July 2024

Dancing with many partners

Month by month, as hostile rhetoric rages in faraway capitals, the nations of the Indo-Pacific are forging a new world order that may come to define the modern global age.

Gone is the notion that theyare superpower reliant. Gone is the concept that helpless nations need to ally themselves with the United States to stave of Chinese autocratic expansion. Gone, too, is the idea that there is a choice between freedom and tyranny.

With their many varied styles of governance, Asian governments are embroidering a tapestry of pragmatism that is wrong-footing ideologues arguing for values and doctrine.

A bold thread came last month with plucky Vietnam welcoming Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Hanoi.

The US has been backing this authoritarian one-party state as a ‘like-minded’ partner in its policy to builds alliances against China’s expansion. Washington is learning, however, that Hanoi marks its dance card with many partners: Russia, China and a swathe of not so like-minded governments around the world.

In an adroit diplomatic balancing act, Vietnam has welcomed three great power leaders in less than a year. Joe Biden last September announced a strengthening of ties, as did Xi Jinping two months later and Vladimir Putin last month.

Vietnam is not the only one. This policy, known as multi-polarity,is fast winning favourthroughout the Indo-Pacific.

‘We are not mere bystanders to unfolding world events,’ the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos told a recent ASEAN meeting. ‘We are the actors that drive those events.’

Marcos has been far more friendly towards the US than his pro-China predecessor. But, as in the West, Asian elections are unpredictable.

To hedge bets, governments need to build leverage in several camps.

Therefore, Beijing and Manilaskirmish over claims to the South China Sea, while allowing trade to flourish.  China remains the Philippines’ largest importer and second largest exporter.

Beijing supplies Hanoi with most of its weapons, despite Vietnam building defence ties with Western governments and India.

Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines and others rely deeply on trade with Beijing, yet they are actively coaxing manufacturing investment out of China from companies, like Apple, eager to diversify their supply chains.

Further east, Japan, South Korea and China, each a historical foe, hold regular meetings on regional matters.

Last month’s Democracy Forum debate on the Indo-Pacific drilled down on new norms that are defining the region.

The panel noted that the five contiguous nuclear-armed states – China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia –could forgea version of the Cold War nuclear doctrines that prevent hot conflict.

There was also agreement that the concept of democracyis now embedded in many Indo-Pacific societies like the Philippines and Indonesia. However nascent and flawed, that cannot be reversed.

Voters in India have just proved their influence by telling Narendra Modi that he is not as popular as he might have thought.

And trade remains a unifying motive that can ease tension and improve living standards.

These Indo-Pacific characteristics have evolved naturallywithout any dogma or defining war. Inevitably, at some future stage, there will be more formal agreements.

An early one to watch is the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Negotiations are led by ASEAN without American mediation with the aim of clipping China’s reach.

Western democracies must work out how best to approach this new multi-polar reality. CanVietnam, cosying up to Putin, remain a like-minded partner?

And what of India, so assiduously courted by America, yet so entrenched in its sense on non-alignment? Despite continuing border tensions, its trade with China is increasing, and its weapons and oil come from Russia.

Most of the Indo-Pacific nations are not military powers. But they have leverage andthey are shifting traditional goalposts by refusing to take sides.

Western and Chinese ideologues would be wise to dampen their uncompromising visions about values and control.

Unlike the superpower rivals, the Indo-Pacific has no luxury of a unifying culture, religion or style of governance. Therefore, the region favours quiet consensus over public argument as the best way to move forward.

As the Philippines President Marcos explains, ‘We are the main characters in our collective story. We are the owners of the narratives of our regional community.’