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Against the grain

At international conferences today, representatives of developed countries primarily express a consensus view that a rules-based international order is coming under threat because of shifts in global power, revival of a balance of power approach in international affairs, the rise of populism and nationalism in Western democracies, a new attachment to sovereignty accompanied by a retreat from internationalism and increasing rejection of globalization by sizeable sections of the populace in Western countries. This is seen as a destabilizing development for international peace and stability.
The underlying assumption is that the existing world order based on rules deriving from international law, treaties and global political, financial and economic institutions, has served the international community well, even though the West has largely set the rules in accordance with its interests and values with a view to preserving its global dominance and entrenching the inequalities within the global system. It is acknowledged by its supporters that the existing system could be made more equitable and representative through reforms, but challenging it fundamentally would not be in the interest of the international community. So far, the United States of America, with its overwhelming political, financial and military power, has guaranteed the existing order, even through the use of military force. Today, the primacy of the West is seen as being challenged by the rise of Asia, and as the balance changes in favour of the new powers emerging in Asia, the fear is that the latter may begin to set their own rules and standards and erode the West’s long-standing domination of global affairs.
China is the main source of concern in this regard. China is rejecting the universality of Western values, be they democracy, human rights or economic liberalism, and this is seen as disruptive. It is seen to be pursuing its interests without any regard to the interests of others, claiming sovereignty over territories based on a false reading of history, and, as a consequence, violating international law as in the case of its activities in the South China Sea and its rejection of the provisions of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty to which it is a party. But China is undeterred by all the criticism because of its high-handedness in its periphery. Its economic success has been so spectacular that it has now begun presenting its political and economic model as an alternative to the Western democratic, pluralist and liberal order, especially for the developing countries. With its massive financial resources and continuing growth rates at a respectable level, China has acquired the confidence to project its own model of growth under State capitalism as more effective in addressing the issues of development faced by developing countries rather than the divisive and disharmonious Western-style democracy. It is no longer on the defensive about its highly authoritarian system and the absence of democracy and human freedoms in the country, believing, it appears, that economic success justifies its regressive polity and methods. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly rejected Western-style democracy for China, and has questioned the universality of Western values. China is effectively the world’s number two power and harbours the ambition to match, if not overtake, the US by 2049. What we now see are two rival models – the liberal order represented by the West and the authoritarian model represented by China – and the question is how much success China will achieve in moulding the global system in accordance with its own thinking, standards, values and interests.
Actually, China is not an example for other countries, whether developing or not. Its example cannot be replicated in scale by other developing countries, because barring India, no other country has its physical and demographic size. Western capital has always been attracted by China because of the size of its market, and once it decided under Deng Xiaoping to separate its political and economic systems – retaining communist structures politically but abandoning communism economically – investments flooded into its special economic zones to produce goods for export, making it in time the largest exporting power in the world. China would not have achieved this but for the strategic decision by Western capital to exploit China’s huge low- paid workforce and the capacity of the system to mobilize workers in vast numbers to produce goods on a massive scale for the global market. It is the marriage of Western (and Japanese and Taiwanese) capital and China’s vast and disciplined workforce, coupled with a calculated Chinese strategy of rivalling US power in time by ‘exploiting’ the greed of Western capitalism to build its own capacities parallelly. With the accumulation of massive financial resources and the steady growth of its military strength, China has begun unveiling its geopolitical ambitions through its Belt and Road Initiative. It is now challenging US power openly in the Western Pacific. Its call for Asia for Asians is meant to exclude the US, which has a powerful presence in Asia through military alliances, bases, troop presence and powerful naval assets. By developing concepts such as Asia-Pacific, and now Indo-Pacific, the US, as a Pacific power, is legitimizing its role in Asia.
But it is not China alone that is being viewed as disrupting the existing global order. The US actually sees Russia as a greater geopolitical threat, even though from the Asian perspective this may not appear persuasive. It is the traditional trans-Atlantic ties, Nato, the insecurities of East European and Baltic states vis-à-vis Russia that explain the resurgent animosity towards Russia. Vladimir Putin is seen as presiding over an authoritarian system that has a dark underside in Western eyes with regard to political controls, human rights, curbs on freedom of expression, economic illiberalism, and so on. More than all this, the developments in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea are seen as grossly violating the rules-based order in Europe. Russia is supposedly threatening the Baltic and East European states with troop concentrations, the deployment of missiles, and so on, in violation of the Helsinki Accords. Added to this is Russia’s supposed interference in the US elections and its disruptive use of the social media that has earned it the odium of being a threat to the existing rules- based global order.
What is new is that for the Europeans and a section of the US foreign policy establishment, it is the US under Donald Trump that is eroding the rules-based order that America itself had the principal role in shaping ever since the Second World War. The US is seen as moving away from internationalism and globalization with its ‘America First’ attitude. It no longer wants to espouse the cause of democracy and human rights in international affairs as it has done in the past. By walking out of the climate change accord, threatening to wreck the nuclear agreement with Iran sanctified by the UN, violating umpteen UN resolutions by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pursuing anti-Muslim immigration legislation, it has prompted western European countries to state openly their concern about the US’s commitment to upholding a rules-based order in the face of challenges from authoritarian powers.