MUDASIR ALI DAR
Hegemony in the international system refers to a state’s ability to single-handedly dominate the rules and arrangements of international political and economic relations. Kindleberger argued that the economic chaos between WW1 and WW2 was partly because of the lack of a hegemonic world leader. Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST) argues that the stability of the global system relies on the hegemon to develop and enforce the rules of the system.
The emergence of China threatens USA hegemony. China’s growing strength in the economic and military arena has caused major shifts in the power structure in Asia. China has precipitated a fresh military crisis with India in eastern Ladakh in Galwan river valley, Hot Spring area, Gogra Kongka la area, and Pangong Tso. The conflict was building up for a long time but the lockdown due to coronavirus in the world’s more powerful countries provided an opening for China to alter the power equation in Asia. China has the military power to alter the territorial status quo. The real challenge for New Delhi is to redress the growing power imbalance with China. As China intrudes across LAC, India must be alert to a larger strategic shift.
In every world order, there is endless competition for more power, more resources and more territory. This constant struggle for power produces one or few superpower/s that has/have the authority to dominate others and accordingly modify their behaviour corresponding to its/their national interests. During the Cold War, two hegemons existed for almost 45 years without a major confrontation. However, a tiny technical glitch or human error could have wiped out entire countries and continents during this era. The two power blocs clashed on various occasions in this 45-year period to counter each other’s global influence but the fear of imminent mutual destruction prevented the deadly use of nuclear weapons.
Throughout the various world orders in history, the dominance of a single power has come only after long and bloodied wars. The Westphalia Treaty settled the Thirty-Year War and established the balance of power in Europe. Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth century upset this balance of power through its military advancements and colonised territories until World War One, when again the balance of power was restored. After World War 1 and until the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, the international political economy had greatly changed. Great Britain was too weak to play the role of the hegemonic power. During this period, international relations and the international political economy was not stable because of the absence of a hegemonic power to dominate and regulate the international system. The world from early twentieth century till the emergence of a new hegemonic power after the end of World War II was a period of “hegemonic absence”.
The post WW2 international structure was split between two rival ideological blocs: the USA and the USSR. The powers that had fought together during WW II were now engaged in an ideological conflict among themselves. Over time, the USSR became weaker and finally disintegrated. The world now entered into a unipolar phase dominated by the USA. The unipolarity continued for the next decade until anew Asian giant began projecting power in the region by financially reaching out to neighbouring states under its ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Since 2010, China has confidently expanded its expansionist nature beyond the Asian region. The question arises: can two hegemons exist in one region?
The hegemonic stability theory assumes China superiority in the region. China is already in the advantageous position with its economic and military superiority over its South Asian neighbour. The 1962 war outcome as well as the recent Galwan Valley episode also support this assumption. Will India be able to stand up against a regional hegemon? It will depend on various factors like domestic politics, economy, and military capability. South Asia may turn into a battleground with the USA being a third party. China’s economic investments in infrastructural projects have given it a critical strategic advantage. In addition to its military base in Djibouti, it can establish military bases in states like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. It is also pumping in huge money in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. Defence machinery installations at Gwadar port, Hambantota port, Chittagong port and Kyaukpyu port will be a geostrategic nightmare for India. Given India’s failure of its so-called “first neighbourhood policy”, China has significantly encircled India.
India has border disputes with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and China. Scuffles have escalated in recent times over these colonial outlined borders. Yes, there have been diplomatically arrived pauses and signing of various treaties and agreements, which no party fully adheres to, but the root cause of all conflicts, i.e. contested borders, still exist. India due to its internal politics has failed to resolve border issues not only with China but with other neighbours also. Historians may blame the former colonisers for drawing random borders but it’s also a fact that India has been a sovereign state for the past seven decades now. The Indian political leadership’s concern is that a compromise over borders will result in a negative impact on their electoral fortunes, but China, being a one-party system, has no such concerns.
The danger of an imminent military clash between China and India indeed exists. According to hegemonic stability theory, two or various hegemons cannot live in peace. China and India with their very different internal political functioning and strong ideological differences are locked in a major confrontation. The recent clash which killed 20 Indian soldiers and injured a hundred more points to an emerging conflict that will end only when only one hegemonic power exists. China has put India at a strategic disadvantage by following its long-sketched expansionist policy in the region. Its influence in domestic policy-making in South Asian countries helps it in instigating India’s neighbours against India. This claim is proved by recent actions of the Nepal government with which India had warm relations since independence. China through its monetary injections in poor South Asian countries and with India’s waning diplomatic relations with its immediate neighbours has put India in a tight spot.
China’s rise is cause of great concern for its neighbours as well as for the other global powers. Since world order structures are based upon security interests and threat perception, they are transformed when the perception of security interests and threat perception change. The existing structures are then no longer compatible with the requirements. China sees India as a regional threat and challenge, so dictating regional affairs will further China’s global power aspirations.