‘Quad’ of democracies vs. China: a new clash of civilizations?


The resumption of talks on the “quadrilateral” strategic initiative between the US, Australia, Japan and India is a shot across the bows of China. It has more than a whiff of the region’s four democracies aiming to check an increasingly assertive China, notes analyst John Kehoe.

The Quad has taken on mythic proportions, considered an “appealing” or taboo element of any Asia strategy, depending on one’s perspective, analyst Tanvi Madan writes for War On The Rocks:

It’s come up in congressional hearings, official speeches and think tank events, and even political scorecards. It has variously been described as a U.S.-led project, an alliance, an axis of democracies, a security diamond, or a way to contain China.

“It might be a sensitive subject, but another [Quad agenda item] is the political and economic vulnerability of open democratic systems,” Madan adds, “and how to increase their resilience, for example, through more effective investment screening processes.”

As Americans awaken to a rising China that now rivals the United States in every arena, many seek comfort in the conviction that as China grows richer and stronger, it will follow in the footsteps of Germany, Japan, and other countries that have undergone profound transformations and emerged as advanced liberal democracies, notes Harvard’s Graham Allison. In this view, the magic cocktail of globalization, market-based consumerism, and integration into the rule-based international order will eventually lead China to become democratic at home and to develop into what former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick once described as “a responsible stakeholder” abroad, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Samuel Huntington disagreed. In his essay “The Clash of Civilizations?,” published in this magazine in 1993, the political scientist argued that, far from dissolving in a global liberal world order, cultural fault lines would become a defining feature of the post–Cold War world. ….The years since have bolstered Huntington’s case. The coming decades will only strengthen it further. The United States embodies what Huntington considered Western civilization. And tensions between American and Chinese values, traditions, and philosophies will aggravate the fundamental structural stresses that occur whenever a rising power, such as China, threatens to displace an established power, such as the United States.

If the United States wants a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has urged and U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed at their recent meeting in Tokyo, no two powers will be as important as India and Japan, analyst J. Berkshire Miller writes for Foreign Affairs:

One reason the two countries are coming together is a common strategic anxiety about China’s rise, particularly its foreign policy ambitions in Asia. For them, Beijing’s maritime assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, as well as the Indian Ocean region, and its push to expand its geopolitical influence beyond East Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are particularly alarming. India and Japan, in response, have come to share a sense of purpose in promoting the current order in the region, which is based on transparent institutions, good governance, and international law and benefits them by ensuring secure supply chains and fair access to resources. RTWT

The liberal democratic order has always been critical to Japan’s success, but it now faces many neighbors that are undemocratic and increasingly hostile, according to Takako Hikotani, an associate professor of modern Japanese politics and foreign policy at Columbia University.

But India, the world’s largest democracy, is showing an appetite for military rule — a potential indicator that the country’s nationalist politics are evolving, CNBC reports:

A majority of Indians, 53 percent, support military rule, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week. India is one of only four countries that has a majority in favor of a military government, the American think tank said. VietnamIndonesia, and South Africa are the other three.

“In the embrace of strong leaders who promise both economic growth and stability, Asia risks a return to authoritarian rule if institutional checks and balances are not also in place,” said Curtis Chin, former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and Asia fellow at the Milken Institute.

“There is no question that these are troubling times for democracy in Asia, but long-suffering citizens want results not rhetoric. The latest Pew data may well underscore that,” he said.

Over the decades, Washington has pursued a foreign policy that seeks to advance the cause of democracy, Allison adds:

In contrast, although the Chinese believe that others can look up to them, admire their virtues, and even attempt to mimic their behavior, China’s leaders have not proselytized on behalf of their approach. As the American diplomat Henry Kissinger has noted, imperial China “did not export its ideas but let others come to seek them.” And unsurprisingly, Chinese leaders have been deeply suspicious of U.S. efforts to convert them to the American creed.

Previous presidents repeatedly affirmed that shared liberal ideas constituted the ideological core of America’s most important relationships, and offered a vision for an increasingly democratic regional future (even as sometimes they necessarily cooperated with non-democratic powers), notes Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”

But activists fear that the failure of the U.S. to press China to release prominent dissidents and human rights activists signals a policy shift. The New York Times reports:

Human Rights House

After the death in July of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was China’s most prominent democracy activist, many advocates wondered what would happen to his wife, the artist Liu Xia (left). Ms. Liu, a painter and photographer, expressed a desire to relocate overseas after her husband’s death, but activists say that she is being held in unofficial custody away from family and friends. William Nee, a China researcher for Amnesty International, said Ms. Liu was being punished “simply for being the wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.”

China is using its economic muscle to expand its influence and undermine democracy, often employing what the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig call “sharp power.”

China’s willingness to undermine its neighbors should give Australia pause for thought about how much it relies on China’s authoritarian government for its economic prosperity, analyst David Donaldson writes for The Mandarin:

Indeed, just this year we’ve seen Australian stories about political donations made by rich men with alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party, free speech pressures on universities and a publisher afraid to criticize China. Australians are increasingly asking whether the authoritarian government propping up our economy might be trying to use Australia’s democratic processes for its own ends…..China is already using its economy as a weapon — hitting neighbors who dare to step out of line by cutting tourist numbers, holding up investments, harassing foreign companies and slicing trade.

In the latest indication of China’s nefarious role, a pro-Beijing op-ed from former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr “is an attempt to coordinate an opposition to both Labor and the current governments support for the ‘Quad’” and “marks a new abject low in Beijing sycophancy even for him,’’ according to one Australian politician. Such pro-Beijing arguments were repudiated in Monday’s editorial in the Australian.

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