March 2023

Speaking truth to superpowers

The danger of an accidental or intentional clash between the United States and China shifted dramatically last month from the time-honoured flashpoints of the South China Sea and Taiwan to America itself.

A fighter jet shooting down a Chinese balloon amid background conversation of war is evidence enough that a new international understanding needs to be drawn up before –and not after – any conflict breaks out.

Asian Affairs and its sister debating chamber The Democracy Forum regularly cover and discuss how Indo-Pacific values differ from those of Western democracies, examining ways to lessen antagonism and find more common ground.

President Joe Biden’s rousing speech in Warsaw after visiting Ukraine underpins the challenge.  Biden argued that Russia had been denied an easy victory, because ‘democracy was too strong…Kyiv stands proud. It stands tall. And most important it stands free.’

Polls show that majorities in North America and Europe reinforce Biden’s view, but elsewhere there is marked pushback against lofty rhetoric about democracy and freedom.

It is this gap in values and mindset that needs to be bridged.

We are in full support, therefore, of a new global document – an Indo-Pacific Charter –that will create a framework within which all with interests in this region can operate.

Drawing upsuch a charter will not be easy.

Unlike post-war agreements, there would be no winner to prescribe the terms. More repressive states would have to yield ground on individual freedom. More democratic ones would have to accept alternative, possibly unpalatable definitions of democracy and human rights.

As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew articulated, it is a matter of balancing individual rights against the rights of the community.

The term Indo-Pacific has been around since the 1920s but has come to the fore in the past decade to describe a strategic area that stretches from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of America.

Depending how it is measured, the Indo-Pacific comprises some 50 countries, only five of which could be defined as modern democracies. Two of those, Australia and New Zealand, are essentially European.

One, Taiwan, is not even recognised a country and, together with Japan and South Korea, their democracies have been created by America under the shadow of war.

The rest are a hotch-potch and, unlike Europe and North America, have no shared predominant religion or ideology.

Most in the Indo-Pacific live everyday with the mess of corruption, weak institutions and the heavy hand of unaccountable government, which is why the loudest voices condemning China on Xinjiang or Myanmar on its military coup come from Western democracies.

The process of structuring an Indo-Pacific charter would deliver regional identity and purpose, releasing nations from their long-held sense of dependency on either the US or China and, earlier, the Soviet Union. 

Signatories will have to include monarchies, military regimes and one-party states such as Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam, whose governance is a far cry from freedom expressed by President Biden in Warsaw.

The US and China must be involved, and they should stay quiet and listen to smaller nations whose concept for the region is not as a battleground between rival superpowers.

The glue which binds the Indo-Pacific together is not the luxury of anylofty vision–whether democracy or autocracy –but systems of government that work in favour of trade, the nuts and bolts that create wealth, raise living standards and, in too many cases, fill corrupt coffers.

In forging an Indo-Pacific Charter, these smaller nations should demand answers from both the US and China, as well as themselves.

For example, to the US:why was the NATO secretary general in Japan and South Korea last month when he should be dealing with the war raging on NATO’s borders? Having failed so disastrously in Afghanistan, why does NATO think it should meddle in the Indo-Pacific?

To China: why keep the Indo-Pacific under a constant shadow of war over Taiwan? Surely it is not beyond your wit to find an acceptable arrangement for long-term peace?

To themselves: why have you not been able to forge strong regional institutions that can stand up to superpower hegemony?

In the coming months, Asian Affairs and The Democracy Forum will probe deeply into the Indo-Pacific’s challenges, from climate change to corruption, from resources to politics, from trade to war.

We welcome your thoughts and letters on what an Indo-Pacific Charter would look like and even if it would be possible.

Historically, frameworks such as the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the United Nations charter (1945) have been drawn up after the most horrendous bloodshed and loss of life. 

As the balloon crisis demonstrates, there is increasing risk that a single incident could coincide with trigger-edge tensions that lead to cries towards war that must be averted.