If China and India were marginal to the discussion in Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987), they occupy the centre-stage of the world order today. Both have considerable domestic vulnerabilities, but China’s impressive advances over the past three decades and India’s huge potential for growth in the coming decades are likely to ensure their position at the top of the great power heap for quite some time. China and India are not the only emerging powers – the others include Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico and Vietnam.
This has generated many fears and hopes about the rise of the “Global South”. But the narrative of Western decline and the rise of the rest is complicated by the rise of Asian powers and the divisions among them. Although there are many emerging powers, the Asian ones are likely the most consequential, given their size and capabilities. Much of the great power rivalry is likely to be concentrated in Asia and its waters – the Indo-Pacific.
Yet, the framework of a “rising East versus a declining West” does not help explain the potential evolution of the great power constellation in the future. To be sure, the relative decline of the US and the absolute decline of Russia and Europe in relation to Asia points to the general direction of power distribution among the great powers. But the structure of the world to come will be shaped by the geopolitical contradictions within Asia and their intersection with the interests of the US and the older European powers.
Although the idea of Asian unity has long held the East in thrall and the West in much apprehension, building a united Asian front has not been easy, even at the peak of the anti-imperial moment in the middle of the 20th century. China, Indonesia, and India, for example, were fighting different imperial powers in the inter-war period. While China saw Japan as an imperial power, others saw it as a force of liberation against European colonialism. The region’s alignments with the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War too did not fall into a single pattern. Some, such as China and Egypt, quite ostentatiously shifted alliances between the two superpowers.
For a brief moment at the turn of the century, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations appeared poised to build an Asia-wide platform for economic and political cooperation. But that moment has passed. Although the internal contradictions within Asia never disappeared, Xi Jinping’s assertive nationalism, territorial expansionism, and the weaponisation of economic interdependence have sharpened the contradictions between China and some of its neighbours, especially Japan and India.
[See also: Xi Jinping’s death wish]
These contradictions might not have had global significance but for Xi’s decision to mount a simultaneous challenge against US primacy in Asia. This has helped produce new possibilities for Washington to strengthen its traditional bilateral alliances in Asia (including with Japan), build a new strategic partnership with India, and construct new minilateral institutions such as the Quad (with India, Japan and Australia), the Aukus (with the UK and Australia), and a North East Asian trilateral with South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, Russia, locked in a confrontation with the West, has thrown its weight behind China. Brussels struggles to come to terms with the sharpening conflict between Washington and Beijing and overcome its dependence on the Chinese market.
The US, in contrast, appears in a good place to exercise decisive influence over the balance of power in Asia and retain its pole position in the great power hierarchy. Asia, like the West, had bet that China’s rise would be benign. That bet on the peaceful emergence of Beijing as a great power seemed right as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao pursued policies that privileged regional and global cooperation. Xi Jinping has reversed those policies. Given their experience with China’s geopolitical assertions over the last decade, Beijing’s Asian neighbours are unlikely to renew their trust in Beijing, at least in the near term. For them, keeping the Americans in Asia is a high priority.
That a historically non-aligned country such as India, run by an elite reared in the notions of Asian solidarity and steeped anti-Americanism, has moved closer than ever before to the US underlines the centrality of inner Asian contradictions in shaping the new era. They may resent American domination, but Indian nationalists have no desire to jump from the US frying pan into Chinese fire.
There are indications that the US is figuring out a new way of engaging Asia – by strengthening the strategic capabilities of China’s neighbours, supporting the defence of Asian sovereignties against Beijing’s expansionism, and giving greater responsibility to Asian powers in managing the regional order. Unlike the European powers, who may have lost the will to power, their Asian counterparts, like India and Japan, are willing to spend more on defence and confront China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia.
US alliances with India, Japan, and Vietnam serve the interests of both.
In joining hands with the United States, China’s neighbours preserve their autonomy in relation to Beijing. In promoting local deterrence and regional capabilities, the US wins partners that can help sustain its global leadership.
If we have learnt one thing since the publication of Rise and Fall, it is that changes in the great power hierarchy are inevitable. It is reasonable to assume that the US will not enjoy the kind of advantages that came its way in 1991. But by sharing leadership with a rising India, boosting a declining Japan, and building up Australia and other middle powers of Asia, the US has a good chance of fending off the Chinese challenge and remaining the keystone of Asian and global architecture.
This is the third of a series of replies to Paul Kennedy’s recent New Statesman cover story: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers redux