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India and the liberal international order

Published onNov 15, 2022
India and the liberal international order

India and the Liberal International Order

Nobukatsu Kanehara

Doshisha University, Japan

I Three aspects of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision

Prime Minster Abe was assassinated on July 8, 2020. Not only the nation mourned; messages of condolence came from all over the world. One of Abe’s great legacies is the Vison of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

This vision goes back to his visit to Delhi in 2007. He made a historic speech in the Indian Parliament entitled “Confluence of the Two Oceans.” ( In this speech, he sketched a highly significant global strategic picture. The Pacific region should be strategically connected with the Indian Ocean region. And Japan and India should lead. The speech was received with great enthusiasm by the Indian representatives.

In the second administration of Prime Minister Abe (2012-2020), he developed his idea into a new concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

  1. India’s rise and its strategic implication

The message included in the vision has several salient points. The first is the importance of India in twenty first century world politics. India is rising rapidly to super-power status. Its economic size is already half that of Japan, which is currently the world third largest economy. India will considerably surpass Japan in the 2030s, as China did in the 2010s. India’s population of 1.4 billion is as large as China’s. And the Indian population is on average around thirty years old, ten years younger than the Chinese population. Militarily, India is a nuclear power, and its military budget is larger than that of any of the G7 nations except the United States. India is the only nation that could be another super power in this century — a peer of the United States, Europe and China.

  1. Tectonic transformation of the world strategic framework

The second important aspect of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept is that it illustrated brilliantly the tectonic shifts in the strategic relationships between the major powers.

In the 1970s, China came out of the Cold War into a relationship with the West after sour confrontations with the Soviet Union. A new global strategic framework was produced by the genius of Dr. Henry Kissinger. The resulting ability of the West to confront the Soviet Union with China on its side made it possible to reduce tensions and to establish a short lived “detente” between Washington and Moscow.

At that time, China badly needed the West. Mao Zedong had had a brief period of honeymoon with Stalin after the establishment of Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, when he needed Stalin’s help and support to defeat the Kuomintang Army and to drive them out of the mainland. But when Stalin died in 1953, Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated quickly. Khrushchev tried to normalize the relationship with the West, causing a short period of “thaw”, during which Japan (with West and East Germany) was allowed into the United Nations. Japan officially ended the war with the Soviet Union in 1956, and the sixty thousand Japanese soldiers who were detained for ten years after WW II in the labor camps of Siberia were returned home — except for the ten percent of them who had died in the cold there.

Mao’s defiance of Khrushchev severed the warm relationship of Communist brotherhood. But Mao’s management of China was horrific. In the “great leap forward” campaign of agricultural and industrial forced collectivization, tens of millions of people starved to death. Fearing that his position would be jeopardized, Mao unleashed the cultural revolution in 1966 in order to create complete chaos as a recipe for his own survival as an absolute dictator. In 1969, he recklessly attacked Damansky Island in the Ussuri River in Siberia. The Soviet Union (which was then a super power) mobilized its modern army and six divisions were deployed in Mongolia. This was the moment at which China decided to join hands with Japan and the United States. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s prime minister, rushed to Tokyo and succeeded in normalising relations between Japan and China in only two weeks.

Seeing the Chinese rapprochement with Japan and the United States, India moved slowly toward Moscow. Although India had never forgotten or forgiven the Chinese invasions of 1959 and 1962, India’s leaders had nevertheless originally hoped to share with China leadership of the third world countries that had gained independence after World War II, through the Indian-initiated Non-Aligned Movement. But, seeing that Mao was behaving like Stalin, expanding his territory and taking advantage of every weakness left by the collapse of the British Empire’s Asian sphere of influence, Delhi felt that it had to counter the power of China — which had been increased through Mao’s new connections with the West. Moscow-Delhi rapprochement was, in other words, an unintended by-product of the Sino-American-Japanese rapprochement.

In the twenty first century, the strategic positioning that had been established by the Nixon-Kissinger team changed drastically. China rose and became an economic giant. After the Lehman shock of 2008, as a result of which the Western economy nose-dived into a long recession, China pulled the world economy forwards, in the same way that “locomotive” nations such as Japan and West Germany had done after the oil shocks of the 1970s, and was welcomed as a hero in the newly created G20 summit. But, in more recent years, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomacy has become more coercive and expansionist. China has declared officially in writing to the United Nations that the South China Sea (larger than the Mediterranean) is its own sea historically. In both the East and the South China seas, China has started to bully other coastal nations, using its maritime police force to impede the exploitation of fishery and oil resources, militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, and even threatening territories of US allies such as the Philippines (Scarborough Shawl) and Japan (the Senkaku Islands) in 2012.

As a result, the United States redirected its China policy under President Trump. Secretary of State Pompeo made a historic speech at the West Coast Nixon Center in 2020, declaring that China had become a strategic competitor of the United States ( The challenge posed by China is not only seen in military terms, but also in terms of economics, science, technology and ideology. The determination of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship to elevate collective welfare over individual rights has become starkly evident under the leadership of Xi Jinping since 2012; and discomfort amongst Westerners turned into real fear when China extinguished the torch of freedom in Hong Kong in 2020, violating the agreement with the British to respect the status of Hong Kong for fifty years after its return to China.

Under President Xi, Beijing has not only started to move away from the West; it has also begun to carve out its own sphere of influence in Asia. Xi does not hesitate to use coercive methods in the non-military “grey area.” He may be dreaming of the days of the Qing dynasty, when almost all Asians except the Japanese were tributaries of China.

The more China moves away from the West, the more India moves slowly back towards the West. As a result, we are now witnessing the emergence of a new strategic framework.

The West, whose unity was badly weakened recently by the unilateral actions of the Trump administration, is now gathering steam and regaining its unity, as was evident at the UK G7 Summit in Cornwall. President Biden has since been leading Western efforts to support Ukrainian resistance against Putin’s invasion, and at the recent NATO summit the leaders of US Pacific Allies — Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand — were invited to attend for the first time. The summit participants identified China as a “systemic challenger.” (

And India is now moving towards the West as China moves away. The Quad is now becoming a substantial strategic framework. When the idea of the Quad was originally proposed by Prime Minister Abe in his first administration (2006-07), although China was upset, the concept was not warmly welcomed either in Canberra or in Delhi. Now, however, the Quad is becoming a central framework for strategic partnership between the Western Partners in the Pacific and India, and may expand to include Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia in the future. The US has in the meanwhile invited the UK (which is trying to rehabilitate its status as a global power) to join the framework of AUKUS — a move that is in line with the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

  1. India and the international order

The third point to stress is that the strategic partnership of the West and Japan with India is one based upon universal values and norms. It is therefore very different both from the US and UK alliance with Stalin in World War II to defeat Hitler and from the US rapprochement with Mao to confront the Soviet Union, both of which were examples of old-fashioned European-style power politics, whose underlying principle was that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” — or, as we say in Japan, that one has to “use poison to offset another poison.”

India is a nation born as a democracy created by Gandhi and Nehru. Among the three big continental powers — Russia, China and India — only India is a true democracy. And this is the first time that the West is in cooperation with India. Hence, the importance of India joining the West should not be underestimated. The new partnership between the West and India could be a basis for the expansion of the liberal international order in Asia.

In this century, Asia will constitute sixty percent of the world population and economy. The gravity of history is moving from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. The West cannot be marginalized, rather it should expand into Asia. The West should stress that universal values like freedom, human rights, rule of law and democracy are TRULY universal, not white and Christian values. This is the argument that China is challenging.

The liberal international order is based upon the principle that the legitimacy of power comes from individuals. Power is trusted by people who consent to it. Nobody can rule without the consent of the ruled. Underlying this principle, there is a conviction that human beings are created to help each other survive. This conviction is very often connected with the religious doctrine of Christianity, which teaches love. To care for the weak is a fundamental instinct; to make a society inclusive is also a fundamental instinct; a human being has a conscience that directs him or her to love others; every human being has dignity and is equal to each other human being; accordingly, government is a mere instrument to secure the community of humans; and this is the reason why the government’s legitimacy must be based upon the consent of the people. This thinking dates back to the Enlightenment thinkers of Europe, or even to the thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity.

Westerners should remember that Asians, who started to democratize in the late 1980s, have followed a very different path. The Philippines became a democracy in 1986, South Korea in 1987, followed by some other ASEAN nations, and by Taiwan in the 1990s. They are young and dynamic democracies. They remember that the colonial rulers were already all democracies in the late nineteenth century.

The West needs to emphasise that racial discrimination and colonial rule are consigned to history, and that the liberal world order of the twenty first century is a truly universal norm. In this connection, India has a particular role. India became independent without shooting a bullet, under Mahatma Gandhi, whose “satyagraha” policy of passive resistance showed powerfully that the truth has no skin color. The power of this idea pulled down British colonial rule. Ghandi’s message was that human rights, democracy and rule of law are universal norms and must be applied fully to Asians and Africans. This is the message that the West, for its part, should carry forward in this century.

II. The challenge of China to the West and the awakening of the Chinese people

The biggest challenge to the liberal international order is the rise of China. Can China ultimately share universal norms? Russia and China have chosen different paths for modernization. In China, Marxism has taken on a very different shape. Dictatorship by the Chinese Communist Party has been legitimized by the doctrine of the class struggle. And in the international arena, the leadership of the CCP still believe that competition for spheres of influence has to be conducted on the basis of the nineteenth century rule of the jungle. Indeed, under Xi Jinping, China is becoming ever more adamant that it needs to follow its own path.

But China has a long rich history of political thought. Mencius said two thousand three hundred years ago that the people’s will is heaven’s will, and that a king who acts against heaven’s will must perish. He even said that a king who abuses his own people loses heaven’s grace and can be decapitated. The highest value of Confucius is “ren”: Confucius wrote two thousand five hundred years ago that “ren” is to love people.

The Chinese people will awaken in the future. The Chinese Communist Party will try to prevent people from awakening, in order to hold on to its power. Nonetheless, wakening must come one day. The Chinese know very well that a ruler is just like a ship floating on the ocean of the people. The awakening may take decades; meantime, the West must demonstrate that its political system is more resilient than the Chinese communist dictatorship because it can make its own people happier.

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