It is a great pleasure to join you all at the launch of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New Delhi. I have a reasonably long association with Asia Society as well, going back to my postings in Washington. For the record, I am little bit older than the Society. As you heard from Mr. Rudd, my remarks would be followed by a discussion on Asia’s geopolitical future. And I can think of no one better than Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Dr. Rajamohan for such a conversation.
2. When we speak of a rising Asia, the term Asian Century naturally springs to mind. To the sensible and sober, that signifies a greater weight for Asia in the overall global calculus. To the polemical, however, it has overtones of triumphalism with which India at least should not be comfortable. But either way, the Asian Century requires an effective management of the contradictions of our continent. And that, in particular, means a modus vivendi among its key players. That is why ‘rising but divided’ is such a strong concern. It is said that the pre-requisite for an Asian Century is an India and China coming together. Conversely, their inability to do so will undermine it.
3. Now, managing contradictions within Asia obviously presumes an acceptance of its diversity. Given that there are distinct regions, specific cultures and significant powers, this is a clear prescription for multi-polarity. Noting the overall salience of Asia in the international order is so much more today. It also suggests that the outcome in Asia has global repercussions. In essence, a multi-polar Asia is necessary for both the Asian Century and for a multi-polar world.
4. From time to time, there is also talk about Asia for Asians. Such thinking needs to be carefully analysed, both from a national interest perspective as well as the implications of the proposition itself. The suggestion that it could be the basis of a united front presumes a stronger convergence within the continent than reality indicates. Moreover, a united front works when participants are confident of the vision and more important intent of each other. This requires at least a moderate level of mutual trust. Even in the past, this was not an easy challenge to address. It is obviously much more difficult now. Asia for Asians is also a sentiment that was encouraged in the past, even in our own country, by political romanticism. The Bandung spirit, however, got its reality check within its first decade. Indeed, the experience of the past affirms that Asians are second to none when it comes to realpolitik.
5. For all this talk, it is also a fact that many major Asian nations approach their continent keeping in mind the larger correlation of forces. In some cases, it is part of their ideological outlook. In others, it derives from treaty relationships. And in the case of the ASEAN, it is in fact the very basis of their global relevance. In fact, relatively speaking, it is India whose diplomatic traditions have been more narrowly bilateral. This was particularly the case in dealing with other Asian powers. That too is changing as we have all become more globalized over the last few decades.
6. On this subject, let me also emphasize that a narrow Asian chauvinism is actually against the continent’s own interest. Precisely because Asia is so energetic and creative, it would like to benefit from the open doors of other regions. That obviously cannot be a one way street. Such an outlook also goes against the reality of globalization. Whether it is resources, markets or supply chains, these can no longer be compartmentalized. There are resident powers in Asia like the United States or the proximate ones like Australia who have legitimate interests. Their contribution is also invaluable for securing the global commons. India’s universalist outlook, expressed in the belief of the world as a family, encourages it to go beyond exclusivist Asian approaches.
7. Asia’s prospects and challenges are today very much dependent on developments in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, the concept itself is a reflection of divided Asia, as some have a vested interest in keeping the region less cohesive and interactive. That the global commons and the international community are better served by collaborative endeavours like the Quad apparently leaves them cold. Developing even a basic strategic consensus in Asia is, therefore, clearly a formidable task. As the international order evolves, this desire to selectively retain elements of the 1945 situation while transforming others – and we see that in the UN as well – complicates world politics.
8. We can reasonably expect Asia to continue rising because the economic and demographic trends point in that direction. How divided it would be depends on how well or badly its fissures are managed. And this, in turn, would demand adherence to laws, norms and rules. For a start, sovereignty and territorial integrity will have to be respected. Initiatives that impact the region must be consultative, not unilateral. Connectivity, in particular, should be transparent, viable and market-based. Similarly, development agendas also need to be broad-based and reflect the global consensus, rather than just individual national objectives. Contributing to the well-being of the global commons and providing global goods can also make a big difference. And not least, agreements and judgements must be scrupulously adhered to, not regarded as matters of convenience.
9. The three shocks of Covid pandemic, Ukraine conflict and climatic disturbances are also impacting the evolution of the Asian economy. Together, they make a powerful case for more engines of growth and resilient and reliable supply chains. There is a parallel debate underway in the digital world that focuses around trust and transparency. How these will translate into strategic outcomes is still too early to predict.
10. In comparison with other continents, Asia lacks an agreed architecture of any nature. Currently, the ASEAN offers the best possibility as a meeting ground. Its centrality and relevance is therefore obvious. However, there are challenges that go beyond the remit of its institutions and platforms. These are aggravated by anachronistic multilateralism. Effectively addressing such deficits are now best done by plurilateral groups, the Quad being a notable example.
11. Much of the future of Asia depends on how relations between India and China develop in the foreseeable future. For ties to return to a positive trajectory and remain sustainable, they must be based on the three mutuals: mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest. Their current status is, of course, well known to all of you. I can only reiterate that the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship.
12. So, let me conclude by emphasizing the contribution that rising Asia can make to the world order. As the most dynamic region beyond the West, its successes can inspire the rest of the Global South. Indeed, it is leading the process of global rebalancing through its endeavours. For this to have the widest impact, India espouses a cooperative, inclusive and consultative approach to international relations. We believe that multipolarity, rebalancing, fairer globalization and reformed multilateralism are all advanced by the progress of Asia. Our diplomacy is accordingly shaped by this belief.