How the world turns, worms and all. Many did a double take when they heard the United States president, Donald J. Trump, saying “protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” They had done it just days earlier when Xi Jinping declared, “pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room” and rallied in favour of globalisation. Our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, did his bit too, warning that “globalisation’s gains are at risk” and speaking against “rising parochial and protectionist attitudes across the global.”
The priests are turning on their gods. The Global North is saying the Washington consensus is not such a good idea. The South – more specifically the East – has now become the champion of open borders and free-flowing capital.
The Middle Kingdom has taken the lead. And why not, it’s been the great beneficiary of the international order set up and maintained by the US after World War II. After a few decades under a Maoist shroud, they embraced McWorld and saw their share of GDP go from 4% to 18% in 16 years. India hasn’t done badly either, its share of GDP has doubled to 7.3%.
So when Trump scrapped the mega-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China immediately proffered its own Asian free trade arrangement to the world. When Trump spoke of walking out of the Paris agreement on climate change, Xi declared China ready to be the jolly green giant of humanity.
Stepping into superpower shoes isn’t that easy, not even if you’re the world’s number two and its largely aspirational if you’re number six. Understand the task that awaits the socially ambitious middle-level power.
The so-called American Century had three globalising sides.
There was an economic face. That was all about trade, investment, finance and rulebooks to keep the pinstripes straight. Another face was about security. The last face was values, the role model American institutions and liberal democracy provided for the world.
And now we have the blue collared American saying this economic order created by his bosses is unfair while these same bosses say playing sheriff is just a waste of time. As for values, the chief boss in the hallowed Oval Office is Donald J.
Into this gap steps China. Beijing should be setting up a global system in which everyone sees Beijing as the friendly neighbourhood bank manager and amiable local police chief. Instead China is seen as a Shylock whose weapon is debt traps and infrastructure contracts. As for being a sheriff, one just has to whisper the words “South China Sea” to make any foreign leader to see Chinese flags under the bed.
As for values, Beijing doesn’t even pretend its repressive one-party system is worth emulating.
India’s candidacy for champion of a new global order has its own problems.
New Delhi has a decent record of multilateral security. It has built up a network of security relations in the Indian Ocean, adding a slew of African ones last year. Now it is exploring what can be done in the political minefield of the Persian Gulf.
The downside is India’s economic engagement with the planet.
Even adjusted for its smaller resources, India is a multilateral economic pygmy. “India is the country that can only say No,” is the country’s unofficial motto at august places like the World Trade Organisation.
There are niche areas where India has shown some signs of being a constructive global player, like climate change. India can actually claim to have given birth to the newest multilateral baby in the world, the International Solar Alliance. If even half of Digital India takes off, Modi would be in a position to be the Great E-Helmsman of the world.
Values is an area India actually has more to offer than it realises, but first it must strive to iron out the many creases it has in its practice of democracy and rule of law on the home front.
Globalisation’s new champions are well short of being Sir Galahads. India is a hero on the security side, a zero on the economics. China is the reverse.
In theory, a string of emerging powers could together more than fill up the space that is being created by an American president retreating at the beat of his constituency’s nativism. However, last one checked New Delhi and Beijing talk largely about Masood Azhar, a topic that is unlikely to engender bilateral bonhomie.
A new world disorder is coming, some of which is already evident on certain Twitter hashtags. India needs to start thinking about the rest of the world in the comprehensive way that, arguably, it hasn’t since Jawaharlal Nehru’s day. This is not to say it isn’t trying, but there is an element of two steps forward, one step back for India’s efforts. If China gets it act together faster and better – which curiously seems unlikely so far – India could find itself back to grumbling about the unfairness of a global system whose instructions are written in Mandarin characters. New Delhi is warned: globalisation is up for grabs just as India is positioning itself to benefit from its spread.