Let us catch up with the Dragon

  • Shyam Saran
  • Updated: Dec 31, 2014 19:31 IST

The year 2014 will go down in recent history as the year of ‘great disorder under heaven’ when multiple political, economic, security and public health crises erupted serially across the globe. These crises appear to have been unpredictable and disconnected but in fact expose interlinked underlying trends manifest for some time.

The world is in the throes of a persistent and pervasive transition, driven by accelerated technological change. National and international institutions and processes of governance and the mindset that underlies them are being constantly outpaced by technological change.

Individuals, communities, societies and nation-states are unable to manage, let alone resolve, the tensions between the urge to cling to familiar anchors, be they political, social or religious and the rising popular aspirations to benefit from the many new and expanded opportunities for advancement, both material and intangible, spawned by the new technologies. We see this tension playing itself out in our own country. While the Modi government intends to enable the Indian ‘mouse’ to rule the digital world we witness the contradictory assertion of narrow religious and communal identities. This parallelism is unlikely to work beyond a point. The embrace of technological innovation and change requires a constant reinterpretation and re-definition of religious, cultural and intellectual traditions in the light of changing circumstances.

This contextualisation is the very anti-thesis of revivalism.

Henry Kissinger, in his latest book World Order, argues that a functioning international order requires a powerful hegemon, either a single predominant power or a concert of major powers, to set the rules of the game and ensure compliance through the use or threat of use of force. The absence of such singular or collective hegemony is what leads towards anarchic events and crises. The transition we are in is the result of the dismantling of the United States-led global order, set in place after World War II, due to the diminished pre-eminence of the US unaccompanied by the emergence of another locus of hegemony.

US President Barack Obama has acknowledged the altered equations by reducing US global commitments, withdrawing American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking a compromise with Iran on its nuclear programme, refusing to intervene on behalf of pro-Western forces in Ukraine or anti-Assad and anti-Islamic State forces in the Gulf and more recently, resuming ties with Cuba.

American intervention against adversaries has progressively shifted from reliance on military options to economic sanctions and trade measures, like the recent and deliberate drop in oil prices, but in a densely inter-connected global economy these have limited impact.

The temptation to reach out to cyber instruments to damage adversaries, as may have been resorted to in case of Iran earlier and now North Korea, is risky, underlining the danger of having no global regime in the new and critical cyber domain.

The US maintains its forward military deployments in Asia-Pacific and seeks to regain ground on the economic side through the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, as the recently concluded Apec Summit in Beijing demonstrated, China has consolidated its regional and global clout during the year, launching a slew of initiatives such as BRICS Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the maritime and overland Silk Road projects and now the proposal for an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area.

The internationalisation of the Chinese Yuan continues steadily and Chinese outward investment now outpaces inward capital flows. The Ukraine crisis has handed China a bonus geopolitical card, enabling a long-term gas deal with a weakened Russia. China’s current objective is to establish itself as the predominant power in Asia enjoying a veto over the security and economic decisions of countries in its extended periphery. Its current focus is on East and South East Asia but will eventually extend to Central and South Asia. Russia is now a lesser rival in Central Asia. China has already made significant inroads in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Even if Pakistan’s value as a Chinese proxy against India declines due to its increasing dysfunctionality, this is likely to be made up through increasing economic and subsequently, security presence in our neighbourhood. The chorus of support for China’s membership of Saarc at the recent summit in Kathmandu is ominous. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made timely moves to strengthen relations with our neighbours, this needs urgent practical follow up. Only systemic changes and increased capacity in our governance structures, in particular the ministry of external affairs, will improve implementation.

China’s emergence as the leading power in Asia is likely to continue. We must formulate our strategy on this assumption. This includes a single-minded focus on getting India back on a sustained and high growth path to diminish the growing power gap with China. This has to go hand-in-hand with closer alignment with other countervailing powers in Asia including the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia even as engagement with China itself must expand. While the Modi government has done well to reach out to these powers, 2015 should see a much more focused effort to consolidate and expand ties with Indonesia, resurgent under its new President Jokowi.

The year 2014 saw a violent terrorist movement, the Islamic State, capturing a defined territory and acquiring the attributes of a state complete with a government and standing army. The longer it survives and consolidates, the greater its influence on Muslim communities world-wide. Its emergence, like that of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and violent jihadism in Pakistan, with the massacre of school children in Peshawar the latest abomination, is the result of expanding ungoverned and ungovernable spaces.

It is also a reaction to a deep-seated anxiety in traditional societies with the nature and pace of technology-driven change. This is likely to escalate in the future. We need to be prepared for this heightened challenge. This not only requires hardened security but also a conscious effort to build upon India’s strengths as an inherently plural and inclusive civilisation.

Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman, National Security Advisory Board and RIS, and senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed by the author are personal

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