclave to add any value to our democratic system, economic revival through supply chain systems or the regional security architecture that we seek to build.

Meanwhile, the Biden-Xi talks were overshadowed by the increasing number of sorties undertaken by Chinese fighter jets into Taiwan’s Air Defence Zone (ADZ) recently. The US has upped its military posture and put into action its Air Sea Battle Concept and the Joint Concept for Access and Manoeuvre in the Global Commons. These are in response to Chinese anti-access and area denial activities that is affecting freedom of movement in the air and sea in the East and South China Seas. It is clear that Taiwan’s status has emerged as the focal point and the bone of contention between the competing powers, fuelling questions about the need for countries, including India, to recalibrate their positions on the “One China” policy.

There is a visible rise in authoritarianism of the State and Party in China, the increasing power of Xi Jinping as its ruler for life, and growing belligerence in China’s international attitude. On the other hand, China’s economy is slowing down, its credibility is plummeting, and global acceptance of its leadership is doubtful. In such a situation, the demand for boycott of the Winter Olympics in China is gaining ground. India should support the boycott demand and signal Delhi’s displeasure to Beijing over the range of issues that bedevil our relations, from what’s happening on our Himalayan borders to China’s disrespect for international law and rules-based behaviour on the high seas.

A coordinated approach to counter China’s hegemonic objectives is necessary but given the prevarications of the global powers, Delhi needs to look for new partnerships while building up its own capabilities.

(Seshadri Chari reads between the lines on big national and international developments from his vantage point in the BJP National Executive and the RSS)

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