By Wajahat Qazi
As the West retreats into itself under the onslaught of populism and nativist forces best personified by the ascent of Donald Trump to power and fissures and fault lines open up across the Western world, with attendant geopolitical consequences and implications, China is at the cusp of a vast grand strategic and geo-economic enterprise. Known as the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative – which envisions massive connectivity across Asia , Eurasia and even parts of Africa along with crisscrossing investments and financial linkages- this project can potentially be in the nature of a game changer- regionally and globally. If the OBOR project does pan out, then the post War Western(or more accurately, American led) world order is about to give way to something novel.
Conceptually and perhaps even practically, it would appear that the OBOR is akin to a mirror image of the post War world order, albeit with the significant difference in terms of the genesis and architect of the initiative. The OBOR emanates from the China which is then the architect of the initiative. In a way, the initiative corresponds to the Bismarckian hubs and spokes model of international politics where China is the hub( centre) and other participating countries the spokes. However, holding the OBOR simply as a “hub and spokes” model would amount to reducing the initiative to a caricature. OBOR appears to be more than this. In essence, it appears to more in the nature of an Asian or Eurasian Union whose proximate parallel would be the European Union with the paradigm of complex interdependence- the thick and dense volume of financial and trade flows between participating countries- central to it.
This putative character and nature of the OBOR places the initiative as a competitor to the Western or American led world order- already under threat with Trump assuming the country’s presidency. The crystallization and fructification of OBOR has systemic , geopolitical and geo-economic implications. In terms of the system and structure of international relations, the OBOR places China as a direct competitor to the United States; in this sense, if the OBOR gets translated into a reality, the world will become “purely” bipolar- that is, system polarity will be defined by two major powers- the United States and China. This ties into the dimensions of multilateralism. Again, if the OBOR becomes real, then its variant of multilateralism will undercut the multilateralism developed by the West( already under threat , especially after the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the Doha Round of trade talks). OBOR then is a new paradigm that potentially shatters older ones and creates a new order and architecture.
The question now is: Will OBOR see light of the day? That is, will it be crystallized into reality?
The answer is contingent. The Idea of Asia as a coherent geopolitical and cultural entity has always been thrown into doubt by the very staggering diversity of the region. This diversity has entailed conflicts- both latent and overt- in and within Asia with the attendant political, economic and geopolitical competition between units that comprise Asia. This very fact has entailed security dilemmas and even wars, at times between constituents of Asia(broadly defined). There then is no glue, so to speak, that can bind Asia together into an entity. This is in stark contrast to the European Union, where, in the least, and especially in the initial stages of the “widening and deepening” of the Union, there was some consensus on values. (As Europe “ widened and deepened”, and it enveloped Eastern Europe, Central Europe and the Mediterranean countries, it was observed that there was a value schism in the European construct).
This, however, is one- even though important , part of the picture. The other side is of development. If a consensus emerges amongst the envisaged components of the OBOR initiative, on economic development, then the initiative might stand a chance. This is a Herculean task which would require deft leadership and a strict consensus. Development, or more accurately, development aid, is not neutral, as has been observed historically and even contemporarily. Bluntly put, development comes with strings attached. Given this, will the potential and envisaged constituents of the OBOR, be willing to cede leadership and even parts of sovereignty to China? If they do, what will be the condition(s) for this?
We may take recourse to history here. Unity, coherence and ceding of leadership and sovereignty(or parts of it), usually happens when nations, groups or groupings are faced with an “Other”. Perhaps the example of the European Union might illustrate the point. The European Union was at its apogee during the Cold War when the West was locked into an existential combat with the erstwhile Soviet Union, which was the West’s “Other” and vice versa. This battle imparted sting and bite to the West’s coherence and hence the European Union’s, by extension. Now returning to the theme of OBOR and its constituent components, the initiative would want an “Other” to generate cohesion. This “Other” would axiomatically be the West. So, inherent to the OBOR is the crystallization of an “Other” which would give the initiative coherence, and cohesion. This, in turn means, or could mean a “Clash of Civilizations”-the thesis delineated by the late scholar and political scientist, Samuel Huntington.
If the OBOR then gets reified, and if “ Asia” exists in an existential or conflictual dynamic with the “West”, it would have all sorts of ramifications, implications and consequences- geopolitical, political, security and global security, normative and in terms of international relations and global governance. All in all, whether the OBOR pans into reality or whether it exists in weak form or not, world order and international relations are in great flux and fluidity. The only certainty about these is uncertainty. In short, we live in interesting times.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org