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 Route), 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 of these markets. With time, that will likely create dependencies that will evolve the connection with China from the economic to the political.
China’s ambitions are justified. China has already managed to move hundreds of millions of poor people in its society to the thresholds of middle class. And it has effected that transition smoothly, without major threats to its political system. And so far, there seem little evidence that there is pent up anger or frustration that is waiting to explode.
India also has been undergoing a subtle revolution for several years now. 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 the Indian society, with eyes staring at a vision of an India that is much bigger than the IT-back-office of the world with pockets of impressive technological advancement. Also here the objective is social mobility for hundreds of millions of people, and so far the steps have been bold.
In both cases, economics is the means; the end is political. China aims for the summit of world politics. India will be satisfied with a high plateau in the mountain. But both trails are unmistakable.
The first key question is: what level of aggressiveness will they show for others who stand in the way? China is certainly beyond the notion, advocated by its former leader (and grand strategist) Deng Xiaoping, to “hide its strengths and bide its time”. The new Silk Road is nothing if not a show of immense confidence and strength. Also, China has already taken assertive moves in different parts of Asia where it believes it has either old territorial rights or historical political influences. Its military, according to serious experts, has developed capabilities to allow it to assert Chinese will far beyond its borders, especially at strategically important Asian straits.
India has also shown assertiveness, whether in dealing with Pakistan or even at its border with China itself. The two countries will not seriously clash. The point here is the consequential moves that both are taking. These Asian behemoths have been arranging their homes and are now getting out with their eyes set on opportunities outside.
This is hardly surprising. Throughout history, almost all countries of significant geographical and demographic sizes, that had achieved certain thresholds of economic development, and where big bulks of their people had moved out of poverty, 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 their pursuits.
This leads to the second question: how the West will respond. Here, it is crucial to differentiate between Europe and the US.
Europe’s responses will almost certainly be accommodating. This is understandable, for despite the 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 but a collection of mid-size powers, with ageing populations, extremely rich but facing acute challenges to sustaining that richness. And so, Europe is not in for any strategic confrontation. The question here will be, whether the dragon and tiger will sense weakness?
The big question, however, concerns the United States’ response to the rise of Asia, and of course especially China. America sees a threat. China, and behind it a strategic depth in the vast continent, is the biggest challenge facing American supremacy. And the more China succeeds in sorting out its home and transitioning more (and more) tens of millions of its people to the thresholds of middle-class, the more China will become a competitor, and potentially an adversary, that will neither implode from within, nor retreat within its borders. Will America, then, seek to confront or accommodate?
America has not really faced that question yet. Its various entanglements in the Middle East in the past twenty years have diverted its attention and sapped a lot of energy. And in the past four years, the shock to the system of the election of President Donald Trump has occupied America’s minds and hearts.
Now, the China (and Asia) question stares America in the eye. Some American thinkers link societal problems with threats to American supremacy abroad. The idea here is that there are ills in the American society and political economy that manifest themselves in American politics, and which in turn erode America’s power in the world. Perhaps America will have to reconcile opposing currents in it and reforge what the American project is about. Given the social polarisation now clearly visible in America, this will be neither smooth nor fast. And history teaches us that weakened empires tend to be aggressive. This is critical, for how America deals with the rise of Asia is arguably the most consequential question in international affairs now.