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Is non-alignment making a comeback in Asia?

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Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pose for a picture prior the Quad ministerial meeting in Tokyo, Japan, 6 October 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Kiyoshi Ota).

In Brief

Despite their insistence to the contrary, discussions on the informal strategic relationship between the United States, India, Japan and Australia continue to be couched in Cold War terminology. Just as NATO served as a bulwark against the Soviet Union's global designs, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) seems intended to become the answer to China's increasingly assertive approach to international relations.


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China and Russia, two of the most vocal critics of the Quad, have expressed concerns regarding its objectives. They fear that not only would the Quad reinforce the primacy of the United States to the strategic calculus of the Indo-Pacific, but it also carries the prospect of shaping the regional order in a way disadvantageous to them. A jittery China may feel compelled to launch a counter-bloc comprising itself and its partners in the region.

States are finding themselves awkwardly at the centre of the jousting between China and Quad members. Sri Lanka and the Maldives, while traditionally geopolitically tied to India, now have China as their biggest lender and trading partner. China has also chipped away at India’s influence in Nepal and Bangladesh — two other neighbours that India believes fall under its geopolitical sphere. Deepening political and economic linkages with China may dissuade these states from taking strong positions.

Strategic competition between China and the United States follows a similar template. South Korea has bolstered defence and strategic ties with the United States while attempting to enhance bilateral economic ties with China. Even as key ASEAN member states — such as Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines — are part of the US security structure in the Indo-Pacific, China is covering important ground on the economic front by solidifying its position as ASEAN’s biggest trading partner.

Beijing played a role in stitching together the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2020, binding Asian economies into closer embrace through better economic outcomes. Despite bearing the brunt of China’s aggressive posturing, both South Korea and ASEAN have shown a lukewarm attitude towards the Quad.

Geopolitical circumstances reopen opportunities for a non-aligned movement to bubble up to the surface, tailored to the new realities of the region, and this is a process that already seems to be underway. Non-alignment does not necessarily mean either neutrality or isolation in the context of bloc politics. Instead, through active participation in world politics, non-alignment seeks to influence the two blocs to modify their geopolitical outlook. A new, regionally-centred non-aligned movement could be similar to its Cold War forerunner. The prospect of such a movement may instinctively appeal to small and middle powers in the region.

Such a regional movement can take cues from the experiences of ASEAN. In many ways, ASEAN is a middle ground between the loose and overspread original Non-Aligned Movement and tight coalitions of states in solid blocs. Even as ASEAN’s member states retain full agency, courtesy of the organisation’s much avowed non-interference principle, ASEAN does reach decisions through consultation and consensus. More importantly, ASEAN keeps dialogue open and engagement active between very different countries. In any renewed non-aligned movement, ASEAN could serve as a model and a springboard.

The underlying logic of the original Non-Aligned Movement was to accelerate decolonisation and help member states resist pressure to join either of the two blocs during the Cold War. But in a far more globalised and interconnected world, a new movement can serve as a linkage, facilitating interaction between the rival blocs. Already, South Korea and ASEAN members like Vietnam have expressed a desire to mediate between the United States and China. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Executive Vice-Chair of South Korea’s National Unification Advisory Council Jeong Se-hyun have made statements to this effect.

These non-aligned states have been and can continue to make the two blocs vie for influence through developmental projects, securing better deals for themselves in the process. Discussions on alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fulfil the infrastructural needs of low and middle-income countries in the region are gathering pace among Quad members. Along the same lines, aiming to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy, the Quad nations agreed to pool their resources into COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing. The Quad’s vaccine initiative intends to deliver up to one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Southeast Asian countries and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific and beyond by the end of 2022.

Against the backdrop of worsening rivalry between the United States and China, the growing significance of the Quad could be a harbinger of increasingly Cold War-like bloc politics in the region. A non-alignment movement, comprised of states unwilling to take sides, may be the natural and sensible reaction.

Shalabh Chopra is a political commentator based in Delhi.

One response to “Is non-alignment making a comeback in Asia?”

  1. An interesting and pertinent article. But, I humbly believe that NAM won’t be able to do much to avoid antagonistic bloc formation. Just like it was unable to during the the First Cold War. I hope I’m wrong

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