The defining axes of the 21st century will be the power political conflict between the United States and China. From a systemic perspective, the balance(s) of power that will emerge from this conflict will be bi-polar which, as history demonstrates is a more stable system. But, the flip side is that regional orders will be increasingly multi-polar. Disaggregated, these power political configurations mean that while, at the apex of the system, peace or more accurately relative peace- defined as the absence of war- will hold but at the regional level, conflicts will, in all likelihood, intensify. The nature of the broader conflict between China and the United States will be “offensive-defensive”, in the sense that while China will be aggressively seeking new frontiers and expanding its power, so to speak, the United States will be defending its interests, power and other privileges.
In this schema, the “periphery” will become vital once again. The use of the word periphery might suggest and indicate echoes of the Cold War but the conflict between China and the United States will follow both a similar and a different dynamic. It will be similar in terms of system and perhaps even structure but where it will depart from the Cold War is in terms of the politico-strategic frameworks that will be employed and taken recourse to by both China and the United States. There will be no overarching and defining conflict that the two Great Powers will use as a proxy or even a grand chessboard. What there will be are localized conflicts that each will try to influence, and either root for stalemates or determine their outcomes. An example here might illustrate the point. The conflict in and over Kashmir might become worthy of interest for both the United States and China. The reasons for this are both micro and macro, strategic and tactical. From a macro perspective, the United States will be and is courting India; the country has not entered into a formal alliance with India but the contours and the nature of the relationship approximate an alliance structure. While the political relationship between India and the United States is couched in the language of values and what have you, the fact remains that the cozying up of the two is actually premised on raw power and interest. Both have a common enemy which creates a bonding between the two and the relationship thereby is also directed against China, without stating this publicly. The Indo US relationship means and entails augmenting India’s capacities and capabilities- economically, politically and militarily- all aimed to alter the balance of power in the region. This, in consonance with International Relations theory and practice, will accord salience to the “security dilemma” here and lead to arms races. Pakistan will (or perhaps already has) will drift into China’s orbit and the lines of the conflict will be sharply demarcated. To some extent, the maneuverings of all powers will be manifested in Kashmir where India will seek to shrink the conflict and with the help of the United States , will try to renegotiate it at the United Nations. These maneuverings will be sought to be checked by Pakistan with the help of China at the very same organization. If these dynamics actually come to pass, what will ensue is a stalemate.
In some senses, these maneuverings will be an echo of the Cold War.
In terms of the larger conflict between China and the United States, there will be a scramble for proxies and client states. Foreign Aid, which never has really been neutral, will be more intensely political and instead of domestic policies and priorities, foreign policies of nations will become more salient and significant. Countries will both bandwagon and balance in consonance with their interests- both perceived and real. The result will be a neatly divided world along the main axis of the China United States conflict. All this corresponds to the history and practice of international relations and politics. There is no novelty to it.
But, what will be another key aspect or feature of the political life and world of the 21st century is narrative. That is, the story that the United States and China will tell the world. A digression to put a perspective on the nature and importance of narrative is warranted here. The United States, during the Cold War, formulated and enacted the strategy of containment to hem and collapse the erstwhile Soviet Union. Containment, naturally, had an economic component, besides the politico- military one; it was then a multi pronged strategy. But, in terms of the conflict between China and the United States, containment will be a “shrunken” strategy, with the military component more salient than the economic one. (The focal region for this strategy will be the Indian Ocean Region(IOR)). The military component will be sought to be either obscured or made less visible, so as not to validate China’s fears. But, economically, the fortunes of China and the United States are still tied together despite the United States’ putative mercantilism and China’s recalibration of its economy. Tied into a “complex interdependence” paradigm, both countries will cooperate in many domains and compete in others. Containment will then be a diluted concept and practice.
The “fight” between China and the United States will then also be increasingly fought on the domain of the narrative. But, both countries , have limited room for maneuver here. While China has advanced and developed leaps and bounds in most indices, it does not have a “universalist” story to tell. The rediscovery of the Confucian ethic will have limited appeal. In terms of the United States, under Trump, there is nothing to root for and appeal to. And, the idea and practice of democracy, has over time, undergone reversals. The option left for China is to expand upon and tell or sell the story of development and “alternate” modernity, which might find a resonance in certain quarters. The United States will be hard pressed to find and trot out a narrative that it can espouse. Human rights will increasingly take a backside and what the world, at large, will witness, is a rehashed and revisited notion of the “Great Game”. All in all, this Great Game will be the actual determinative influence on the 21st century.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]