Tensions borne out of quadrilateral conflicts have once again pushed India to the forefront of global politics. WPR remarks that hosting the G-20 summit in New Delhi further cemented India’s centrality to global politics and multilateralism and caps a year in which PM Narendra Modi strengthened his and the country’s image abroad, including high-profile visits to the U.S. and France. But that strengthened image has obscured some of India’s flaws, starting with the illiberal slide the country has taken under Modi, whose brand of Hindu nationalism has accentuated divisions within the country.
Similarly, the poorest Indians were largely hidden from view this weekend in an attempt to project a better image of New Delhi during the summit. The fact that the summit declaration addressed debt relief and climate financing for the Global South—two of India’s priorities during its G-20 presidency—highlights the increasingly prominent role the Global South’s needs are playing in multilateralism as well as the degree to which multilateralism has increasingly become “multipolar.” But the amount of bandwidth expended in seeking consensus for the summit declaration on the war in Ukraine, as well as several side agreements clearly targeting China, underscored the degree to which the G-20 has shifted from being a platform for collective action to addressing global challenges to becoming an arena for geopolitical competition.
Finally, U.S. President Joe Biden’s bilateral meeting with Modi in New Delhi and his ongoing visit to Hanoi highlight how states like India and Vietnam, among others, are continuing to boost their ties with the U.S. in unprecedented ways, largely due to concerns about China’s regional ambitions. But even as they boost ties with Washington, those same states are not necessarily aligning with the U.S. in its competition with China and Russia, nor are they downgrading ties with Beijing and Moscow. Despite the fact that ASEAN nations have been economically close to China and have remained entwined with the Chinese economic web Richard Javed Heydarian of WPR in an article ( 11th September 2023) has remarked that The Roots of ASEAN’s Dysfunction it is hard to understand the mini-miracle that ASEAN represents. Born in the cauldron of the Cold War, what started as a diverse group of postcolonial nations managed to build an economic community, despite bitter territorial and maritime disputes between them.
Moreover, in a region historically committed to non-interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors, the grouping has since evolved into a de facto security community. The secret sauce of Southeast Asia’s regional integration was the adoption of an inclusive decision-making process among the founding members—Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines—which were all led by authoritarian regimes in the mid-20th century. In particular, ASEAN adopted the principle of consensus, to ensure that no single member-state dominates the organization and that there is maximum consultation on all collective decisions. Against all odds, despite multiple superpowers jostling for influence in Southeast Asia, ASEAN proved unusually effective in its formative years. But in later decades, its major successes were mainly due to a cocktail of institutional flexibility and decisive leadership that, ironically, at times sidestepped the grouping’s central tenet of consensus.
The South China Sea territorial disputes have exposed deep fault lines within ASEAN that have allowed China to veto any robust collective response effectively. Two historical episodes illustrate how ASEAN effectively embraced this minilateral decision-making led by particular member states, rather than insisting on unanimity. In the late 1990s, Indonesia and Malaysia played a critical role in coaxing Cambodia’s leadership to embrace more democratic politics as a precondition for membership. This explains why, in the face of Cambodia’s subsequent democratic backsliding, the country’s embattled progressive opposition leaders continue to look to ASEAN for respite today. Just a few years later, ASEAN was also pivotal in stabilizing East Timor after its years-long struggle for independence from Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest nation. Unsure of whether it could count on Jakarta’s cooperation, Thailand, then acting as ASEAN’s rotational chairman, called on member states to assist East Timor’s democratization without the need for consensus.
These exceptions to ASEAN’s commitment to the consensus had become necessary due to the group’s rapid expansion in the 1990s when it hastily absorbed a host of war-torn, post-communist states—such as Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—without proper preparations. The result was a more inflexible, conservative turn in ASEAN’s decision-making process toward the absolute insistence on unanimity, in order to hold what had become a motley crew of disparate regimes together. It also didn’t help that ASEAN’s founding generation of leaders were largely supplanted by unstable regimes and/or mediocre successors who lacked a deeper sense of regional unity.
The sorry state of ASEAN has been on full display in recent years. To begin with, the regional body has been embarrassingly ineffectual in dealing with Myanmar’s horrific civil war. Because of ASEAN’s insistence on unanimity, the regional body has failed to agree on any decisive mechanism to hold the military junta in Naypyidaw to account for its escalating brutality against the pro-democracy armed opposition and ethnic militias. On the contrary, member states such as Thailand have continued to maintain robust economic and strategic ties with Myanmar’s regime, which has unleashed unfathomable violence on its own people since toppling the democratically elected government two years ago. In the words of former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, ASEAN has been “at a loss” over Myanmar, haplessly wavering over whether or not to expel the junta and engage with the opposition government-in-exile.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea territorial disputes have exposed deep fault lines within ASEAN that have allowed China to veto any robust collective response effectively. In particular, Cambodia, which deeply relies on Chinese largesse, has consistently sought to block even the discussion of the maritime disputes at ASEAN gatherings and publicly lambasted the Philippines for bringing an arbitration case against China over them in 2016. More recently, Cambodia also blocked proposals to hold all-ASEAN naval drills near the South China Sea. This largely explains why China’s brazen harassment of Philippine vessels in recent months drew condemnation from a whole host of nations, including neutral powers such as India and South Korea, but not from ASEAN, which remained largely missing in action.
As expected, last week’s summit fell short of even slapping China on the wrist for its systematic harassment of the fishing fleets and oil exploration vessels of multiple Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea. Even worse, Beijing got away with once again dragging its feet on negotiating a legally binding maritime Code of Conduct, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, to address the South China Sea disputes. To put things into perspective, as early as the 1980s, the Philippines had proposed such a legal regime following violent clashes between Vietnam and China in the Spratly Islands. A full generation later, China has only agreed to a draft of guidelines for such a Code of Conduct, with a vague promise to finalize the decades-old negotiations by the middle of this decade. Frustrated by ASEAN’s inaction on China’s behavior, key member states have embraced a range of unilateral strategies.
For its part, the Philippines has been solidifying its defense ties with the U.S., in particular, and the West more broadly, while Indonesia and Vietnam have been ramping up their defense spending to keep China’s naval ambitions in check. A better way forward, however, would be a return to multilateral diplomacy, in the form of issue-focused cooperation among like-minded regional states. As a start, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam could begin negotiating a maritime Code of Conduct among themselves based on the UNCLOS, while also seeking to resolve their own overlapping claims in the South China Sea based on the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling in the case brought by the Philippines against China.
There are many points of conflict between India and China. One of the main reasons for the current tensions is The Masood Azhar issue: Masood Azhar is the founder and leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamic militant group that is highly active in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India has accused him of being behind several terrorist attacks on its soil and has sought to designate him as a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council. members. The NSG issue: China has also been opposed to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a group of 48 countries that control the export of nuclear materials and technology. India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been seeking membership in the NSG since 2008, with the support of the United States and other major powers.
However, China argued that India does not meet the criteria for joining the NSG and has insisted on a two-step criteria for joining the NSG for India to sign NPT first. The Dalai Lama issue: Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who fled from Tibet to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He has been living in exile in India ever since and is regarded by China as a separatist leader who seeks to split Tibet from China. India, on the other hand, has granted him asylum and allowed him to carry out his religious and cultural activities. The border between China and India is disputed at multiple locations, especially along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is a de facto boundary that separates the two countries in the Himalayan region.
The LAC is not clearly demarcated, and both sides have different perceptions of where it lies. This leads to frequent incidents of transgressions and stand-offs between the Chinese and Indian troops, who patrol the border areas. The most recent and serious clash occurred on June 15th, 2020 in the Galwan Valley causing death to both Indian and Chinese soldiers. Additionally, both China and India have been competing to build infrastructure along the border areas, such as roads, bridges, airstrips, and military bases. These projects are aimed at improving the connectivity and mobility of their forces, as well as asserting their claims over the disputed territories. However, they also increase the chances of confrontation and escalation between the two sides.
The Chinese claim of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in the land claim in a newly published map ahead of the G-20 summit has irked India. India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar Subhramanyam also dismissed China’s claim as “Making absurd claims on India’s territory does not make it China’s territory” . If the US wants to retain its primacy in global politics China wants to claim its uncontested supremacy in Asia Pacific region. In August this year Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi informally spoke to China’s President Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, where the premier highlighted New Delhi’s concerns about their unresolved border issues. India’s foreign ministry said the two leaders agreed to intensify efforts to de-escalate tensions at the disputed border and bring home thousands of their troops deployed there.
The disputed boundary has led to a three-year standoff between tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Ladakh area. A clash three years ago in the region killed 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese. “The two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border region,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said after the two leaders’ meeting. Indian and Chinese military commanders had met earlier this month in an apparent effort to stabilize the situation.
A border, dubbed the “Line of Actual Control,” separates Chinese and Indian-held territories from Ladakh in the west to India’s eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims in its entirety. India and China had fought a war over their border in 1962. China claims some 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) of territory in India’s northeast, including Arunachal Pradesh with its mainly Buddhist population. India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of its territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau, which India considers part of Ladakh, where the current faceoff is happening.
Conflict with Pakistan began with the differing interpretation of the two nations theory between Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Ballav Bhai Patel, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Since no solution could be found India and Pakistan were born as two separate states. The Galwan episode convinced Indian foreign policy architects that dependence on China has to be reduced and promote free trade negotiations with the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative with Japan and Australia. These changes to its economic engagement with China have also been buttressed by India’s deepening strategic relationship with Western democracies.
For example, U.S.-India defense trade has grown from “near zero in 2008 to over 20 billion USD in 2020.” Most recently, Washington and New Delhi launched the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies to expand their strategic technology partnership and industrial defense cooperation. The two militaries have also regularized several exercises, which now bring together the navies of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, collectively known as the Quad. As New Delhi has hardened on Beijing, it has deepened its relationship with the United States and other Indo-Pacific partners. This also comes at a time of growing economic challenges and mutual mistrust between India and China. Inevitably, New Delhi’s new foreign policy direction will clash with Chinese interests and could likely lead to new challenges for managing the border disputes in 2023.
It is the impression of the writer that given the undying enmity of Pakistan and China’s aim to be the supremo in Global South India despite its desire to remain non-aligned would have no alternative but to join organizations like QUAD, a free trade negotiations with the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative with Japan and Australia. These changes to its economic engagement with China have also been buttressed by India’s deepening strategic relationship with Western democracies. For example, U.S.-India defense trade has grown from “near zero in 2008 to over 20 billion USD in 2020.” Most recently, Washington and New Delhi launched the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies to expand their strategic technology partnership and industrial defense cooperation. The two militaries have also regularized several exercises which now bring together the navies of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, collectively known as the Quad. As New Delhi has hardened on Beijing, it has deepened its relationship with the United States and other Indo-Pacific partners. This also comes at a time of growing economic challenges and mutual mistrust between India and China. Inevitably, New Delhi’s new foreign policy direction will clash with Chinese interests and could likely lead to new challenges for managing the border disputes in 2023.