By C. Uday Bhaskar
The emerging international global order to my mind is better described as a polycentric heptagon – an uneven seven-sided polygon comprising the United States, Russia, China, the EU, India, Japan and Brazil. The USA, EU and Japan represent one strategic entity with shared security interests; Russia and China are conscious of their non-Western orientation; and India and Brazil are the equivalent of swing states that have the potential to acquire greater relevance in the heptagon.
The rise of the “rest” would imply the four non-Western members viz: Russia, China, India and Brazil – which also form the BRIC group. Collectively the cumulative comprehensive power index of the US-led grouping will be of a higher order for the next two decades. The re-ordering will occur as and when China overtakes the USA as the world’s most prosperous nation by way of overall GDP — and how Japan / East Asia responds to this change.
The US-led international order, and the selective interpretation of what constitutes “liberal” as well as the exigencies under which certain values are to be protected, will be either resisted or challenged by the “rest” – but in an uneven, issue-based manner. To that extent, it may be in order to qualify the emerging global ambiance as a “contra-polar” world, where contradictory policy pursuits and contrarian impulses are the norm.
This would be a sharp contrast to the black-and-white binary division of the Cold War. A heptagon covered by a gray sheen may be the more valid characterization of the emerging global environment consequent to the “rise of the rest.”
Asian geopolitics will be critical for the texture of the emerging contra-polar world in which the China-Japan-India triangle will subsume these complexities and contradictions. Will the imperative of globalization as manifest in trade, commerce and investment be the principal consideration for bilateral relations — or will emotive nationalism roil the triangle? Will the United States be a quiet spectator as China seeks to create a unipolar Asia? Will the rise of China be as peaceful as Beijing would like the world to believe, or is there a revisionist agenda that will be progressively unveiled? The contestation in the South China Sea could well be the bellwether for the posture that China will adopt in the future.
Thus China’s profile (by way of comprehensive national power) and the manner in which it orients itself — as supporting the existing status quo, or pursuing a revisionist path to maximize Chinese interests — will define the degree to which the international order is under threat, or being challenged. Path dependency will be an important determinant and here the “swing” stance adopted by Russia, India, and Brazil apropos China’s posture will be of considerable salience.
While the BRIC nations have a correspondence by way of being more in the “developing nation” category than in the G-7 / high per-capita grouping, their strategic interests are often at variance and exude latent adversarial traits. The Russia-China-India relationship is illustrative.
Within Asia, the deeper tussle is whether authoritarianism as represented by China is the more viable model for the future – or whether democratic dissonance and disorder as manifest in India will be the proverbial tortoise that will finally prevail.
Managing contradictory compulsions is the challenge for the heptagon and invoking the principle of quantum computing may not be invalid. The Western world is undergoing a process of transmutation – and certain rhythms and practices will have to change since they are unsustainable. Lifestyle rhythms and consumption practices are already under strain and the changes that are on the anvil are being driven from within.
On the external front, the revisionist impulse that will challenge the existing international order is more likely to come from China, which has chosen a very different value system and where the concept of being “liberal” has negative connotations. The strategic culture associated with China is indicative of a deep-rooted conviction (certitude?) that the post-1949, Mao-derived model is the more successful – and is to be deified, defended and propagated when the time is opportune.
India, on the other hand, may be a resistant power – in the sense that it can resist change or stricture if applied to it – and these are traits associated with the pachyderm. But its distinctive strategic culture is more reactive and empathetic with the status quo that in principle supports the liberal, democratic order.
C. Uday Bhaskar is a Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, Delhi and Adviser, South Asia Monitor.