One could perhaps argue that Asian countries are all in the same boat, in the sense that all of these countries are being shaped by two centrifugal forces, namely, modernity and nationalism. For Westerners who are well-entrenched in modernity, Asia – or the “Orient” – appears to be both bizarre and fascinating. But quite frankly, Western anxiety, fear, and xenophobia have only amplified with the relative rise of Asian countries like China and India over the past two decades, either justifiably or not. As a result, the fundamental precept of American foreign policy in particular is to “contain” or mitigate the rise of Asia in the coming future.
What is central to Asia’s overall rise to global prominence, however, is China. The rise of smaller “Asian Tigers” such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia over the past few decades pale in comparison to the rise of China, which is famously known as the “Asian Dragon.” For the most part, the “Asian Tigers” and particularly Southeast Asia are emerging as battlegrounds for competition between the United States and China on one hand, as well as China and India on the other hand. In a sense, China has been able to harness both its will to modernity and its national spirit to become a model for all developing countries. Mao’s famous expression that “all under the heaven is in great chaos, the situation is excellent” implies that in an anarchic and chaotic international system, it would be China that emerges out of the chaos and reigns triumphant.
However, while it is clear that China will not surpass America in terms of military and economic power, it is nevertheless becoming the second-most powerful country in the world. Whereas America holds approximately 105 trillion dollars out of the 360 trillion dollars of the world’s wealth, China holds approximately 63 trillion dollars of the world’s wealth at the moment, according to Credit Suisse. Even in terms of human rights and rule of law, which in turn shape an economic environment, Asia is still far behind the United States and Western Europe. For instance, this blog would not be free to exist in Asian countries like Iran, Pakistan, China, or North Korea.
Thus, America’s military and economic superiority on the world stage is an indisputable fact that everyone must live with for at least another fifty years, and this reality is induced by political and social conditions that are non-existent in many Asian countries. China, however, ranks highest among countries that trail the United States. For one, China has currency reserves that are double those of Japan and three times larger than those of the European Union, according to Fareed Zakaria. The rise of China – along with the rise of India and other Asian nations – is largely a byproduct of a collective post-colonial mentality derived primarily from political independence, which was attained after the demise of centuries-long European colonialism.
After European colonialism, the Cold War of the 20th century – with its competing models of economic and social development – paved a way forward for virtually all Asian nations. Now, in the 21st century, the profuse dissemination of know-how and information by virtue of the internet and technology has propelled not only Asian economic and social development, but also military development to a significant degree. But the key to China’s rise was a simple one, which in essence was acquiescence to foreign influence, primarily Western influence. Mao’s ideological fervor and isolationist tendencies were eventually cast aside in the late 1970’s by his successor, Deng Xiaoping, and the rest was history. China immediately embarked on a modernization path with Deng Xiaoping at the helm.
What remains a challenge for the Chinese, however, is avoiding the entire package of Western-style modernization by adopting only particular aspects of modernity and leaving out the rest. While the Chinese welcomed economic growth based on a Western model, the individualistic aspect of Western capitalism and democracy is something the Chinese – who have long been accustomed to a collectivist and communitarian culture – are trying to avoid. Whether the Chinese can successfully customize a form of modernity that suits Chinese culture and tradition yet maintain economic growth along Western lines in the long run is yet to be determined. China also spends and saves more money than any other country, which in turn enables China to diversify its industrial portfolio in a remarkable fashion. As a result, China is projected to be the world’s largest – but perhaps not the richest – economy by 2024, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Another Asian country that is changing rapidly is India. According to the World Bank, India’s annual economic growth rate of 6.8 percent exceeds that of any other nation, with China standing at 6.6 percent annually and the United States at 2.9 percent annually. Yet, according to some estimates, China’s economy is approximately 20 years ahead of India’s economy because China’s liberalization and reform efforts occurred more than two decades before India. Whereas China is largely non-ideological, India has been historically non-aligned in terms of major power competition. Both China and India’s policy stance vis-à-vis other major powers has contributed to their rise in the international system by avoiding conflict with other major powers at all costs.
But for India, the biggest pitfall in a globalized world where countries are rapidly evolving is government corruption and inefficiency due to the sprawling nature of India’s government. Most striking, however, is that inequality is something inherent in Indian culture due to the ‘caste’ system. Nevertheless, India takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy. However, its government is not structured to proceed with a form of mechanistic modernization that is commonplace in China. Most of India’s modernization efforts in the past two decades have been carried out through a ‘bottom-up’ approach, not a ‘top-down’ approach as in China. Also, no single person or party has been able to fully consolidate power in India as of yet.
But in China, the ‘Chinese Communist Party’ (CCP) and Xi Jinping reign supreme, and for the Chinese, the only means available for maintaining both political stability and programmatic economic growth is through the party’s consolidation of power. As Mao famously said: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun; the party controls the gun.” Without the party’s consolidation of power, anarchy and chaos would reign supreme in China, according to many Chinese experts. However, due to China’s adoption of Western capitalist practices and its opening to the West, China’s ruling party is “Communist” in name only. Over the years, the “Communist” part has been replaced with “Neo-Confucian” ideas and values such as respect for hierarchy and respect for elders. Thus, the general characteristics of China’s system of governance are primary cultural rather than ideological.
Moreover, in any developing nation, the state plays the most important role in modernization efforts. But India’s system of government is ill-suited for such an endeavor. Also, India’s fixation on its hostilities with neighboring Pakistan has thwarted larger ambitions that India could pursue on the global stage, which is why at least in the Asian context, China will reign supreme in the years to come.
The most significant change in the international system over the last two decades, arguably, has been the reversal of America’s ‘unipolar moment.’ What this means geopolitically is that no single country can dominate the Eurasian landmass, which in turn spells chaos and disorder to a certain extent. Also, no single country can single-handedly provide security for the entire international system in the manner by which the United States provided security over the last seven and a half decades. Thus, in order to stabilize Eurasia, according to the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, two things need to be done. For one, Russia and Turkey need to be integrated into the ‘European Economic Community’ and perhaps even politically and socially integrated into the ‘European Union’ (EU). Also, a regional cooperative organization or framework is long overdue in Asia, particularly in East Asia and South Asia. Right now, the United States does not have a serious political plan in place for stabilizing Eurasia in the event of chaos and disorder stemming from America’ gradual disengagement due to changing economic circumstances shaped by both debt and the coronavirus. Thus, Brzezinski’s prescription for Eurasian stabilization is in order and should be seriously considered by American leaders. Henry Kissinger stressed the importance of a fine balance between a political and military approach towards Asia, by stating:
“Order always requires a subtle balance of restraint, force, and legitimacy. In Asia, it must combine a balance of power with a concept of partnership. A purely military definition of the balance will shade into confrontation. A purely psychological approach to partnership will raise fears of hegemony. Wise statesmanship must try to find that balance. For outside it, disaster beckons.”
Arguably, no piece of commentary on Asia would be complete without a comment on Afghanistan. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, what is consequential is not necessarily the past nineteen years of American involvement. Rather, the most consequential part of Afghan affairs will be the situation after America’s military presence in Afghanistan, which is due to close out in the Spring of 2021. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan may in fact lead to a vacuum in the ‘Heart of Asia,’ which will pit one Asian power against the other. First, the vacuum in Afghanistan will draw Pakistan and India into a confrontation, and in turn the Pakistani-Indian confrontation in Afghanistan will draw in other Asian powers such as Iran and China. As Henry Kissinger wrote:
“The United States (after its withdrawal from Afghanistan) has refrained from treating the contemporary internal South Asian balance primarily as a military problem. But it will have to be active in the diplomacy over reestablishing a regional order lest a vacuum is created, which would inevitably draw all surrounding countries into a regional confrontation.”
Ultimately, an Asian regional order – which prevents the outbreak of violence, enforces agreements and treaties, and protects one’s possession of property and wealth – is something that must materialize through the efforts of Asian powers themselves, not through American involvement, which in essence is an uphill struggle due to cultural complacency, ethnic differences, and historic vendettas. Nevertheless, with consideration of these social realities in Asia, the question of whether order or disorder takes root in Asia after an American withdrawal from both Afghanistan and East Asia over the next few years is something that is on the mind of every observer of Asian politics and society, and is a cause of concern for everyone in the months and years to come.