May 2024

West can learn from Indo-Pacific trends

The stinging commentary from the Western press on India’s ongoing general election has exposed worrying misunderstandings on what is unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region.

Voters in the world’s biggest democracy are repeating their choice for the same strong, charismatic leader who has led their government for the past ten years.

Yet, while arguing that democracy is the most legitimate method of governance, Western commentators are belittling India’s choice.

‘Modi’s Sledgehammer Politics Are Battering Indian Democracy,’ says Bloomberg

‘Is India’s BJP the world’s most ruthlessly efficient political party?’ corroborates the Financial Times, while the Australian Institute of International Affairs argues there is ‘Increasing Authoritarianism in India under Narendra Modi’.

These negative headlines expose unresolved contradictions on how the West condescendingly views developing societies.

India occupies a mid-way position within the much-debated rivalry between democracy and authoritarianism. Delhi’s policy of multi-alignment – whereby it can forge an equally strong relationship with Russia and the United States –is now a magnet of attraction for a collection of nations dissatisfied with the present US-led world order.

These nations do not want to overturn or re-write that order as, perhaps, China and Russia do. But they do want to see moves towards real modernisation and reform that is not yet happening.

The West’s faltering reputation is only worsened by the cherry-picking of its values, selectively deciding to whom and when its rules about human rights and moral high ground apply. The Gaza war is a recent example.

From this, four Indo-Pacific trends are emerging.

The first from America is a hardening of policies to ward off expanding Chinese influence, on which there is rare and broad bi-partisan agreement in the US Congress. 

Former deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, co-authored a piece in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine arguing that America’s contest with China cannot be just managed. It must be won, raising that grim spectre of the West’s clear-cut victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. A generation later, we have dreadful blowback.

Pottinger’s scenario is unwelcome in the Indo-Pacific. which has long argued it does not want to choose between superpowers, bringing us to the second trend of the region:developing the policy of multi-alignment.

Two mid-power Asian nations are the sprawling archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines. Last month the Philippine president was in Washington, while the Indonesian president elect was courting Xi Jinping in Beijing.

The third trend is China itself, and an incorrect calculation among some leading analysts that its growth has peaked.

Indeed, President Xi Jinping has won few friends through his antagonistic ‘Wolf Warrior’ foreign policy and his handling of the faltering economy at home, where investors are shying away, and unemployment is high.

But the China-peak argument is misguided because political and economic pendulums are routine in any development, and it ignores Beijing’s formidable long-term vision, attractive to that swathe of nations frustrated at the way the US does business.

China is offering itself as an agent of change while the US is defending an outdated status quo.

The fourth trend is the miscalculation by Western analysts over India.

Those negative election headlines reflect a disappointment that India is not moving ahead in a way the West envisages. Similar high-profile disappointments have unfolded with Afghanistan, China, Iraq and Russia.

With India, this error of judgement has broad strategic ramifications.

Washington has been gambling that by treating India as a partner, the country would unequivocally side against China in the ongoing rivalry, even though the simplistic good-versus-evil of American politics belies realities on the ground.

India’s growth needs to feed off China’s economy, while geographical proximity means the two nations will inescapably be linked for centuries to come.

At the same time, China’s success against India’s plays no small part in Narendra Modi’s tilt toward authoritarianism.  China’s autocracy has led to its status of a global superpower while – with its more rigid adherence to Western values –India remains relatively poor.

There is much for the West to learn from these Indo-Pacific trends – namely that beneath the headlines lie tapestries of nuance which are forging a new and influential world.