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India and Asia’s ‘concert of powers’ October 6, 2011

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The CIA has assessed that India is a ‘swing state’ in Asia. By that it means that how India, as a rising power, chooses to lock into existing security structures will have important implications for the Asian security order.

India’s emergence is especially important in the context of the rise of China and apparent relative decline of the US. This confronts Australia with stark choices between its economic imperative not to alienate China and its long-standing strategic reliance on the United States.

Leading Australian analysts such as Hugh White (Power Shift) and Coral Bell (Living with Giants) have advocated that China and India be inducted into a ‘concert of powers’ consisting of those two plus the other big powers – the US, Japan and Russia. They thus hope to mitigate the perturbations that might otherwise be associated with China’s rise.


Half of the ‘quadrilateral’ – Bush meets Abe, Camp David, 2007.

A concert of powers consists of an informal agreement amongst its members not to challenge unduly the status quo, but rather to consult assiduously and informally to solve regional problems. Only the biggest and most powerful players have a seat at the table and the individual members are kept in line by the possibility that the others would set up a power balance against them if they were to challenge the status quo.

To retain the viability of the concert, members need to retain approximate equidistance each from the other. Movement towards a strategic relationship between any two or more members could quickly tip the incipient power balancing involved in any concert into containment and render the concert ineffective.

According to advocates of a concert arrangement in Asia, Australia has an interest in helping to convince Washington to accord sufficient ‘strategic space’ to China to enable it to be inducted into the concert. The alternative might be a new ‘cold war’, with a catastrophic impact on regional trade and prosperity, or even the possibility of war. Those of a realist disposition, however, have questioned this approach, arguing that any sign of weakness towards China would be exploited by Beijing.

The concert of powers is somewhat nebulous idea, delicately poised between incipient power balancing and containment. The sensitivity around power balancing was illustrated by the case of the abortive ‘quadrilateral’ of 2007. In that year then US Vice President Cheney and then Japanese Prime Minister Abe proposed inducting India into the current ‘trilateral’ dialogue process between the US, Australia and Japan, to form what was called a ‘quadrilateral’.

Beijing objected strongly to the individual countries concerned and accused them of attempting to set up a NATO-style effort to contain China. Both Australia and India subsequently backed away from the idea and in her 2011 visit to Beijing Prime Minister Gillard confirmed that Australia had no desire to “contain” China.

We can see from this that India’s potential role is highly sensitive to Beijing. But on its part, it is clear that the US, in proposing the nuclear agreement with India in 2005, offering sensitive military technologies (including through Israel’s proxy) and seeking an extensive military relationship, is attempting to put China off its stride by assisting the rise of another large Asian power – one moreover, with democratic norms and abiding territorial differences with China. Such activities are not consonant with the induction of China into a concert and would need to be modified.

White counters the prospect of a deepening US-India relationship by arguing that India is too large ever to be another power’s “ally”. He is correct in so far as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would like India to retain its strategic independence and manoeuvrability.

But several factors should also be kept in mind.

These factors, and additional potential complications in the US-Japan-China triangular relationship, mean that any concert of powers could be unstable. When combined with the nebulous nature of the concept, as described briefly above, prudent policy would dictate that any attempt to develop a concert by providing strategic space to China should be buttressed by other measures.

What might such measures be? Any military effort to coordinate a response to China beyond the current, bilateral, system of ‘hubs and spokes’ between the US and its key friends and allies would need to be handled more sensitively than was the case during the 2007 ‘quadrilateral’ affair, lest China be induced prematurely to become that which is most feared. But that does not mean more cannot be done to achieve better outcomes, perhaps by using the US initially as a ‘strategic go-between’ between the other players, but short of any formal new multilateral security arrangements targeted specifically at China.

And nor should we abandon attempts to establish multilateral security structures in Asia, which might be a useful means of supporting the emergence of a concert of powers ‘in the wings’. And here, it seems, the East Asia Summit, which includes all the major players but which is simply at this stage a summit of leaders without any on-going capacities, appeals particularly to India. With Mr Rudd’s suggested new security body effectively ‘dead in the water’, perhaps the EAS could receive stronger Australian support as the key regional institution.


1. Amy - October 19, 2011

It’s from six years ago, but this US cable is an interesting insight into India’s (lack of) enthusiasm for the EAS, at least before it joined: http://wikileaks.org/cable/2005/01/05NEWDELHI549.html

I think Australia is already backing the EAS as its regional institution of choice..?

2. Can India and China coexist in an Asian concert of powers? | East Asia Forum - October 27, 2011

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