Return of the Arc of Democracy

The United States sends an aircraft battle group composed of the USS John C. Stennis with escorting destroyers and cruisers on a cruise into the South China Sea. Washington also dispatches B-2 stealth bombers to Guam and floats the idea of rotating heavy bombers to bases in northern Australia.

Meanwhile, China has moved fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles on to Woody Island, the “capital” of China-claimed Paracel islands. It moves a long-range radar complex on Cuarteron reef in the Spratlys, and opens a 3,000-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef.

Tokyo agrees to lease Japanese air force trainers to the Philippines to augment its surveillance over Philippine-claimed waters while a “swarm” of Chinese coast guard and naval vessels harass Filipino fishermen near Jackson Reef, claimed by Manila.

Both Washington and Beijing blast each other for “militarizing” the South China Sea. The commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, tells the US Senate: “China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, and you have to believe in the flat earth to think otherwise.”

For its part a Chinese spokesman reiterates that the islands in the South China Sea have been Chinese territory from time immemorial and gets close to declaring that the entire sea is their territory, not just the reefs and atolls, a position long implied in official maps.

Who is threatening whom? A Chinese foreign Ministry spokesman says, “If you look closely, it is the US that is sending the most advanced aircraft and military vessels to the South China Sea.

The recent developments, including a seemingly daily stream of statements from diplomats and military leaders throughout the region, have revived a concept that went out of vogue 10 years ago, the so-called “Arc of Democracy.”

The Arc of Democracy was first proposed, as one might guess, by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, during his first term of office (2006-2007). The basic concept was a quasi-alliance based on shared values among an arc of countries stretching from India in the west to Japan.

All three key countries in the arc – India, Australia and Japan with the US as the backstop – are of course democratic. That supposedly was the glue to keep this fledgling alliance alive. However, it would seem that shared values are not enough. It needs a perceived common threat.

The former Australian Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, scuppered the idea, fearing it would jeopardize relations with China and be perceived in Beijing as a group of countries ganging up to prevent its peaceful rise.

Japan under Abe was almost the only country enthusiastic about it, but after he resigned his first term due to ill health and other factors, it languished under his successor Yasuo Fukuda. Both Fukuda and Rudd are notable Sinophiles.

At the time, nobody seemed interested in taking part in ventures that appeared to be aimed at “containing” China. In his first trip abroad the Mandarin-speaking Australian premier visited Beijing but snubbed Tokyo. With Australia out and Japan disengaged, it seemed that the arc of democracy would wither and die with relatively few moaning its demise.

How things change in a mere decade. Amidst fears of China’s expansive claims, especially in in the South China Sea, the arc of democracy has returned with a vengeance.

China’s new assertiveness is the obvious catalyst for the return of the concept, although nobody uses the term Arc now. The preferred term is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It involves closer defense cooperation, military sales and joint maneuvers between India, Australia, Japan and the US.

Before the end of the year it is likely that the US, Indian and Japanese navies will hold joint exercises in the South China Sea probably close to the Philippines. The three have exercised together on in the Indian Ocean but never together in the South China Sea.

Australia has made a considerable turnabout since the days when it repudiated the Arc of Democracy out of fear that it would upset trade and relations with China. The new Defense White Paper for 2016 singles out the island-building in the South China Sea as one important threat, as great as terrorism.

Under conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Canberra has condemned China’s island building activities and has sent patrol craft into the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands, including possibly freedom of navigation (FON) exercise of its own.

Like the US, Australia has no claims in the South China Sea and does not take a position as to which islands, reef and atolls belong to whom. But it supports Washington’s position of the need to keep the vital waterway open to navigation by everyone.

By a strange turn of fate, the Japanese premier who first proposed the Arc is back in office. Stopping short of actually taking part in regional surveillance patrols, Abe has endeavored to tighten defense relationships with all elements of the Arc, and some other countries that are not a part of it such as the Philippines.

He hopes to be able to seal the deal with Australia, when Canberra decides who will provide its next generation of submarines. Tokyo has offered to sell its Soryu Class, often described as the best conventionally powered submarine in the world.

France and Germany have also made bids, but a tie-up with Japan offers strategic advantages that the other two European builders cannot provide. The winner of the bidding will b announced later this year.

“Japan’s offer of the Soryu is tangible proof that Japan considers Australia to be as important a security partner as the US,” said Rt. Captain James Fanell, formerly chief of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet.