There is a climate change occurring across the global political spectrum over the last decade or so, gaining momentum every year. The primary cause is the new wind blowing from China in the east, which appears to be sweeping away the debris from the crumbling structure of the old world order. This change has to do with the shifting of power from the west to the east. It has become more palpable at the advent of the year 2021, when with the anti-corona vaccine in the market, there has appears a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a labyrinthian one.
For the world 2020 has been an annus horribilis. The Covid-19 wreaked death and destabilization almost everywhere. It was a trauma that affected every individual one way or another, the only one of its kind. At the same time, peoples watched in shock and awe as the nation that had led them to date, the United States, rocked in an implosion from multiple factors combining in a perfect storm, a phenomenon that was about to alter global destiny. This essay will seek to examine if the fresh winds from China will be the balm that will help settle the turmoil.
Doubtless, the major element shaping our socio-political and economic life today has been the US, which continues to be the world’s most influential nation. Through a combination of objective conditions and effective marketing, America succeeded in projecting itself as the City on the Shining Hill, with a Manifest Destiny to expand territorially within the continent, evolving a political culture over time that stressed American Exceptionalism. When during the two World wars of the 20th century, America, the ‘new world’, till then quite content in its splendid isolation in faraway ‘fortress America, was called upon by the ‘old world’ of Europe to aid the allies, it responded, assisting the latter’s victory.
Thereafter, the US helped create a new World Order through the establishment of multiple multilateral institutions. Supported by Western Europe, they established a set of universal global norms (free trade, democracy, etc.), and together defeated the rival communist ideology of Communism espoused, during the Cold war, by the Soviet Union. In this America was the major player and hence was begun to be perceived as the ‘leader’ of the so-called ‘free-world’. As global politics evolved, the theories of Karl Marx were turned on their head and instead of ‘capitalism’ as Marx had predicted, it was communism that collapsed due to its inner contradictions.
America now emerged, in the words of the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine as the single ‘hyperpower’. With power, came hubris. In a self-imposed mission to universalize the world in consonance with its own values, America became involved in ‘forever wars’ such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, ironically ending up playing the very role that its founding fathers had been wary of, that is searching for foreign monsters to slay. Battle-weariness from conflicts abroad set in. Domestically, as the rich grew richer, middle America, the lower and working classes, distressed by the widening gulf between them and the elite, saw globalization as the cause of their plight. Significant parts of that nation, like Gulliver bound by the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s famous satire, felt constrained by the rules of the world order they had themselves helped to forge.
Enter Donald Trump, riding the crest of this wave of disenchantment. He tore up the rulebooks of traditional conduct, both at home and abroad, putting ‘America first’ in the pursuit of an atavistic vision to make America ‘great again’. Trump was like a one-man wrecking ball destroying the very institutions that upheld western universalism. He pulled America out of many past agreements, and sought to re-negotiate America’s engagement with the rest of the world, with friends and foes alike. He initiated a bitter trade war with China raising fears of a Thucydidean syndrome where an actual war could result from missteps. Domestically, partly as a result of Trump’s divisive politics, and partly owing to deeper social and cultural malaise, Americans appeared pitted violently against one another. The situation was exacerbated by the failure to tackle the Corona Pandemic. As to American leadership of the world, or even of the group of western allies, it had pretty much collapsed in a heap. There was now a vacuum on the global matrix, waiting to be filled.
In the meantime, the world was witnessing what now is surely seen as the inexorable rise, at the far end of the globe, of China, and the gradual fruition of Xi Jinping’s Zhang Guomeng, the Mandarin for ‘China Dream’. As far back as in 2005 the German-American sociologist Andre Gunder Frank had stated that the only thing to fear about a rising China is America’s reaction to it. Nothing much has changed since then, except that, notwithstanding the consequences, China is quietly but steadfastly moving to pivotally position itself in the globe.
It is noteworthy that the behaviour of the Chinese dragon, at times seemingly shifting, conforms to an explicable pattern drawing from its long civilizational annals. Even the Chinese revolution of 1949 is encompassed in China’s process of evolution. Its framework contains Mao Zedong’s radicalism, Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism, Hu Jintao’s harmonization and Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’, reflecting a seamless consistency. The result has been the most successful development story in history.
On 26 December 2020, the London-based ‘Centre for Economics and business Research’ (CEBR), a reputed British think-tank, stated in a report that China will overtake the US to become the world’s biggest economy in 2028, five years earlier than previously estimated. The cause was attributed to the contrasting recoveries of the two countries from the Covid-19 pandemic. While the Trump Administration in the US has been unable to control it, the government in China has been able to bring a return of life to near-normalcy through skilful management. To support its contention, the report stated that China looked set for average growth of 5.7 per cent a year to 2025, before slowing to 4.5 per cent a year from 2026 to 2030. While the US was likely to have a strong post-pandemic recovery next year, its growth would slow to1.9 per cent a year between 2022 and 2024, and then to 1.6 per cent after that.
The tenure of President Joe Biden will most certainly see a return to a modicum of stability within America. Also, to perhaps a positive perception of America abroad. But given the continued political presence of the Trumpian base, according to the Pulitzer-prize winning historian Jon Meacham, America will remain a “see-saw” between dark and light, illustrating the fact that the Trumpian era was not an aberration. Because the US has been unable to satisfy certain critical social indices they have tracked such as reduction of inequality, two renowned academics, Peter Turchin, a specialist in mathematical modelling of the dynamics of historical societies, and a colleague Jack Gladstone, have predicted that political and civil unrest in the US will continue regardless of the party in power. These factors may be sufficient to put paid to any thought of leadership in the global milieu for the US in the foreseeable future.
But this does not mean China automatically fills that slot left vacant by America. Nor is China keen to do so, however tempting it may be to be the first Asian nation to rise to a position in modern times, hitherto seen as a preserve of Caucasian entities. However, even if not exactly supplanting the US, China has already reached the status of a Great power, and has succeeded in ending US unipolarity. This it has done by challenging the western concept of ‘universality’,and demonstrating that one can also be different and yet comparable. The simultaneity of the decline of the US and rise of China quickened the pace of this process. This is akin to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a ‘paradigm shift’ with regard to global power-play.
China is not anxious to export its political model of governance through a single Communist party, nor its economic model of market-socialism ‘with Chinese characteristics’. Its stated goal is a “a new kind of bog power relationship with the US”; in other words, it is seeking ‘peer -status’. But Xi’s China is obviously assertive enough to brook no impediment on its way to securing that goal. This is one explanation of its current strained relationship with India and Australia. American thinkers of the ‘realist school’ in international relations,like John Mearsheimer. would understand.
China would be wise to learn from the experience of the US and the West and not to do a repeat run of what might be viewed as exploitative or predatory interactions with partners. Its mega-initiatives such as the Road and Belt (BRI) projects have the potentials for what the Chinese themselves love to describe as ‘win-win’ collaboration by prospering the partners and helping build the latter’s capacity for mutually rewarding cooperation. Indeed, China could, if it plays its cards responsibly, and there is every reason to believe it can, inspire a ‘flying geese paradigm’, as enunciated by the Japanese economist Kaname Akamatsu, by encouraging other developing countries to follow it, as in a flock of geese in flight birds follow the leader. Be that as it may, 2021 may be ushering in what might be the beginnings of a new World Order.
As for America and the West, it is best that they come to terms with reality and accept the emergence of an Asian entity, China, as an international actor equal to the Caucasian great powers of the past. The truth is the Asian age was already upon us, and the greater success of countries like Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, in handling the Covid-19 among other things, has underscored that fact. Irrational resistance of inevitability might lead to deadly conflict.
Aaron Friedberg, the author of “The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905” has observed that abandoning supremacy was a prudent and sensible strategy, given the economic and political realities of the time. A sound observation, relevant then, as now.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg