In a widely noted and strongly criticised speech late last week, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, laid out two definitive propositions on China. One is that nearly five decades of US engagement with China have arrived at a dead-end. In the other, Pompeo recognised that the US can’t address the China challenge alone and called for collective action. He mused on whether “it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.”
Pompeo, however, insisted that tackling China is very unlike the “containment of Soviet Union”. It is “about a complex new challenge that we’ve never faced before. The USSR was closed off from the free world. Communist China is already within our borders”.
Both propositions are of consequence to India. For, they signal the breakdown of the relationship between the world’s two most important powers that has shaped Asian geopolitics and the global economy in the last five decades. They also reflect on the need to create new frameworks to cope with emerging global challenges. That one of those powers, China, is a large neighbour of India and the other, America, is India’s most important partner makes the new context rather different from the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
Pompeo has drawn attention to the unique nature of contemporary Chinese political structure — the so-called party-state. In China, the Chinese Communist Party dominates the state organs, including the army. Hence Pompeo’s references to the “CCP regime” in China.
He also referred to China’s President Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of the CCP. Whether this new convention outlasts the Trump Administration or not, it reflects Washington’s deepening resentment against China.
While Pompeo’s critics argue that an all-out assault on the Beijing leadership will only rally the nation behind the CCP, the Trump Administration’s China hands believe it is important to signal that Washington has nothing against the Chinese people and that its contestation is with the CCP and its policies. To reinforce the point, Pompeo welcomed two well-known Chinese democracy activists in the audience — Wang Dan, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy student protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in1989, and Wei Jingsheng who had called for democratic reform a decade earlier in 1978. Part of the setting was the venue of the speech — the California home where President Richard Nixon was raised and that now hosts his papers.
It was Nixon who ended the US boycott of communist China by traveling to Beijing in 1972. Nixon and his successors, said Pompeo, “presumed that as China became more prosperous, it would open up, it would become freer at home, and indeed present less of a threat abroad, it’d be friendlier.” Pompeo’s message last week was that the “old paradigm of blind engagement with China” has failed, because Beijing has taken advantage of America’s economic and political openness.
Given the intense political polarisation in the US, Pompeo’s remarks met with inevitable rebuke. Many saw it as part of a bid to boost Trump’s faltering presidential campaign by bashing China. Others saw it as an attempt by “China hawks” in the Administration to make irreversible changes in Washington’s policy towards Beijing. Many in Delhi, as in other capitals, would like to know if the current direction of China policy will endure if Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November.
To be sure, China occupies significant space in the Democratic Party’s draft platform for the elections to be finalised this week. It tries to differentiate Biden from Trump’s China policy while also sounding tough on Beijing’s unfair trade practices and human rights abuse. While fending off Trump’s charge that he is “weak on China”, Biden is under pressure from the party’s liberals to stay away from the “trap of a new Cold War with China”.
Although the term, “Indo-Pacific”, was invented by the Democrats, the party platform sticks to the idea of “Asia-Pacific”. But it also hails the “Pacific Century” and promises to “invest in our strategic partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity, and a growing Asia-Pacific power.”
While India must pay close attention to the unfolding China debate in the US, it must also note the structural changes in American engagement with China over the last two decades. America’s political and institutional sentiment in favour of rearranging the bilateral economic relationship with China, resisting Beijing’s expansionism, and countering its influence in operations at home has gained steady ground. So has the idea of working with like-minded countries, especially large democracies, to balance China. Delhi will certainly demur at Pompeo calling the group an “alliance”. It would rather have it described as a “coalition of democracies”.
Over the last many years, India has become comfortable with the idea of a political partnership with the world’s leading democracies. The NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee joined the Clinton Administration’s initiative to build a global “Community of Democracies”. The UPA government supported George W Bush’s democracy promotion fund at the United Nations. An Asian quadrilateral of democracies was very much part of the conversation between Delhi and Washington during the Obama years.
Delhi has revived the security dialogue among the Quad (including Canberra, Tokyo and Washington). It is also actively engaged with Washington on the “Quad Plus” dialogue — at official and ministerial levels — to address the challenges posed by the coronavirus by drawing other countries like New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam (as the current chair of ASEAN).
Delhi has also welcomed President Trump’s initiative to convene an expanded gathering of the G-7 leaders in Washington later this year. Australia, South Korea and India are expected to join the meeting. Some are calling it the Group of Ten Democracies.
While many Democrats have criticised Trump’s G-10 proposal, Biden expressed interest in convening a global democracy summit in the first few months of his presidential tenure. The idea of democracies working together has an enduring appeal for the US.
That India figures in this American vision is relatively new. So is Delhi’s readiness to reciprocate. Constructing a global coalition of democracies will take much work and quite some time. But engaging with that initiative, amidst the rise and assertion of China, should open a whole range of new possibilities for Indian foreign and security policies.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 28, 2020 under the title ‘India & Democracy’s Ten’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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