July 2024

A region in flux

At its latest round-table discussion, The Democracy Forum explored the Indo-Pacific and how norms such as democracy and nuclear capability are being challenged or upheld in the region and beyond

In order to uncover the geo-political tensions and key hegemonic issues threatening the prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific region, The Democracy Forum hosted a round-table discussion titled ‘’New norms? The role of the Indo-Pacific in a changing world’.

TDF President Lord Bruce, in his introductory comments, alluded to the notion that the Indo-Pacific could become a distinctive region defined by common goals and shared interests – ‘seas of freedom and prosperity’. This was an idea first floated by former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, in a 2007 speech given to the Indian Parliament, although Lord Bruce felt it was unclear whether the ensuing 17 years have brought us any closer to fulfilling these words.

As competing views of regional security now seem to dominate the geo-political landscape, Lord Bruce highlighted the recent the Shangri-la Dialogue security forum in Singapore, at which the Philippines’ President Marcos, in his keynote speech, reminded the audience that ‘for the past 79 years (a) rules-based order has allowed our region to flourish’. But Marcos also warned that ‘today these norms are under significant stress’ and ‘recent patterns of aggression and militarisation… threaten our lands of promise with an uncertain future’, reflecting his concern over China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. As US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin underscore how nations ‘with similar values and a common vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific are working together to achieve that vision’ and US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, warns of a ‘battle between two visions’, where Indo-Pacific countries are ‘betting long on America…  as China is in endless conflict and confrontation with multiple countries all at once’, it is becoming increasingly apparent, concluded Lord Bruce, that this state of affairs will define the new norm.

tdf webinar june
IN DISCUSSION: Panellists at TDF’s studio debate

Viewing the central topic from a security angle, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Professor of International Relations at King’s College London, brought together both traditional and economic security, focusing on the ‘democracy versus dictatorship’ competition within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, and what such competition means for regional and global security. From a security perspective, what happens in one part of the region has implications for other parts of the region, he said, adding that the Indo-Pacific is a region in which we see a clash between the US and its allies and partners, and China and the countries that have more authoritarian regimes.

He also highlighted the region’s different levels of economic development, with very developed countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Japan but also very poor countries, for example Bangladesh and Cambodia. This means that even though there are security dynamics that affect the whole region, from an economic perspective it is a region that is not as bound together as we see, for instance, in Europe or North America. Nor is the Indo-Pacific bound by common values, Pardo added, as there is a clash of values in the economic and political spheres.

Nuclear norms are important because they underpin the nuclear regime held up by treaties such as the NPT and CTBT

For author and commentator Dr Priyanjali Malik, crucial questions were what the Indo-Pacific means and looks like from India – does it matter as a regional entity, and should/does India care? How is that working out in practice? Regarding the ‘changing world’, she assessed the roles of SAARC, BIMSTEC and ASEAN, none of which, she believed, have been stellar successes from India’s point of view.

Crucially, Malik also spoke of the Indo-Pacific’s five contiguous nuclear weapon states – Russia, China, North Korea, India and Pakistan. All five nations share a border with another nuclear weapons state, with China hitting the jackpot with four such shared borders. Nuclear norms in this schema are, therefore, quite important, argued Malik, because they underpin the nuclear regime held up by treaties such as the NPT and CTBT. Re. norms of behaviour, this comes back to the use and testing of nuclear weapons, and both of those norms have been tested quite a lot by recent global events – for example, the testing norm has been tested by North Korea, while the nuclear use norm has been tested quite strongly by Russia recently with its actions in Ukraine.

The concept of democracy is now embedded in many Indo-Pacific societies

Matthew Henderson, an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy, believed the concept of the Indo-Pacific as an idea is essentially not Asian. While the late Japanese PM Shinzo Abe used it to great effect in order to bring himself closer to the American umbrella, for a lot of other Asian countries it’s something that you have to add an adjective to like ‘free’ or ‘inclusive’, which suggests a certain amount of scepticism if not positively hedging. But Henderson said the concept has come of age because the Americans have nailed it to a really important global strategy and the Russians and the Chinese have said they will have nothing to do with that.

So what we’ve got now, he argued, is challenge, not norms, with hedging still as a major driver. We’ll have to see where that goes when people are forced to stopand we need to look at whether the Asia Pacific as contested geopolitical andgeostrategic space stands up usefully in the face of such a major revisionist challenge from the Chinese, backed up by their Russian friends and assorted others. So we are talking about alot of things here: the return of democracy and the pushing back of democracy, the nuclear umbrella and whether it’s a safety valve or not.Regarding the long-term revisionist challenge and how the Indo-Pacificcountries should respond, and how the Westshould respond, Henderson said itis all about freedom of navigationbecause what that means is there is a globalised free market world run according to trade rules overseen bythe Americans but by no means to an exclusive degree. This is presented by many, perhaps rightly, as being the statusquo international rules-based order this is being challenged by peoplewho regard the maritime space as an extension of their terrestrialterritory and draw arbitrary lines across it.

GEOGRAPHICAL EXPANSE: The Indo-Pacific
GEOGRAPHICAL EXPANSE: The Indo-Pacific

Overall, the panel were in agreement that the region’s five neighbouring nuclear-armed states – China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia – could forge a version of the Cold War nuclear doctrines that prevent hot conflict. There was also consensus that the concept of democracy is now embedded in many Indo-Pacific societies such as the Philippines and Indonesia and, however nascent and flawed, that cannot be reversed. 

MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, and Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns

To watch the full discussion, tune in to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlX646M4N6E