The year gone by has challenged some of the fundamental assumptions undergirding the global order for the last several decades—politically, socially, economically and culturally. As it settles itself into a ‘new normal,’ the transition is likely to be anything but calm, orderly and predictable.
The lingering aftermath of the 2007-08 global financial crisis very discernibly attests to the tangible destabilisation of the international system—in the form of anaemic growth rates, stalling productivity and insufficient demand—that is further fuelling negative rhetoric against the very feature that has been greasing the wheels of the system for the past few decades: globalisation. What is more, it has disrupted the narrative of openness to trade and mutually beneficial cooperation previously championed by the part of the world that is today threatening to turn isolationist. This is in stark contrast to high growth rates in Asia—which remains the engine of global growth after emerging countries, such as China and India, were instrumental in pulling the world out of recession immediately post-crisis. Even more disconcerting is the impact of this geoeconomic flux on geopolitics. The world is entering into an era of increasing uncertainty, where the global security order appears too weak to respond to immediate as well as long-term threats. All these global trends have significant implications not only for India and Asia, but for the world beyond.
India is set to continue to be the world’s fastest growing large economy; Vietnam is seeing a rapid rise of electronics and garment exports; and Philippines and Malaysia are witnessing resilient domestic demand. Optimism is high for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—between 16 Asian nations that collectively account for about 30% of the world’s GDP—concluding negotiations this year after a breakthrough in the most recent round to liberalise 80% of the tariffs in the region. Regional integration through myriad connectivity projects, not the least of which is China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, continues apace, binding the region and catapulting a redistribution of economic power from the traditional torchbearers in the West to Asia.
What makes this transition rife with pitfalls is a lack of certitude about Asia’s capacity to continue generating growth amidst concerns such as rising debts that restrict, for instance, China’s ability to replace the United States as the world’s bankroller, and the reality of automation cutting jobs in sectors that have traditionally derived the most gains from trade in developing nations. Deeper fault-lines lie in Asian geopolitics, which is witnessing a ‘return of history’ adding visible stress to the current international environment. Contestations over territory and considerable augmentation in military power are driving security competition in the region. Increasingly, Asia is becoming the new cockpit of great power and regional rivalry currently being manifested in increasing inter-state conflicts. More than anything else, this security competition defines the present contours and possible trajectories of the so-called ‘Asian order.’Closer to home, its most conspicuous manifestation has been in China’s increasing aggressiveness in the East and South China Seas as it seeks to curb US dominance in maritime Asia. Such trends are neither an exclusively Asian —take the ‘Crimean Affair’ and the subsequent rivalry between the European Union (EU) and Russia over Ukraine—nor are they restricted to one ‘sub-set’ of Asia—underlined by Iran and Saudi Arabia’s politicking in Yemen and Syria to derive the most mileage for themselves in the Middle East. International politics characterised by power politics, balance of power rhetoric and a zero-sum approach make it harder to not only maintain a stable international order, but also to navigate through global interactions that seem to, at every turn pit,an ascendant China seeking to enhance its influence commensurate with its growing economic and military might against that of the world’s resident power, the United States.
Asia, with its history of antagonism and longstanding territorial disputes, as well as an entrenched trust deficit, offers significantly more ground for geopolitics to play out on. The region is also home to three so-called ‘revisionist’ powers, inflating the scope and ramifications of geopolitical games in the offing. The tendency to address regional governance issues through the narrow prism of national interest and geopolitics causes greater international upheaval, again limiting said order’s potential to engender stability in international interactions.
Political developments in the EU as a result of slow growth rates and rising unemployment levels, exacerbated by the refugee influx, coupled with the electoral mandates across the trans-Atlantic, underscore that the liberal capitalist and liberal democratic status quo that has steered the global order in the last few decades is in the process of being ruptured. The trans-Atlantic order is undergoing a significant change, which propelled by emerging ‘anti-establishment’ leadership, and the accompanying political conversations, lends weight to an impression that traditional powers and actors are either unable or unwilling to maintain and shape the world order.
This is in contrast to an emerging Asia with its increasing economic weight and military heftthat is eager to participate in global economic and governance processes. Just as Europe and the United States have been hijacked by populist voices that are putting the far-right in power, Asian countries, too, are also witnessing the rise of political conservatism which is both nationalist and parochial in its outlook. Authoritarian statism, with the rise of strongmen leaders in Asia, will likely lead to perhaps more than some measure of chaos—not least because of their personality-driven pursuits—as they find themselves taking the reins in the remaining ensembles of a liberal democratic international order. This makes for a particularly uncertain mix in the international system.
As Asia finds itself in the limelight, whether in terms of major power relations, rising insecurity and potential for conflict, or economic governance, it is worth asking, even before broaching the reality of an ‘Asian Century’ just what is ‘Asia.’ Asia, as it appears today, is a divided continent and far from being a cohesive unit with no single voice to provide an ‘Asian’ view. Its myriad civilisations, cultures and most importantly, its conflicts, militate in fact against a view of singular Asia anytime soon. Unlike Europe or America, the Asian states also do not share a common normative framework; bonds of history, culture and values are flimsy at best and sometimes even contradictory. Even as states in this continent are most likely to take upthe baton of global leadership in the coming times, their own differences—whether between two states or sub-regional divides such as those seen in the Middle East and South Asia—are very likely to be the Gordian knot that needs to be unknotted before Asia can claim for itself an entire century. Most foreseeable is the impending race between the Asian power houses—China, India and Japan—to lead the Asian century. China is far from becoming a unifying force in Asia. Its problems in East Asia, with ASEAN countries, in Central Asia and its ambiguous role in the Middle East underline a major power still in search of not only a role but also acceptance. In terms of relative power, the other Asian contenders lag far behind. Their lack of relative power has also hindered their willingness to step up and fill the vacuum presently being felt with the gradual withdrawal of the US from the Asia-Pacific, even as that ambition exists. However, the one trend that has the capacity to transform this gloomy narrative is the common goal, and indeed necessity, of continued growth and development. It is this impulse that is effectively knitting the region together through trade discussions, FTAs and regional connectivity projects. There has been a spate of free trade agreements that India, for instance, has signed in recent times or is in the process of negotiating. China has the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to offer. As far as inter-Asian connectivity is concerned, China’s Belt and Road initiative is a grand formulation for closer inter-connectedness in Asia. India, has also initiated its own efforts in this regard, most visible in the Sagar Mala project and Project Mausam. However, there is little cooperation when it comes to generating complementarities in individual efforts on closer inter-connectedness, even in a field of recognisable mutual benefit, among these two countries at the forefront in Asia. This is because of 1) a lack of trust and suspicion that continue to inform perceptions over how these states view each other’s initiatives―and which smaller states use to their advantage to hedge their bets, only complicating the state of affairs; and 2) the greater reciprocity between economic objectives and security aims that rising powers begin to benefit from—the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a crowning feature of China’s Belt and Road initiative is a ready illustration—and as already inferred, while there may be consensus on the first, there isn’t likely to be on the second.
While an Asia of Asians, and an Asian order defined by Asians and for Asians, will therefore have to wait, the imperative at present is to ask how Asian states can reconcile their national interests and relieve themselves of the security dilemma they face vis-à-vis each other, while ensuring that the necessity to balance each state does not translate into a zero-sum game.
Can Asia Lead?
The most important question for the Asian century to become a reality remains whether Asia can lead the new global order. For the foreseeable future, this looks like a difficult undertaking given the ‘domestic’ environment of Asia discussed above Europe became a global example only after the Second World War. Its integration, critical to its becoming this vaunted example, was however subsidised by an external agency in the form of the United States which effectively took control of Europe’s security. The American role and the European trajectory was replicated, to a lesser degree, in Asia after the end of the Cold War. The emergence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a vanguard of Asian integration happened in an international environment where the United States was the global hegemon and provided public goods in the Asia-Pacific. The current trends where the United States appears to be on a relative decline have engendered a ‘free-for-all’ competition in the region; ASEAN, as a protégé of the United States is today more divided than ever before. Rather than emerging as a fulcrum of global solutions, it seems as if the Asian Century is in danger of becoming the epicenter of destabilising global trends, whether it is of inter-state conflict of terrorism or of an inchoate management of global public goods.
Competition, rather than a confluence of interests, defines contemporary Asia. Small states are fearful of being sidelined by large states; coastal states are fighting over the control of the oceans; consumers of energy are constantly being fearful of overdependence on energy producers; export-oriented economies are skeptical of market access in consumer states; and lastly, democratic states are pitted against authoritarian regimes. How these differing perceptions of national interests play out will largely define the Asian Century.
The contradictions of Asia’s rise are most visible in the debate over multipolarity. The emerging nations in Asia vie for greater voice in global affairs and seek democratisation of global institutions and regimes as a means of voicing discontent largely directed at the US hegemony. Yet, at the same time, they detest any prospect of Chinese hegemony in Asia. When it comes to making a choice between two alternatives—China’s ascendance to the forefront of Asian politics and continued US hegemony in Asia-Pacific—the latter sounds much more promising than the former. The perils of global multipolarity, which translates into America’s global decline and a race for Asian hegemony, cannot be sidelined. As Peter Temin and David Vines state in their book The Leaderless Economy
, “A hegemonic country has the power to help countries cooperate with one another for the maintenance and, when needed, the restoration of prosperity…When no country can or will act as hegemon, a world crisis erupts.” Furthermore, a multipolar world, even when intrinsically more democratic, may not necessarily be the most efficacious system for preventing international conflicts. The current strategic flux in global and regional order, therefore, leaves much to chance.
Clearly the impending Asian century will not be smooth sailing. Is Asia prepared to manage its contradictions? Are the rules, norms and institutions of Asia’s existing regional architecture robust enough? Are Asian states ready to engage in sustained dialogue to institutionalise certain common understandings and resolve underlying conflicts? For one, recent years have seen the most robust regional institutions, such as the ASEAN and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), dithering under external pressure. Asian states have proposed new institutions and governance structures, although of course their effectiveness remains a matter of speculation and their robustness yet to be tried and tested. Asia’s fate and future will inevitably be decided by its collective will to solve problems and resolve issues.
India: A pivot in a pivot?
India has a pivotal role to play if the dream of an Asian Century is to become a reality. Its central position in Asia, growing economic and military power, and historical role in Asian and global politics provides it enough firepower to be a central player in shaping Asia’s future. Equally significant are the robust democratic underpinnings of India’s rise that make India unique as a rising power with a stake in the extant liberal democratic global order. Shifts in Indian foreign policy in the last quarter of a decade have been momentous. Asia has emerged as its most important focus in global politics. From ‘looking east’ to ‘acting east,’ India has shed some of its traditional reservations and is increasingly embracing the logic of expanding its influence beyond South Asia. However, doubts galore about its capability to shoulder this responsibility. Notwithstanding India’s economic strides, poverty remains a major challenge. A substantial proportion of its population still remains unaffected from the growth trajectory it has experienced in the post-Cold War period. Its military focus is still very much defined by the traditional threats posed on its land frontiers by its hostile neighbours. It still lacks the appropriate institutional and bureaucratic apparatus to further its influence across its immediate frontiers. More importantly, it is its willingness to be engaged in and contribute to Asian peace, security and governance that is being debated among strategists and political commentators, both in India and abroad. The challenges India has to surmount therefore remain substantial; yet, the opportunities beckoning India are also tremendous.
We at Observer Research Foundation have invited some of the finest minds in the world to reflect on the rise of Asia in the present global order. These interventions range from debating the idea of the ‘Asian Century’ and exploring the rapidly evolving domestic political and social contexts in the region to examining the challenges of global and regional governance. We present these essays with the hope that they will contribute to the new intellectual and policy conversations about the world which is going to be more ‘Asian’ in its texture in the coming years. India must take a lead in starting these conversations, and in so doing, navigate its people and lead other nations, with as comprehensive an understanding as possible, through the twists and turns that are but a hallmark of a transitioning global order.
This article was originally published in Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century
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