If you had believed the best minds of our times, this was not supposed to happen. But for two decades, China had been winning without fighting, while the US was fighting without winning. Something had to give and it did, in the 2016 American presidential election.
The world faces an extraordinary prospect of its two leading players doing what it takes to win, and then some more. In the ultimate analysis, the ability of major powers to reach accommodation will shape our times. When ‘black swans’ meet ‘grey rhinos’, the very nature of the habitat undergoes transformation.
The US-China relationship that currently holds global attention has gone on for four decades, not a short span in modern times. Who benefited more in this period is a question to which we may get a different answer today than two decades ago. But because it was long enough to be taken as a given by two generations, we attribute to it a sense of being natural. We ask why it is under stress now, when we could wonder equally easily why it lasted that long.
Many of the discomforts today arise from differences on key issues like the relationship between the state, politics, society, business, faith and the markets. It is expressed in matters of personal freedoms and institutional firewalls. Sociology matters, especially once it assumes global proportions. This is at the heart of the predicament the world faces today. And creating common ground is, therefore, the hardest diplomatic challenge.
The rise of a new global power was never going to be easy, and an order waiting to happen will look like chaos till it does. In an interdependent and constrained world, it can only unfold through tensions and negotiations, adjustments and transactions. In this process, much will depend on what is allowed to take root.
The impact on the global order of these developments is likely to be visible over the next generation. That would have many dimensions, each of them in itself a source of potential instability. The most obvious one is that the world will be increasingly multipolar as distribution of power broadens and alliance discipline dilutes. A more nationalistic approach to international relations will undeniably weaken multilateral rules in many domains. This will be particularly sharp in respect of economic interests and sovereignty concerns.
This prospect of multipolarity with less multilateralism suggests a more difficult future even for the near term. This does not mean giving up on the latter. On the contrary, it requires a new energy to be poured into reformed multilateralism. The current anachronistic order must be pushed to change, along with its outdated agenda. The emerging world is also likely to fall back on balance of power as its operating principle, rather than collective security or a broader consensus. History has demonstrated that this approach usually produces unstable equilibriums. World affairs will also see a proliferation of frenemies. They will emerge from allies who criticise each other or competitors compelled to make common cause.
The really uncharted territory that US-China frictions will take us into is that of coping with parallel universes. They may have existed before, most recently during the Cold War. But not with interdependence and interpenetration of the globalised era. As a result, divergent choices and competing alternatives in many spheres will rest on partially shared foundations. This dilemma will be evident in a growing number of domains, from technology, commerce and finance to connectivity, institutions and activities. The key players will themselves struggle with the dichotomy of such parallel existence. Those who have to manage both, as most of us will, may then find themselves really tested.
Even if ties between China and the West take on a more adversarial character, it is difficult to return to a strongly bipolar world. The primary reason for that is the landscape has now changed irreversibly. Other nations are independently on the move, including India. Half of the 20 largest economies of the world are non-Western now. Diffusion of technology and demographic differentials will also contribute to the broader spread of influence. We see forces at play that reflect the relative primacy of local equations when the global construct is less overbearing. The reality is that the US may have weakened, but China’s rise is still far from maturing. And together, the two processes have freed up room for others.
If division within alliances was one evolution, reaching beyond them was another. As the world moved in the direction of greater plurilateralism, result-oriented cooperation started to look more attractive. They were better focussed and could be reconciled with contrary commitments. The growing imperative of sharing responsibilities was combined with an appreciation of influences beyond formal structures. Asia has been a particular focus for such initiatives, as regional architecture is the least developed there. India today has emerged as an industry leader of such plurilateral groups, because it occupies both the hedging and the emerging space at the same time.
Because global fluidity is so pervasive, India must address this challenge of forging more contemporary ties on every major account. Achieving an overall equilibrium will depend on how it fares on the individual ones.
The writer is External Affairs Minister of India.
This is an extract from his forthcoming book ‘The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World’, published by HarperCollins India