China and India have already moved from being industrial powerhouses to trying to secure resources, markets and favourable trading conditions across the globe.
China’s Belt & Road Initiative, its modern take on the old Silk Roads that once connected Europe to East Asia, aims to link many European and African markets with Asia and the Chinese mainland. Through mega-infrastructure projects that China finances, the connection will increase China’s reach and access in all these markets. With time, that will likely create dependencies that will develop the connection with China from being an economic to a political one.
China’s ambitions are justified. It has already managed to move hundreds of millions of poorer people in its society to the threshold of the middle class. And it has affected that transition smoothly, without major threats to its political system. Thus far, there seems little evidence that there is pent-up anger or frustration in China that is waiting to explode.
India also has been undergoing a subtle revolution for several years. Many observers have focused on the political Hinduism of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its impact on democracy in India. But the current government has managed to rally behind it substantial sections of Indian society, their eyes fixed on the vision of an India that is much bigger than the IT-back-office of the world with pockets of impressive technological advancement that has developed over recent years.
Here also the objective is to achieve social mobility for hundreds of millions of people, and so far the steps taken have been bold. In both cases, economics is the means, and the ends are political. China aims for the summit of world politics, while India will be satisfied with a high plateau in the mountains. Both trails are unmistakable.
The first key question is: what level of aggressiveness will these countries show towards others who stand in their way? China is certainly behind the notion, advocated by its former leader and grand strategist Deng Xiaoping, of the need to “hide its strengths and bide its time.” The new Silk Roads are nothing if not a show of immense confidence and strength. China has also already made assertive moves in different parts of Asia where it believes it has either old territorial rights or historical political influence. Its military, according to various experts, has developed the capability to project Chinese will far beyond the country’s borders, especially in strategically important parts of Asia.
India has also shown assertiveness, whether in dealing with Pakistan or at its border with China. China and India will not seriously clash, however. The point here is to look at the highly consequential moves that both are taking. These Asian behemoths have been arranging their domestic affairs, and they are now setting their sights on opportunities outside.
This is hardly surprising. Throughout history, almost all countries of significant geographical and demographic size that have achieved certain thresholds of economic development and where the bulk of the people have moved out of poverty have tried to secure their rise by controlling access to key resources, routes and markets. That political ambitions follow is a given.
What history does not answer clearly is the question of how assertive, or aggressive, these countries become in the pursuit of their goals. And this leads to the second question: how will the West respond? Here, it is crucial to differentiate between Europe and the US.
Europe’s response will almost certainly be accommodating. This is understandable, for despite its rhetoric and grand ambitions Europe has major social and economic problems to contend with. It is seriously apprehensive about the threat of migration from the southern Mediterranean and Africa, and, crucially, Europe is only a collection of medium-sized powers with ageing populations. It is extremely rich, but it faces acute challenges to sustaining its wealth. As a result, Europe is not looking for strategic confrontation. The question here will be whether the dragon and the tiger will sense this weakness.
The big question concerns the US response to the rise of Asia, and especially China. The US sees a threat, as China, and behind it the strategic depth of a vast continent, is the biggest challenge facing American supremacy. The more China succeeds in sorting out its problems at home and transitioning further tens of millions of its people to the threshold of the middle class, the more China will become a competitor, and potentially an adversary, to the US and one that will neither implode from within nor retreat within its borders.
Will America, then, seek to confront or accommodate China? It has not really faced this question yet. Its various entanglements in the Middle East over the past 20 years have diverted its attention and sapped a lot of energy. Over the past four years, the shock to the system of the election of US President Donald Trump has occupied American hearts and minds.
Now, however, the China (and Asia) question stares America in the face. Some American thinkers have linked America’s societal problems to threats to American supremacy abroad. The idea here is that there are ills in American society and political economy that manifest themselves in American politics, in turn eroding America’s power in the world. Perhaps America will have to reconcile opposing currents and forge anew what the American project is about.
Given the social polarisation now clearly visible in America, this will be neither smooth nor fast, however, and history teaches us that weakened empires tend to be aggressive. But the question of how America will deal with the rise of Asia is arguably the most consequential one in international affairs today.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly