China’s rise has been the single most significant development in 21st century Asia. As a result, Asian geo-politics are in flux. President Xi Jinping has proved to be the watershed leader of China.
Under his leadership in the past nine years, China has embarked on some of the major strategic and economic-diplomatic projects, including military modernisation with a budget of $252 billion dollars for year 2020 alone (SIPRI, 2021). His statement-project, the Belt and Road Initiative launched early in his presidential years, has been aimed at incorporating many countries into the Chinese orbit.
However, there has been an underside to this Chinese overseas lending. As per a recent report of AIDDATA, China focuses on lending money to developing countries in place of giving financial aid; also, the rate of interest is quite high at an average of 4.2 per cent offered by Chinese lending agencies. The BRI initiative has placed a huge debt burden on host countries, including 42 countries with Chinese loan exposure of more than 10 per cent of their GDP (Malik et al, 2021).
Besides economic muscle flexing, China has been militarily and strategically increasing its area of influence in the Asian region. Recent examples of Chinese posturing are frequent entry into Taiwanese air space, disputes in the East China Sea and forceful occupation of islands in the South China Sea, disputes with Asian neighbors including India and Asean countries.
All these developments point in one direction, that is a Chinese assertion in proportion to its rise as the second-largest economy in the world, and the challenger of the United States of America. However, multilateral relations in Asia, notwithstanding China, have been undergoing substantial shifts.
A major indicator of this shift is reconstitution of the Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the USA, a grouping which has been touted to forge an alliance of like-minded democracies to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region and a platform to cooperate on common issues like Covid vaccine diplomacy, Artificial Intelligence and helping other countries in the region.
However, the discussion in academic circles points towards the rise of China as the single most urgent reason for reformulation of Quad. One indicator is the marked shift in the attitude of Australia. It was not willing to join Quad in 2007 at the behest of China. However, in recent times Australia has decidedly moved towards Quad, by formally joining the group as well as the annual military exercise hosted by India, the Malabar Exercise.
Furthermore, inception of AUKUS among the three anglophone countries, Australia, United States of America and United Kingdom, to provide nuclear powered submarines to Australia underlines the simmering fault lines in the eastern Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean. Recently on the other flank of the Indian Ocean, another Quad has been announced, known as ‘Middle Eastern Quad’ comprising India, Israel, the UAE and the USA.
The professed aim of the Middle Eastern Quad is peaceful use of advanced technology for welfare of the countries in the region. However, former Indian Ambassador Navdeep Puri argues that this Quad is also aimed at curbing Chinese influence in the middle eastern region. There are two points that must be acknowledged. Firstly, these ‘Quads’ have been constituted in the wake of the Chinese rise.
In this context, proactivity of USA underlines its need to incorporate allies and neutral countries into its web of friends to have a viable system in place to deal with increasing Chinese influence. Secondly, an important aspect of the emerging groupings is centrality of India in the emerging power matrix of Asia. Especially since the Galwan Valley incident of 2020, India has shed its wariness to actively pursue the ‘Quad’ politics.
For other countries, India has been an important lynchpin in Asia. With a billion plus population, vast territories, behemoth armed forces and one of the largest economies in the world, India is a force to reckon with, and by far the only country to come close to China in terms of men and material in the Asian continent. Taken together, all these developments put India in a central position in the Asia power matrix.
These developments also point towards plurilateral groupings becoming the new normal in international relations. Though the aim to offer a viable alternative to Chinese highhandedness is clearly written on the wall, the deeper aim seems to be to uphold the democratic and liberal order, in the face of Chinese unilateral actions which have threatened peace in Asia. There have been a number of incidents in the recent past to underline this trend, which began with disputes with the Asean countries and Japan in particular.
However, over a period of time this trend is visible with almost all of China’s neighbors except, probably, Russia and North Korea. Such arbitrary acts and territory grab has been a rare occurrence since the 20th century, and since it involves a country like China, it has become a cause of concern for all countries in Asian region. Thus, the Asian Quad along with the Middle Eastern Quad, for all purposes and intents, aims to put countries on their guard against Chinese arm-twisting.
In conclusion, one aspect to be acknowledged is the fact that the United States no longer seems to be interested in being the lone ranger, and it is seeking the camaraderie of like-minded countries to create a web of networks, and in this web, India holds a central position.
As a result, in the coming decades, Asian politics is bound to see a flurry of activity, with the rise of China and the reconfiguration of international relations in Asia and elsewhere. India is going to be a critical player in the great power
games of Asia.
(The writer is a research scholar, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)