Eastward movement of global power and influence

The Orient Express

Brahma Chellaney

May 29, 2008 India Today


Rivals: How The Power Struggle Between China, India And Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade
by Bill Emmott
Allen Lane
Price: Rs 795, Pages: 328

The Second World: Empires And Influence In The New Global Order
by Parag Khanna
Allen Lane
Price: Rs 695, Pages: 496

The eastward movement of power and influence, once concentrated in the West, is now the subject of an increasing number of books that are coming out by the dozen. These two volumes belong to this genre.

While Bill Emmott’s focus is on the three largest Asian powers, Parag Khanna looks at the global geopolitical marketplace and determines the likely winners and losers.

Emmott’s diffidence to put forward a central thesis is more than made up for by Khanna’s boldness in sketching out the next generation of global geopolitics. They symbolise different styles and generations.

The changing global equations are reflected in new realities. These include the waning relevance of the international structures the US helped establish after its World War II triumph; the rise of Asia as the world’s main creditor and economic locomotive; and greater international divisiveness, including on core global challenges.

While the world is not yet multipolar, it is no longer unipolar, as it had been from the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse till the end of the 1990s—a period during which America failed to fashion a new liberal world order under its direction. What we have today is a world still in transition.

The ongoing power shifts are linked to Asia’s phenomenal economic rise, the speed and scale of which has no parallel in world history. The seat of ancient civilisations and home to the majority of the world’s population, Asia is bouncing back after a relatively short period of decline in history.  Its share of the world’s economy had totalled 60 per cent in 1820, at the advent of the industrial revolution, declining sharply over the next 125 years. Today, Asia already accounts for 40 per cent of global production—a figure that could rise to 60 per cent by 2050, when three of the world’s four largest economies (China, India, the US and Japan) would be Asian.

Asia’s rise, while promoting greater international equity, need not necessarily mean the decline of the West. There is little evidence to suggest Asia is rising at the expense of the West.

The spread of prosperity will signify more stakeholders in peace and stability. The EU’s attraction, for example, lies in its readiness to share the European pie with new member-states it admits into its fold.

Shared interests entail shared responsibilities. That, in turn, promotes a greater distribution of power.

But like some other authors, Khanna and Emmott have rushed to conclude that the spread of prosperity to more countries implies the diminution of the power of the US.  American pre-eminence, Emmott writes, “will soon be over (if it is not already), and for reasons more fundamental and enduring than America’s post-Iraq weakness”. Khanna is more blunt: the moment of US supremacy is over, replaced by the imperative to “renew American competitiveness”.

According to Khanna, “America’s imperial overstretch is occurring in lockstep with its declining economic dependence, undermining the very foundation of its global leadership”.

America’s vulnerabilities can no longer be hidden. Today, the US is the world’s leading debtor and top importer of both manufactured goods and oil, and runs by far the largest current account deficit. A shift towards multipolarity is unstoppable, with the emergence of major new players. But for the next several decades, the US will easily remain the world’s most powerful state militarily and will also be the leader in scientific innovations. In 2050, the US is likely to still be influential enough to do almost anything, but not powerful enough to do everything by itself.

Emmott’s China-India-Japan theme has seemingly been inspired by this reviewer’s 2006 book, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan, the first study of that strategic triangle. But Emmott’s book, contrary to its title, focuses not on the “power struggle” between these “rivals” and how that will “shape our next decade”, but on their supposed strengths and their determination to regain their historical power.

More journalistic than scholarly, the book makes desultory recommendations— half of them addressed to the US—that have little to do with its title.

Khanna’s easy-to-read, insightful book offers a rich tour of the emerging geopolitical landscape stretching from Asia and the Middle East to Eastern Europe and South America.

He sees the US, EU and China as the only great powers and clubs dozens of other countries, including India, Russia and Japan, as the new “Second World”, comprising swing-states that will determine which superpower gains the upper hand.

The geopolitics of the 21st century, he writes, will centre on the “new Big Three”—not Russia, a petrostate facing depopulation and run by the “Kremlin-Gazprom oligarchy”; not the Islamic world; and not India, which he sees as lacking both clear, long-term goals and strategic appetite.

History testifies that without establishing primacy in its own neighbourhood, no country has sustained itself as a great power. But India continues to be tormented even by smaller neighbours. So Khanna’s scepticism on India may be right.

Khanna’s projected big picture appears less plausible: the Big Three will make the rules for all, and the other states will be left merely to “choose their suitors in this post-American world”. He forgets that his Big Three have interests that won’t be easy to reconcile, posing a hurdle to their rule-setting. While China wants a multipolar world and a unipolar Asia, the US wants a multipolar Asia but a unipolar world.

Despite having travelled to some 40 “Second-World” countries to research the book, Khanna speciously concludes that these states are destined to play second fiddle to the “Big Three”. He couldn’t be more wrong.

(c) India Today, 2007

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s