Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alpha leaders driven by dreams of lost glory

This year being the centenary of the start of World War I , and this week with Tony Abbott attending both Remembrance Day and the APEC summit in Beijing, it's understandable that Asia has come to be seen as the strategic battleground between the reigning power, the United States, and the rising challenger, China. The new cohort of leaders making their way to Brisbane, however, will demonstrate that today's Great Game for global power will be shaped by not just one great challenger in Asia, but four.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott will have to find room at the G20 summit table not just for the still-dominant leader in Asia, Barack Obama, but the modern-day heirs of four once-great Asian empires. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the contest between China, Russia, Japan and India is sharpened by the fact that each is led by a forceful, charismatic and distinctly masculine leader who has staked his claim to power on a promise to recover lost civilisational grandeur.

The strategic dilemma for Australia, and the table-seating headache for Abbott, is that the core ambitions of each of these alpha-leaders can only by met by denying those of at least two of the others. Their room to manouevre is shaped and constrained not so much by the paradigms of World War I, in far away Europe, but the legacies and filtered memories of what we call World War II.

China's President Xi Jinping, of course, needs no introduction. The Communist Party supremo, who boasted of being "man enough" to stand up to any Gorbachev-like internal threats to party power, and simultaneously positioned himself as heir of a 5000-year imperial tradition, is  shaking the Asia-Pacific by challenging the postwar rules-based order as shaped by the United States.


The central proxy target in Xi's challenge to the American-anchored order, Japan's Shinzo Abe's Japan, has also risen to political dominance with a program of national rejuvenation and an intent to reclaim his country's rightful place in the world.

Abe's 20-months in office has been defined by his unyielding stance against Xi's military, economic and diplomatic challenges over the history of World War II and, specifically, a group of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. This week Xi and Abe agreed to shake hands in Beijing, in the absence of the territorial and historical concessions that Xi had previously demanded, in what each side claimed as victory but what is more properly seen as a costly nil-all draw.

While Xi has shifted his weight against the US and its allies he has protected his western flank by teaming with a former mortal foe, Russia, where Vladimir Putin is presenting an even more brazen challenge to the US-anchored rules-based order and raging against the "suicidal Western liberal consensus" involving "satanism", "homosexuality" and "paedophilia".

"I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis," said Putin, in a landmark speech in Sochi last month, which upheld the Western liberal concepts of "democracy" and "pluralism" to defend his international right to deny those possibilities at home. Putin has backed this anti-Western axis with military hardware, this week sending his Pacific Fleet to patrol off the coast of Queensland. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be the first of the alpha leaders to touch down in Brisbane this morning, is the least well known but arguably the one most worth watching. His magnetism is such that not only did he recently romp home in the world's greatest democratic election, on a promise to rejuvenate Indian civilisation, but his fans in the Sydney diaspora have booked-out a 15,000-seat stadium to see him in perform on Monday (and they were over-subscribed within three days).

 Modi wants Chinese investment money and sees China as a development model. What he demands above all else, however, is national respect. 

When Modi hosted Xi in September he handed him a copy of the Baghavad Gita, the Hindu civilisational classic, and told him that all their multi-billion dollar mutual dreams would be on hold until Chinese soldiers in the Himalayas returned to their side of the Himalayan border. "Small incidents can impact the biggest of relationships just as a little toothache can paralyse the entire body," said Modi.

In many ways Xi, Putin, Modi and Abe share similar dreams but they have been sleeping in different institutional beds since the aftermath of World War II. Xi has chosen to mobilise his party, army and population by continuing the struggle that his father's Red Army claimed to have fought (but largely skirted) with imperial Japan. Putin, who traces his political lineage to Stalin's KGB more than the Soviet Red Army, has chosen to extol the great dictator's infamous alliance with Nazi Germany as an exemplar of pragmatic self-protection.

It is not surprising that, despite decades of national enmity, Xi and Putin have teamed up together to defend the authoritarian institutions that serve them. After neutering their respective populations, the primary constraints they face are those imposed by the laws of economics, at home,  and US-anchored coalitions abroad.

If let to themselves, Abe and Modi would probably indulge their own ultra-nationalist instincts and the necessarily filtered memories of World War II. Abe would restore the honour of his grandfather's militarist regime while Modi would focus on the lost postwar opportunity for Hindu supremacy including the "tragedy" of partition.

Arguably, both Abe and Modi share the nationalist and arguably ultra-nationalist dreams of Xi and Putin. The great difference, which  defines the faultlines between aspiring powers, is that Abe and Modi are constrained by the democratic institutions they serve. When Abe received Modi in Tokyo they embraced in a bear hug and agreed to greatly deepen military ties, implicitly against the common threat posed by Xi.

Abbott sees Abe and Modi as natural allies. They talk incessantly about "values" whenever they are together.  It would be revealing, strategically, if Modi chooses to join Abbott at the War Memorial in Canberra next week to honour long-forgotten Indian soldiers and forge a common memory of an anti-fascist war. 

John Garnaut is Fairfax Media's Asia-Pacific editor.

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