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THURSDAY, December 07, 2023

The 21st century is no one’s century

The 21st century is no one’s century
FRIDAY, May 26, 2023

Today, trade war and economic rivalry have led to a grand strategic stand-off between the US and China, with the world witnessing a superpower showdown.

International politics operates in a world of radical uncertainty. Academics and theorists have often sought to analyse the emerging world order through a variety of models and paradigms. Will the strong remain strong for long? Samuel Huntington maintains that “power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight, it begins to evaporate.”

Predicting the future flow of history is a treacherous exercise. It is even harder to figure out what the future looks like for great powers. Geopolitical sages are good at explaining why things won’t change, but they are less adept at explaining how things do. The world is in transition and power transitions at times can be frightening and messy.

Whose century is the 21st century? Chinese? Asian? Pacific? Asia-Pacific? That the US has been in decline for the past several decades is obvious. But neither Japan nor China is close to the overriding powers of the US.

Towards the closing years of the 20th century, strategic thinkers frequently evoked the Pacific Century. In 1997, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer went as far as to say, “We are about to enter what will surely be the Asia Pacific Century.”

With the rise of China and the gradual decline of Japan, the Pacific Century lost much of its glittering allure. America’s strengths are obvious but so are its weaknesses. As former US diplomat Chas W Freeman Jr. explains, “We bluster, we threaten, we menace, we sanction…we bomb, but we don’t ever use the art of persuasion.” The US has used brute and naked power to establish its domination. What made the 20th century an American Century? Zbigniew Brezezinski explains in his 1997 book,

The Grand Chessboard, that America achieved its predominant global status thanks to its economic dynamism, global military reach, lead in cutting-edge technology and appeal of its mass culture.

Though American unipolarity has been seriously challenged by China, present trends strongly suggest that it will last for many decades. America’s weaknesses are visible. Columbia University professor John Adam Tooze argues that the US has “clung on to external power while continuing to manage the internal decline”. The US is like “a tree growing despite fungi following out its trunk.” Others believe the Chinese century is well underway. China has become the world’s centre of economic gravity.

American philosopher Richard Rorty believes that given the sheer size and potential power, the 21st century is “likely to be the Chinese century in the same sense that the twentieth was to the American Century. For over a century, no US adversary could reach 60 per cent of America’s GDP.

Neither Germany during the First World War, nor Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and not even the Soviet Union at the height of its economic power ever crossed this threshold. But China reached that milestone in 2014. And China has started behaving as if the world is already a “Chinese century.”

Today, trade wars and economic rivalry have led to a grand strategic stand-off between the US and China. Some call it a historic rupture. The world is witnessing a superpower showdown and their engagement could at best be described as weaponised interdependence.

China is giving tough competition to the US even in the critical high-tech sector. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s year-long project has revealed that China leads in 37 of 44 technologies including electric batteries, hypersonics and advanced radio frequency communications. However, Yi Fuxian, author of Big Country with an Empty Nest, argues that the Chinese century is already over.

Experts believe an ageing population will be a permanent drag on China’s economy and its global ambitions. Given its role in driving the global economy, China’s growth and demographic challenges could have implications for the rest of the world. The geopolitical butterfly effect on the global economy is not hard to imagine. It is an apt metaphor for the economic and geopolitical consequences of the world’s growing trade dependence on China.

There are lessons from history as far as China’s global ambitions are concerned. China invented all of the technologies necessary to have the industrial revolution around 800 years before it occurred in Europe.

It had invented blast furnaces and piston bellows for making steel; gunpowder and the cannon for military conquest, the compass and rudder for world exploration and paper and printing press for disseminating knowledge. But China did not have the right ideologies.

It rejected the very technologies that could have given them world domination. New technology was perceived as a threat, not an opportunity. It ignored the canonical texts, those inspired by Confucius, which contained the solution to most problems. Does China have the silver bullet to make the 21st century a “Chinese Century”?

China and India are destined to be rivals. Not so much militarily or economically but in terms of their competing models of governance and worldviews. Right now, it is a one-horse race. Could tomorrow be different? Yasheng Huang of MIT and Tarun Khanna of Harvard Business School argue that “the real issue isn’t where China and India are today, but where they will be tomorrow.” In a few years, India will be a bigger economy than Germany.

The demographic dividend also favours India. Can India become the kind of driver of the global economy that China has been for years? Can it provide a real democratic alternative to China’s coercive model? Over the years, deep democracy in India has become shallow but deep poverty is deepening. Indians have been promised greatness.

However, what has so far been delivered is very little beyond grievance and victimhood. India can’t be a superpower so long as it lives on celebrations, nostalgia and a self-assumed ‘Vishwaguru’ role.

One can never plan the future by the past. Whether the 21st century becomes a Chinese Century or an Asian Century, time alone can tell. Henry Kissinger asserts that there is unlikely to be another world order of the Westphalian type.

He believes what will emerge will be “amiable chaos.” In all likelihood, the 21st century will be no one’s century though China will be the first among great-power equals such as India, Japan and Russia.

Ash Narain Roy (The writer is Director, the Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)

The Statesman

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