Since the times of the Romans, Spaniards, Portuguese, the French, the British, the Germans, the Russians, and now the Americans - the Western civilisation has never seen a prominent challenger to their hegemonic and pre-eminent place on the World stage until now.
A Changing World Order
Be it economics, political influence, geopolitics, soft-power, military power and cyber realm, the West for the first time in centuries is on the receiving end and is facing the onslaught of the Dragon and tigers who are now out in the wild. Napoleon once said, “Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.” China and the Asian tigers are no longer sleeping and this a wake-up call for the West which is sleeping now or we can say is helpless. The sheer swiftness and magnitude of this change could never have been imagined. We move on to examine how the West has been challenged not only in above-mentioned arenas but also psychologically.
"They call us when something happens"
During an interview with Vox, President Obama said that when something happens in the world, they don't call Moscow or Beijing, they call Washington. Well, that ain’t wrong but the pre-eminent stature and the global image of America as a beacon of stability and authority have been damaged not because of American miscalculations but due to China’s rise as an economic superpower. History tells us that whenever a nation is economically strong and stable, it dictates its terms and conditions. This show of authority by Obama is not limited to the Americans but is deeply vested in the Western civilisation. They have been at the forefront and on the winning end of every major event in the modern and medieval era. This past glory brings with it the notion of responsibility to keep things in fixed world order. The west has shaped the modern world and the word modern itself is mostly seen as a western synonym. Their languages, culture, traditions and institutions have shaped the world as we know it. History is evidence, for when a person is on top, he shapes the narrative in a way that benefits his/her goals primarily. So now, when many nations are rallying behind China for the One Belt One Road initiative, it is making the west nervous and the sole reason is that they are not used to taking orders but giving them.
The Psychology of being Number 1
After WW2, the British and the old European powers were no longer in a pre-eminent position and the number one nations.mankind. The British empire was collapsing and many colonies were gaining independence. Finally, the United States of America took over the global scenario after centuries of European domination, but this power was western too and the institutions of Europe and America were largely the same. There was no large-scale threat to the Europeans. Even after the psychological setback of not being number 1, the Europeans made peace with America being a new hegemon but they are not okay with any Eastern power or for that matter China being the number 1. Since a hundred years, the Americans have not known what it is to be runners-up in the world rankings. This onslaught on their ranking from China is going to be a huge psychological setback to Americans and the western civilisation as a whole. Imagine, Americans going to Beijing for the UN General Assembly meetings and WTO HQ to ask for favourable deals while the Europeans ask for loans from major Chinese banks. All these changes will come with the change of ranks. International order being reshaped under the new power will be a huge mind-blowing shock to the establishment and will take many years if not centuries to stabilise.
Yes! Mr Xi, we will change it
After world wars, an international system of the United Nations was created and later we had IMF, WTO, WHO, INTERPOL and others. When the USSR collapsed, the process fast-forwarded and the world was in a hyper globalisation period. All this was led by the Great American power and economy. But now China is taking over in terms of Naval buildup, Economic development, Artificial Intelligence, Soft-power and Political influence. It is increasingly destabilising the nerves of the western establishment as a whole. “With great power comes great responsibility and in the 21st century comes great change”. When a new hegemon rises it has to make sure that the global order is shaped in a way that it protects its interests and helps it to remain pre-eminent. That’s what China is doing. Through its economic influence, it is shaping the media, politics and economic policies of many nations. Its size is so big that many small nations' arms are already twisted to benefit the middle kingdom. Many western institutions are not in support of Dalai lama or teaching about Taiwan or Tiananmen square massacre just because they want to receive the aid of Confucius institutes. Media houses in many nations don’t broadcast about human rights violations in China as these nations have huge Chinese investments. Some nations have implemented pro-China policies to facilitate Chinese investments and involvement. The South China Sea region is a big example of how China can rewrite international rules without facing much backlash.
All this makes the west nervous and there is not much that they can do about it. Due to the huge interdependence of economies in this globalised world, it is difficult to decouple with a nation and engage in conflict. The West is not used to this defensive behaviour but it has to adopt it in-case of China. Receiving orders from China is psychologically difficult for the west. A global order based on the western mechanism is being brought down brick by brick. It won’t be late when the orders from Beijing will have a global effect.
Why worry about China?
The west is worried and concerned about China’s rise because the two aren’t similar in any manner. Chinese are people of different cultures and traditions. Their institutions are based on different histories and perspectives. Asian powers will still be able to handle the rise of Chinese global order as they share somewhere similar political culture. The new Chinese order will lead to a new rules-based system and global institutionalism. This new order will not suit the preferences of the old westerners and hegemony of America. They fear a weakening of the democratic order and the rise of the communist regime on the global platform. This fear is backed by the history of the Cold War when the liberal world went all out to stop the USSR from becoming a global hegemon. Now, we can see the threat arising in a much more powerful way. China has blocked many western initiatives in UNSC and on the international stage. It has restricted those who have gone against it. The close links between the Communist regime, army and the corporations have also raised alarm bells in the western capitalists. The classic example of an internet firewall, Huawei 5G, mass surveillance and economic deception has threatened many western countries. Coronavirus has accelerated the process of power shift from west to east. Western concerns stem out of psychological aspects too. The fact that the west will be the economic and political subordinate to China is revolting to them.
The Chinese Challenge
The West still dominates the world in terms of soft-power, military prowess, big tech corporations, political influence and cyber advantage. Well, no one is denying the western powers’ dominant status. What we are analyzing is the speed with which all this is being challenged and shifted. China now has the world’s biggest manufacturing companies and construction companies. They are home to Tencent (a tech goliath), Ali Baba Group (an E-commerce company), Byte dance. China is moving ahead rapidly in the domain of Artificial intelligence domination and has a huge 5G equipment manufacturing company called Huawei. Chinese media houses, Global times and CGTN are taking over the global intelligentsia by storm. In the 21st century, the one who will control the internet and information will control the world. These media houses have become the narrative shapers and propaganda promoters for communist China. China’s military is advancing at a great pace too. A pentagon report now says that the Chinese have the largest navy in the world. They are developing missile defence systems and advanced military equipment indigenously. China is increasing its activities in Space exploration and militarisation aspects. It has tested anti-satellite missiles successfully. In the arena of cyberspace, China is moving ahead from the west. They are developing institutional level surveillance and hacking systems to sabotage if the need arises.
China has significantly invested in soft-power promotion and its ranking has increased. In 2016 Hillary Clinton wished Chinese people a Happy New Year, which was called the ‘year of the pig’. On the global political sphere, China’s stature has increased. Now China’s voice is heard all across the globe and it uses its veto and voting powers in the International arena to the benefit of its allies. The pace at which China is accelerating was highly unprecedented. The west may be dominant but even now, its basic structure is dependent on China. We saw this during the pandemic when western markets were almost on their knees due to supply chain shutdown in China because of Coronavirus.
2049 - China’s great overtake
In 2049, China will be celebrating 100 years of the communist regime but that won’t be all. The celebrations will be for China becoming a “fully developed, rich, and powerful” nation. The hundred-year plan would have been finally achieved. Many say China will take over. Well, in terms of GDP (PPP) it already has. It won’t take much time when they replace the USA in terms of other balance of power measures too. While western manufacturing will go down, Chinese manufacturing would surge. It will be the greatest and fastest overtake in history.
When China takes over the global order it’s going to be different from what we now live in. China will reign the way it wants to. What remains crucial to the big picture is when will the major structural change happen? For now, I want you to think about what the China-led world will be like from 2049 onwards. Rise of any nation to the global stage is not peaceful, it will be accompanied by conflicts and issues. Also, the rise is not limited to years but decades. Any geopolitical or global disruptive change will take time to absorb but will set in with time. For now, we face many questions like What would be the break-even point? How will the nations resolve issues? What will the China-led world look like? And last but not least is the concern whether the international order will survive the rise of a hegemon or will the “the middle kingdom” create one, in which all nations orbit it? Till then we need to stay informed and monitor daily changes. Even a small move on the chessboard is a strategic one.
By Harsh Suri
Harsh is on his mission with political science as his partner. Hindu College has given him a lot of know-how too. He is driven by geopolitics and geo-strategic issues. he loves to blend and understand international affairs with the domestic characteristics that shape it. Harsh believes in digging down the topic rather than having a cakewalk on it. you can ping him up on foreign policy anytime.