Monday, April 28, 2008

Remember the Arc of Asian Democracies?

Forget the Asian Arc of Democracies.

The “Arc of Democracies”, you may remember, was a bruited alliance of India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. based on their presumed shared values as democracies and the fact that, geographically, they seemed to form an arc around authoritarian China, extending from India in the west, through Australia and on to Japan, with the US as its backstop.

The arc proposal was most strongly promoted by Australia’s long-serving prime minister John Howard and Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe with the enthusiastic backing of the George W Bush administration in Washington.

The initiative, born about a year ago, did not survive, well, democracy. It only took two elections, one last July, where the opposition captured the upper house of Japan’s parliament and a general election in Australia last November, and Shinzo Abe and John Howard were history.
And so was the Arc of Democracies.

The new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd repudiated the concept not long after taking office. At a newly launched “strategic dialogue” with China in February, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Canberra would no longer participate in the quadrilateral dialogue involving India, Japan and the US.

The Australian prime minister also made clear his opposition to the landmark bilateral security agreement that his predecessor signed with Japan in 2006. It was Tokyo’s first bilateral security agreement with a country other than the U.S. All of this leaves a pretty big missing piece in the arc.

I don’t see the other countries along the arc being too concerned about its demise either. In Japan forming “strategic alliances” was a peculiar obsession of former prime minister Abe and the nationalists on the right wing of the Liberal Democratic party. The current PM, Yasuo Fukuda, doesn’t seem to share this enthusiasm (although that might change if he is replaced by the hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso.)

It was inevitably doomed by the enormous magnetic pull of China’s economy. Nobody in Asia really wants to be party to something that seems aimed at “containing” resurgent China. Said one Indian observer: “Japanese political leaders may be excited by the idea of joining hands with democratic India for promoting a new Asia, but Japanese businessmen feel more comfortable being in authoritarian China.”

The Japanese investment in China dwarfs the amount of money invested in India. For their part, Indian intellectuals and academics seem to be far more interested in China than they are in Japan; they are fascinated by another large developing nation that is growing rapidly and the lessons India can learn from it, while the Japanese economy treads water.

Of course, Australia’s Rudd is a famous Sinophile who speaks Mandarin and served in China as a diplomat. He puts the main emphasis on his country’s growing economic ties with China while downplaying India. On his first trip abroad as prime minister, Rudd visited Beijing, following stopovers in Europe and the U.S. while bypassing Japan, a slight that was noted in Tokyo. He was the first foreign leader to visit China since the disturbances in Tibet.

The Rudd government has also irritated the Japanese by taking a more high-profile stand against Japanese whaling activities in the Antarctic. To make smooth things over, the Australian PM has hastily scheduled a trip to Japan in June before participating in the G-8 Summit held this year on the island of Hokkaido.

Meanwhile, he has managed to irritate the other side of the arc by reversing a decision of the Howard government to sell uranium to India. A rejection of this sort makes it hard to nurture a closer relationship on the strategic level with New Delhi. .

That is the trouble with these so-called leagues, or arcs, or communities of democracies. They are democracies, and policy can be changed in a day at the whim of the voters. That’s why Republican Presidential candidate John McCain’s vague talk about forming new “League of Democracies” and excluding countries like China will probably go nowhere.



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