By Air Marshal M Matheswaran (Retd)
The global disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that engulfed the world at the end of 2019 and continues to this day is the biggest economic, political, and technological disruption since the Second World War. The pandemic has exposed the serious deficiencies in national healthcare systems in all countries, developed and developing. More importantly, the pandemic has raised questions on the relevance and effectiveness of the current world order, about the future of international organisations and multilateral frameworks, and poses challenges to international political and economic relations.
Historically, transformation or change in the international order is closely connected to the issue of peace and war in international politics. Viewing it from Waltz’s structural theory and Organski’s power transition theory, most scholars have tended to paint a bleak picture of the prospects for a peaceful change in the international system. In the current environment of the global pandemic and the continuing US-China trade/technology war, some view the rise of an assertive China under Xi Jinping as pointing to a conflictual change in the world order. However, many contend that power transition need not result in conflict. In their view, it is most likely that the 21st-century world order transition will be unlike any in the past but peaceful and end the Western dominance of the last 400 years.
Great Power Competition in the 21st century
The rise of China as the potential challenger to the US-led Western dominance has signalled the return of great power competition in the international order. China, currently the second-largest economy in the world, is well on track to overtake the USA by 2030 to become the world’s largest economy. As of 2020, the US is the world’s largest economy with a GDP of $20.8 trillion while China is the second largest with a GDP of $14.8 trillion. By 2030 China’s economy with a GDP of $31.7 trillion will be way ahead of the US economy with its GDP of $22.9 trillion. India will be a distant third, although growing.
China is leapfrogging into a dominant position in cutting edge technologies such as quantum science, 5G communications, artificial intelligence, robotics, and space. China’s growth as a global power in economic, technological, and military terms has unsettled the US and its allies. Its assertive posture in the South and East China Seas, escalation of the border dispute with India in the Himalayas, and its Belt and Road Initiative strategy that seeks to integrate much of Eurasia with its economy are indications of an intensifying great power competition characterized by the US-China rivalry.
The current competition for global leadership spans primarily three dimensions: the geoeconomic and geopolitical contest for power and influence, the race for technological supremacy, and military dominance. The competition is clearly between the US and its allies as well as strategic partners, including India, on one side and China on the other side with its increasing influence in Asia. Most countries in Asia would hedge and not take sides between the US and China, and this has major implications for India as well.
End of Western Dominance: Portends for a Multipolar World
The rise of Asian economies led by China, India, Indonesia, and other ASEAN countries has moved the global economic centre of gravity from the West to the East after nearly three centuries. Innovation and disruptive technologies, enabled by ICT and Digitisation, have empowered the Asian countries to challenge the economic and technological dominance of the West. Led by China and the BRICS, many of these emerging economies and powers are seeking a reform of the existing rules of the US-led world order. China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea could lead to conflicts with smaller powers but also work to dilute the power and influence of the US through asymmetric strategies. On the other hand, the US has revived its alliance strategies to combine with India, Japan, and Australia to form the Quad to blunt China’s increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The emerging transformation of the world order is reflected in the 2020 report of Powermetric Research Network, which ranks countries in the categories of superpower, world power, great power, regional power, and local power. According to this report, China has passed the United States to become the leading economic power in the world, while it has attained world power status in military and geopolitical power. Currently, the US is a superpower in military and geopolitical power while it is second in economic power ranking. Various studies confirm the growth of China as the world’s leading power by 2050, thus overtaking the United States in all categories of power. In forecasting the power distribution, using different datasets, in three versions for 2050 and one version for 2030, the study indicates the significant strengthening of China and India and a significant decline of the United States and Japan. In all versions, there is a clear dominance of China as the global order tends towards a three-polar system around 2050 involving China, the US, and India. It is likely to be a bipolar system in the 2030 timeframe.
The 2018 National Defence Strategy document of the US Department of Defence (DOD) acknowledges the ‘re-emergence of long-term strategic competition amongst great powers’ and acknowledges that China’s rise as a peer power poses an economic, political, and military threat to the US’ dominant position. That the US is deeply worried about the erosion of its power and influence is indicated by the passing of the recent bill – ‘Strategic Competition Act of 2021’ – that is explicit in targeting the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the threat.
Geoeconomic and Geopolitical Transformation
Reshaping of the international order has more to do with the fast-changing global economy than the exercise of political power. This is where the real geopolitical contest is emerging for an equitable share of control of the global financial system. The established great power hierarchy and hegemony (including the short duration of unipolar hegemony) is fundamentally linked to control of the global economy through institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and the US dollar as the global reserve currency. The rise of China and India as major economies, accompanied by the rise of other non-western economies necessitate a change in, which means a change in the current economic world order. The success of China-led financial institutions such as the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the BRICS NDB (New Development Bank) is indicative of the emerging changes.
Asian powers such as China, India, and Indonesia bring significant geopolitical weight. These are large countries, in terms of land size, large population (with huge working-age populations that signify potential for huge productivity), rapidly expanding domestic markets and a huge labour reservoir. Their increasing shares in the world economy is indicative of the tectonic shift in economic power. The US share of global GDP has been declining, primarily due to the rise of BRICS. The US share in 2011 was 22.7%, in 2020 was 18%, and this is projected to decline to 15.8% by 2030. China’s economic growth, its huge manufacturing capacities, and export revenue surpluses have led to China-inspired investments and projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic strategy, which is ‘both a blueprint and a testbed for establishing a Sinocentric world order.’ The BRI is a massive economic development program that extends from Southeast Asia through South and Central Asia into Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. While the ‘Belt’ is an overland series of projects across Eurasia, the ‘Road’ is an ambitious chain of expanding and upgrading ports and infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean to facilitate access to global sea lanes.
As the largest infrastructure project in history, BRI poses the biggest geoeconomic and geostrategic challenge to the US. With 139 states as members of the BRI and 100 countries spanning Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa fully engaged in economic-industrial and geopolitical partnerships, China is working towards replacing the US as the dominant commercial player and influencer in the world. The BRI, with $ 1.3 trillion Chinese-led investment, is a multi-decade program that involves a web of infrastructure including roads, railways, telecommunications, energy pipelines, power projects including wind and solar, and ports, that would serve to enhance economic interconnectivity and facilitate development across Eurasia and Africa. Currently, the BRI has over 2600 projects in over 100 countries, with a total value of US $ 3.7 trillion. Effectively, the BRI may turn out to be a zero-sum game for the West in the next two or three decades.
India has joined the US and much of the West in rejecting the BRI and has projected its strategy called SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) while joining hands with Japan in its Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. However, in the absence of an ability to match China’s investments and its pace of work, the viability of such strategies is in doubt.
Technology Dimension of the new World Order
The US’ status as the global superpower is largely due to its leadership position in advanced technologies and as the foremost innovator nation. The US has retained its technology leadership position by also establishing various technology denial regimes and the institution of strong intellectual property rights and patent regimes.
China’s growth in technological capabilities, innovation, and high-tech manufacturing over the last two decades has been spectacular. The US initiated the trade war against China in 2017 citing a huge trade imbalance along with the accusation of opaque procedures, technology theft, IP violations and lack of fair access to China’s market. However, the underlying driver for this clash is the race for global technological supremacy.
China’s advances in Space, Defence, AI, quantum science, telecommunications and the 4th IR’s disruptive technologies has been rapid and extraordinary and is already eroding the US’ military advantage. China’s strategies of military-civil fusion and ‘intelligentization’ are leading to significant capabilities in the application of AI technologies in military operational concepts such as swarming, decision support, and information operations. The convergence of the AI revolution and the re-emergence of great power competition poses grave challenges and threatens the US’ role as the world’s engine of innovation and American military superiority.
Hard and Soft Power
China’s economic and technological power is now fuelling its military modernisation. China’s shipbuilding program is already the biggest in the world. Currently, the PLA Navy has over 350 ships, inclusive of 73 submarines and two aircraft carriers. By 2035, this is expected to increase to 500 ships that will include nearly 100 submarines and six aircraft carriers, making it the largest and powerful Navy in the world. Similarly, China is pursuing aggressive modernization of its Air Force and the Rocket Forces, which include weapons, sensors, UAVs, and global expeditionary capability. China’s defence industrial infrastructure and research are extensive. China’s space capabilities are robust, having demonstrated capabilities to establish space control and space dominance. By 2035, China aims to challenge US military power in Asia, and globally by 2049. Growth in China’s military power is triggering military expenditure increases in other countries including India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
The US pursued a strategy of forward military deployments and alliances since 1945 to establish its global dominance. With the world’s most powerful Navy and more than 800 overseas bases, the USA’s power and influence are primarily derived from economic and military power. This hard power was the basis on which the US’ soft power; in terms of cultural, financial, and democracy; was able to influence most countries of the world and sustain the world order it created. This is now coming under increasing challenge, primarily from China whose rapid economic and technological development is projected as a more efficient and successful alternative to the Western democracies.
Looking into the Future
The US-China strategic competition flows from the essential fact of China threatening to dislodge the USA’s preeminent position as the technology leader. This in turn impacts the rules of global governance, financial institutions and monetary system, and multilateral institutions. China’s rise essentially threatens the existing balance of power in terms of technology leadership and economic power. China’s economic system sucks in the economies of Southeast Asia, central and south Asia as well because of its vast market and purchasing power. The successful conclusion of the trade alliance RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) in November 2020, which includes US allies Japan and Australia, is testimony to the power of influence of China’s economy. The essence of the current Sino-US contest is the USA’s attempts to decouple from China to deny it easy access to critical technologies and markets. On the other hand, China, through its BRI is working to dominate Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific to create a Sino-centric world economic order. The paradox is that other multilateral forums such as the BRICS tend to work with China in enabling this transformation. India is currently the Chair of the BRICS forum.
As a rising power, a major economy, and the largest democracy, India has a vital stake in the geopolitical contest between the US and China, particularly in the context of the rising Sino-Indian rivalry. India’s strategies, therefore, must focus on ensuring its security and its freedom of action in global affairs. It will also need to play an active role in reforming the world to more equitable and multipolar governance to ensure US dominance is not replaced by China’s dominance.
–The writer is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Staff at IDS. He is now the President of The Peninsula Foundation at Chennai. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda