IT is now almost a truism that Asia will be the focal point of geopolitics in the 21st century as Europe was in the last 200 years. The reasons are evident: two-thirds of the world’s people inhabit Asia and it produces more than half of world output. Despite the current economic slowdown, Asia will remain the engine of global growth in the coming decades.
At the centre of this tectonic shift is China. Its pace of economic growth and scale of poverty reduction is unprecedented in history. China’s rise has already changed the security and development dynamics in Asia; it is now poised to change the Western-dominated global economic and political order.
Thucydides posited that conflict is inevitable when rising powers emerge to challenge ruling ones. Most pundits thus predict conflict and confrontation between China and the United States, today’s dominant power. However, such conflict and confrontation is not inevitable.
Today, global affairs operate under two parallel paradigms: one, the traditional paradigm of power and rivalry; two, the emerging paradigm of interdependence and common interest. At the present stage of history, both paradigms coexist uneasily.
Obviously, old habits die hard. The power paradigm remains dominant in the policy establishments of the US, China and other states. But the new paradigm is becoming more compelling, for more people, in more places.
Under the old power paradigm, the US, China and other powers have continued to pursue their national interests in a zero sum game.
The US is building a string of alliances around China’s periphery (Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and, putatively, India). The Chinese pushback is visible in the new relationships with Russia, Central Asia, Iran, and as far away as Latin America (close to the US ‘periphery’) and the consolidation of old relationships, such as with Pakistan.
The US is shifting most of its naval power from the Atlantic to the Pacific (as part of the ‘pivot’ to Asia). In response, China has declared the intention to build and deploy a blue water navy.
The rivalry now extends to trade and development, including: access to natural resources; mutually exclusive trade blocs; rival development models and institutions, and the struggle for control of global economic and financial institutions.
There are a number of global issues where cooperation is essential between the two leading powers.
There are several security challenges that have been exacerbated by this great power rivalry. It has prevented them from taking effective and coordinated action to control the maverick regime in North Korea. Contrary to the interests of all, the Korean peninsula is now nuclearised.
Similarly, no stable security structure has been evolved to manage the complex rivalries between China, the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia in North East Asia. The Sino-Japanese dispute over two small islands could spark a confrontation involving the US and its other allies.
The most immediate threat of direct confrontation between China and the US today arises from the multifaceted disputes over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. China’s ‘string of pearls’ position is being challenged by the US ‘string of alliances’ around China, accompanied by assertive overflights and naval patrols.
The South Asian subcontinent is a neglected powder keg. Another confrontation between India and Pakistan is an ever-present possibility because of Kashmir, Balochistan, terrorism, a border incident, a conventional and nuclear arms build-up. The US encouragement of India’s ambitions as a means of containing China, adds an ominous strategic dimension to the India-Pakistan rivalry. This extension of great power competition now extends to other South Asian states — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as Afghanistan.
Fortunately, the power paradigm is not the only driving force in world affairs today. The parallel paradigm of interdependence and convergence is also in play.
The US and China are highly dependent on each other to maintain economic growth and prosperity. China’s growth is fuelled considerably by its exports to the US. Conversely, living standards in the US would decline sharply in the absence of cheap imports from China.
China holds a considerable part of the debt issued by the US. A collapse of the US currency or contraction of the US economy is against China’s interests.
China has benefited greatly from US and other foreign investment and associated technology transfers and continues to do so. Now, China itself has emerged as a significant source of investment, not only in resource-extraction, but also industrial and infrastructure development in the developing and developed countries, including the US and Europe. China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, involving land and sea trade corridors, will constitute a major contribution to the further integration of the global economy and rising prosperity across Asia as well as Europe and Africa. While this will consolidate and enlarge China’s influence and power, its impact will be highly positive for all participants, including the US.
There are a number of global issues where cooperation is essential between the two leading powers as well as other countries. Climate change threatens the entire planet. The US, China and other major carbon emitters — Europe and India — are required to take joint action to reduce emissions and build a world economy based on green energy.
Global growth can be sustained, and poverty elimination achieved within decades, but only if mutually reinforcing and collaborative policies are adopted by the leading economies on trade, finance and investment. Such close collaboration is increasingly indispensable on a growing number of other issues: disease control; cyber security; outer space; non-proliferation and terrorism.
Finally, despite their strategic competition, all major powers have a common interest in containing and resolving the growing plethora of inter-state and intra-state conflicts that rage across Asia and the Middle East. The interdependence paradigm is gaining grass-roots support in most major powers — within civil society, business, the media, academia and in international organisations. Given the growing evidence and urgency of multiple global challenges, and the compulsion to cooperate for survival and stability, it is probable that the 21st century may witness a historic shift from strategic competition to comprehensive cooperation. The challenge is how to manage the current dangerous transition from the power paradigm to the paradigm of interdependence.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2015