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Emerging powers and regional architecture

A few days before he passed away early last week, R Swaminathan, a brilliant bureaucrat-turned-scholar, commented, in a paper titled “Engaging Beyond Borders – China and India in South Asia”, presented at a seminar in Kottayam, Kerala, how contrary to conventional perception of the US becoming the one and only super power in the post-cold war era, wielding its power and pelf all over, the world came to reckon with new economically powerful countries becoming additional poles to an emerging multi-polar order. He attributed this largely to liberalization of their economies that virtually unleashed their vast economic potential that was long held back by their earlier policy dispensations.

This, indeed, seems to have brought in its wake a set of new challenges that seems to be far more complex, even volatile, than what would have been the case in a unipolar situation. Since the new players are mostly in the Asia-Pacific region, which has replaced the West as the power centre in the new millennium, it has inevitably been caught in the new game of political one-upmanship in all its ramifications. And in the ensuing interplay, the form or stability of the region’s power architecture is seen to revolve round two players, India and China, by virtue of their geographical size, huge population and growing economic strength. The responses of India and China to issues of regional security, trade, investments, and a host of related issues are therefore considered crucial for peace to prevail in the region. This is not to overlook the other players in the region who too have an equally crucial role to play. In fact, the perspective is that they will be playing a much larger role than what their geographical size and politico-economic power may suggest.

As had been the case during the cold war era, there are several perspectives on the emerging regional power architecture. The western perspective that grudgingly concedes            the growing importance of the Asian hemisphere reckons that China will call the shots much the way the US did in its heydays. The parallel does not stop here as, according to them, just as the US used its economic might to political purpose in the last century, particularly in the latter half, China too would use its economic predominance to its political advantage. In fact, some China watchers in the west have even gone to the extent of portraying China as being more fiercely aggressive than the US ever was in its worst days of interventionist politics when it comes to promoting its interests. The diplomatic tantrums it throws over issues – Dalai Lama, Tibet or, as in the recent case of the Nobel Prize — that it considers prejudicial to its interests are sighted as examples. While they do reckon with other power centres in the overall architecture of the region like India, Korea, Japan and Indonesia, they do not seem to rate them politically and economically weighty enough to confront China.

There is also the other western perspective that is much less apprehensive of China assuming the role of a ruthless super power of the twentyfirst century. They foresee countervailing power centres emerging which far from confronting China will cooperate with it that, in the event, will strengthen the Asian power identity without being abetted or influenced or propped up by outside powers, which in the present context means the US and its allies. The calculation is that sheer economic necessity should prevail upon the major players in the region, India and Japan in particular, not to be rivals in a mindless power-play but be very much part of a broad collective group that will make the region powerful enough both economically and politically. The increasing importance attached to such regional groupings as ASEAN, APEC. EAS, ARF, and so on by all the countries in the Asia-Pacific and the involvement of the US in them is shown as a positive sign in this direction.

A somewhat arguable perspective views China’s emergence as a dominating and domineering power being hedged about with internal developments that may undermine the political stability that has so hugely contributed to its extraordinary economic growth and which in turn will inevitably shift the focus of governance and policy formulations from the expendable external issues to the unavoidable internal problems some of which are already perceivable. The calculation is that preoccupation with internal problems will tend to temper China’s responses to developments in the region. In other words, there will be less of the abrasive aggressiveness seen in recent years in its responses and postures to events not to its liking.

The regional perspective has been a mixture of all this. There is, for one, the big brother syndrome most of the countries in the region seem to suffer from; what Swaminathan, in the paper mentioned earlier, described as the ‘Trudeau syndrome.’ This stems from a light-hearted but profoundly prophetic observation made many years ago by the then Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau at a press conference in Washington when he was asked about his country’s relationship with the United States. He said, and I quote,“ living next to the United States is in some ways like sleeping  with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt. You always wonder if it will roll over on you.” Arguably, this can apply to India as well. In fact, some of our neighbouring countries do often express much the same. But by comparison and viewed in the context of the aggressiveness seen in many of  China’s posturing vis-à-vis issues that are not to its liking, the dragon is seen more scaring.

What adds to the fear is China’s own conduct of its external policies since the turn of the new millennium. Before that and, particularly since the eighties when it launched its economic reforms, China had been obsessively and rivetingly inward looking evidently living up to Deng Xiaoping who said that the two perquisites for economic growth were international peace and domestic political stability. And whenever critical  suggestions have been raised that the economic miracle has been at the expense of democracy, China has responded by saying that very few countries have combined democracy as it is understood today with the process of development.

There is no denying that China is no longer inward-looking. And it is increasingly becoming assertive. And one by one it is reviving old disputes with almost all the countries it shares its borders with, besides raking up new claims to many islands in the South China Sea. Its dispute with India is not just confined to the borders, though that remains the crux for all ostensible purposes. And for all the seemingly favourable overtures to India and all the ongoing confidence building measures, the distrust between the two countries remains deep. All this is too well known to be dilated here.

The issue is what kind of a power equation will ultimately emerge from what is presently a confusing medley of power play. This not only concerns the countries in the region but also other nations as well, particularly the US which explains its presence and involvement in the region.  While the possible contours of the architecture can certainly be debated, I think it is better to work on one that is desirable.

The basic contention in this is the undesirability of a confrontational approach. It is true that this is easily said than done, especially in view of the prevailing distrust among the major countries in the region more particularly between India and China, the strategic requirements, economic, political and security, that each views as being essential for its own territorial integrity and sovereignty – for example, control of Indian Ocean, of South China Sea and East China Sea, the border dispute between India and China, the China-Japan dispute over the ownership of islands and the recent Chinese addition of  South China Sea to the category of its core interests, to mention the more important.

There is, however, one uncertain element in the emerging scenario, namely, the China after the change of guard in 2012 when the present leadership is replaced by a new one. As many as five top leaders, including Hu Jintao and Wen  Jiabo, will step down from the all-powerful nine-member Politbureau Standing Committee. The pick for the top post of the party General Secretary and President is reported to be Xi Jinping. But that cannot be certain in view of the known faction feud in the party.

Whichever faction comes to the top, it will essentially be of the post-Mao genre, both in ideology and outlook with little, or, no revolutionary baggage. And the predominance technocrats will make the new leadership’s perceptions of and responses to both domestic and foreign challenges being dictated largely, if not wholly, by the practicalities of realpolitik. In  fact, many China watchers attribute the discernible aggressiveness in the country’s foreign conduct to the predominant role played by the comparatively young technocrat in decision-making.

What, then, are the options in conflict resolution? One theory that is being increasingly flaunted around to which mention has been made earlier is that little is gained by the contentious countries being confrontational.  The suggestion is that some of the disputes, though long-standing, must be resolved by taking a give-and-take approach. Some can be sought to be tackled through painstaking dialogue even as the areas of co-operation in trade and commerce, business and industry and joint ventures in third countries is given all out support and encouragement.

Since in this ‘Global Dialogue’ sponsored by the Australian High Commission the spotlight is on Asia-Pacific region, I think a greater and deeper involvement by Australia in building a new regional power architecture needs to be thought of. This will mean, to begin with, Australia making a conscious effort to be seen as part of Asia and not, as presently perceived by many, not wholly wrongly though, as basically part of the western world or, as some see, part east and part west. This will help it claim certain moral authority to intervene in such areas as are, to begin with, non-controversial and later in disputes in which it has no vested interests. Presently, there is a perceived dichotomy in some of the policies pursued by it, whether it be in its immigration policy or supply of critical raw materials like enriched uranium. It can even play a useful role by virtue of its clout with the countries in the region, particularly China, for solving bilateral disputes.

Since I started the presentation with a quote from the late lamented Swaminathan, let me end by quoting him once again. This is a suggestion he put forward in his paper to ease India-China relationship, which, of course, can be applied elsewhere too. He said, “India and China should co-operate wherever possible, compete wherever necessary and do their best to avoid conflict and engage bilaterally with awareness of and respect for each other’s national interest.” This, to be sure, can form the foundation of the new regional architecture. (This is the presentation made by the writer at a seminar organized by the Australian High Commission in Kochi on December 14, 2010.)

(The writer, Mr M.K.Das, is a columnist based at Cochin,Kerala,India. He is former Editor (Kerala) of the Indian Express and the New Indian Express).

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