Strategic triangle in a shifting global order

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American influence and prestige have fallen but the US remains the most influential international and the only truly global actor. Photo: AFP
One-man show American influence and prestige have fallen but the US remains the most influential international and the only truly global actor. Photo: AFP

The central geopolitical dynamic of our time is the relative waning of US power and the steady accretion of power, wealth and clout by China. In an address to Australia’s Parliament on 17 November 2011, US President Barack Obama announced a much-touted pivot to Asia. Events in West Asia and Ukraine have preoccupied most of his attention and time since then. But last month, he undertook a swing through Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in a very visible demonstration — touring with intent — that even while Washington can no longer impose its will in distant places, it will resist having to cede strategic space to China, even in the Pacific.

The China-US jockeying for strategic advantage takes place against a broader and more fundamental power shift underway in the world. The second most critical geopolitical relationship this century is likely to be that between China and India. More and more, the Asian giants are reclaiming agency in determining their own affairs. The destiny of Asia will be shaped by China, India and Japan, whose strategic footprint will cover the world. Cooperation between them will promote peace and prosperity in Asia. Rivalry and conflict will roil the world.

Among the three, India has a rugged, resilient and vibrant democracy, as demonstrated only too vividly in this year’s exciting General Election. Japan is a stable and mature democracy that, hobbled by the guilt of World War II, is still struggling to shed the pathology of a tentative state and become a ‘normal’ country. China is seeking to promote market-led economic growth within tight political centralism by the Communist Party. India’s legitimacy is rooted in its political model that is unique in the annals of human history in terms of scale and poverty, China’s in economic success that is without precedent in human history in scale and pace, and Japan’s in the combination of political democracy and wealth creation for all that is unique in Asia. China uses political control and the heavy hand of the State to forestall and suppress all challenges and uprisings, India uses procrastination and indecisiveness to ride out and exhaust most insurgencies along with an oppressive security presence in some cases, and Japan has been mercifully free of such challenges so far.

Of the three, India is the only one to have been conquered and colonised by the West. It was also humiliated militarily by China. The latter is the only one of the three Asian giants that was neither defeated nor colonised. But China was attacked, invaded and humiliated by a string of unequal treaties by Japan as well as western powers. China and India, each nuclear armed and with a billion people, are the heartland of the world. Japan is the only non-nuclear power in the trio and was defeated by being atom bombed. Not quite a spent economic powerhouse, it is the wealthiest of the three. But its economic future seemingly lies in the past, China is the most vibrantly growing economy at present; but, provided governance and policy issues are handled right, demographic trends of a growing working and consumer cohort favour India as tomorrow’s economic success story.

The Southward and Eastward Shift of Hard and Soft Power
Calculations by several economic historians, including Deepak Nayyar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University), show that from 1000-1800 AD, Asia, Africa and Latin America — today’s developing world — accounted for 65-75 percent of global population and income. Europe rode to world dominance through the industrial revolution, innovations in transport and communications, and the ideology and practice of colonialism, during which the developing countries suffered dramatic relative losses. From 1870 to 1950, Asia’s per capita income plummeted from one-half to one-tenth of west European levels. Asia has been bouncing back since in economic output, industrialisation and trade.

The importance of Brazil, China and India lies in their future economic potential, which already has translated into present political clout. The early 19th century saw the displacement of Asia by Britain as the dominant actor of the times; the early 20th century, of Britain by America. To date, the early 21st century has witnessed the beginning of the end of US and western influence and the re-emergence of China and India.

As part of the shifting global order, US influence and prestige have fallen but it remains the most influential international and the only truly global actor; Japan continues its slow decline; Russia is marking time; Europe’s reach is strangely shorter than its grasp; India under different policy settings with a new Narendra Modi government might recapture world attention and interest that has steadily waned over the last, lost decade; and the real winner is China with an ascendant economy, growing poise and expanding soft power assets.

The US has no peer competitor as a military power but cannot impose Pax Americana; yet it seems reluctant to share power. Instead of demonstrating unlimited US power, Iraq and Afghanistan brutally exposed the limits to US power to impose American will on local populations willing to fight back. The historian Paul Kennedy’s thesis of implosion caused by unavoidable overreach on the inexorable logic of imperial rise and fall may yet prove correct, but not in the near term. Washington can still veto most international action and no major world problem can be settled by working against it. The US is still the guarantor of the trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and trans-American security orders. All three regions are caught between the desire to keep the US fully engaged in the region, to underwrite stability and prosperity, and the search for a sharper and autonomous regional identity.

Besides the US, the other major world repository of democratic legitimacy, wealth and power is Europe. Where the US sends soldiers to impose an increasingly fraying Pax Americana, Europe sends inspectors to expand its soft power reach through standards, rules and regulations. But this is within the union and inadequate recompense for the lack of material power to shape world events. Europe is less than the sum of its parts. In West Asia, for example, Europe is the atm that dispenses a billion euros annually without any visible influence over the Israel-Palestine conflict. The protracted Eurozone crisis has simultaneously sapped European capacity, will and self-confidence and diminished its international reputation and stature.

Trust deficit: Outside the West, NATO is seen as an alliance of former European colonial powers. Photo: AFP
Trust deficit Outside the West, NATO is seen as an alliance of former European colonial powers. Photo: AFP

NATO: An Alliance in Search of an Enemy and a Role
During the Cold War, the clarity of NATO’s function against a defined enemy — defend Western Europe against conventional and nuclear Soviet attack — determined its force structure and military deployment. The organisation has been conceptually and operationally adrift in the ‘war on terror’ that conflates a tactic — terrorism — into the enemy. Nor is NATO well-suited to combat other major contemporary threats such as Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear proliferation.

Do westerners really want to put NATO in the middle of a potential Ukrainian civil war, knowing how deeply conflicted that country is between its pro-Russian and western cleavages? Or import Georgia’s troubles and conflicts? Far from securing these troublesome regions, NATO would risk long-term infection by their historical animosities. The EU, not NATO, is the more effective instrument for consolidating and securing the new democracies born of the multi-coloured revolutions across the former Central and Eastern Europe. In Afghanistan, NATO morphed into a tool for confronting warlords, eradicating poppy cultivation, undertaking provincial reconstruction and schooling girls — and then departed from this graveyard of empires. In western minds, NATO is a military alliance of most of the world’s leading democracies. For many others, it brings together all the former European colonial powers. Hence, the split in perceptions of its out-of-area role, from Afghanistan to Libya.

Projecting western force into distant trouble spots by deploying NATO out of the European theatre carries several risks. The more nebulous functions in areas far removed from the vital core will dissipate consensus among allies, entangle it in protracted and messy historical enmities and conflicts, turn it into a nation- building lite enterprise that infects it with the same weaknesses that arouse contempt for the UN, raise suspicions in and provoke retaliation by Russia, and invite charges of neocolonial occupation. The NATO operation in Libya in 2011 that ousted Muammar Gaddafi and led to his arrest and killing is a good case in point, even though it was authorised by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1973.

Global Rebalance or Return to the Old Imbalance?
The demonstration of the limits to US and NATO power in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya has left many less fearful of ‘superior’ western power. Abusive practices in the ‘war on terror’ and the great financial collapse of 2008-09 have made them less respectful of western values and managerial competence. Their own resilience through the financial crisis has enhanced their self-confidence. The leading developing countries have strongly outpaced the industrial world in gdp and trade. China and India will be major players in setting energy, mineral and commodity prices. The new scramble for Africa is between them.

As China, India and Brazil emerge as important growth centres in the world economy, the age of the West disrespecting the rest’s role, relevance and voice is passing. A much-needed global moral rebalancing is also in train. Westerners have lost their previous capacity to set standards and rules of behaviour for the whole world. Unless they recognise this reality, there is little prospect of making significant progress in deadlocked international negotiations. Not just the process but the structures and rules of the game for conducting negotiations must be agreed to jointly.

Conversely, however, if the big emerging powers falter and fall by the wayside in their economic performance while Europe and the US bounce back strongly, the world could return to the post-Cold War geopolitical equations with Washington as the cock of the walk. But it is too early to write off even Japan, let alone India and, especially, China.

This is the first segment of a four-part series on Asian powers and international relations


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