We are witnessing another twist in the kaleidoscope of the world order. Because of their convenient quadrennial occurrence, the Olympics are a good point to mark a shift in not just sports, but global affairs. Yesterday we carried an article noting that China could overtake the US as a “sporting power” by the time of the London Games in 2012. Today, I want to look at the issue through the prism of geopolitics.
From China’s point of view, the Beijing Olympics were meant to tell us what China has achieved and that it is now a top-ranking world power in every sense of the term. Remarkably, world powers, too, underscored that verdict. I say “remarkably” because just months ago, with the Tibetan protests at their height, it appeared that the world powers were determined to rain on China’s party. But on August 7th and 8th you only had to look at the love-fest that Hu Jintao, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin were involved in during the pre-inaugural banquet and the inaugural ceremony to understand that China’s Olympian moment had indeed arrived.
The presence of the world leaders was no accident; they were responding to the shifting plates of the international system. It was not entirely a coincidence that the day Putin was watching the Olympic inaugural ceremony, Russian forces were invading Georgia.
Despite somewhat difficult relations with China during his presidency, George W. Bush came to celebrate Hu Jintao’s party in response to the oil- fueled resurgence of Russia. Beijing, ever-wary of Moscow, played its role as the good host to the hilt ignoring Bush’s for-the-record references to human rights and freedom. The Chinese may have settled their border dispute with Russia, but memories are long in Beijing, especially about the way in which China lost vast tracts of land to Imperial Russia during its century of shame. The Chinese are bound to have noticed that Russian arms exports have shown a steady downward drift as Moscow acts to preserve its own military edge over China.
Bush’s performance, a balancing act of enjoying the Games, praising China and at the same time trying to nudge it along better human rights observances is part of the new US strategy. Gone is the neocon effort to depict China as the new Soviet Union. The aim now seems to have reverted to the idea of coopting China and encouraging it to be more democratic and to play by the international rules which the US still defines.
The US argument on China is summed up by US Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. He said that some in the US argued that China was a threat and must be countered, while others like him felt that its growth “is an opportunity for the U.S. economy.” The challenge for Washington was to manage China through engagement.”
That this is the new strategy was underscored in an uncharacteristically nuanced speech by President Bush at the dedication ceremony for the huge new US embassy building in Beijing on August 7. He pressed all the right buttons on Chinese history, culture and its recent economic achievements. Even his references to the need for a regime of open trade giving way to a political atmosphere of open ideas was done in a tone of talking to Beijing, rather than talking down to it. “Change in China,” he declared, “will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions.” This was a clear message that the US no longer sees the Communist party run government there as somehow transient.
All this is not about the economic rise of China alone. We know that the Chinese are now set to overtake the US as the largest producer of manufactured goods in the world, four years ahead of time because of the weakened American economy. The US will lose its 100-year dominance in this sector, but looked at another way, the Chinese will merely resume a position they occupied for four centuries till the Opium war of 1840.
This is also about the rise of Russia. They may have been intervening in a local quarrel, in Georgia, but their larger message was to tell the west that the climate in Moscow had changed and that Russia would act decisively to protect its national interests. Georgia, you may recall, is the region through which a US-backed pipeline commissioned in 2006 broke the Russian monopoly of Caspian oil. Just the other day, Russia had threatened to deploy nuclear-capable bombers in Cuba in retaliation for what it saw was an American provocation in putting their missile-shield radars in Poland and Ukraine, its erstwhile “allies.”
So what we saw in Beijing on those two August days was a visible manifestation of the shifting tectonic plates of the world order. There were other leaders there as well — Yasuo Fukuda of Japan, Nicholas Sarkozy of France and our own Sonia Gandhi. But we are merely a supporting cast to the larger players. Ms Gandhi was received with due courtesy as the leader of India’s ruling party. The Chinese understand dyarchy where state and political power are shared, but India was not really in Beijing, either in the sporting events or in its politics.
China itself remains opaque. While its undoubted economic prowess is on display, there are unmistakable signs that its economy is slowing down. As it moves by design into the high-tech, high-innovation regime, its leaders need to also take care of the tens of millions who work in its low-tech, high volume sectors. Despite censorship, the internet has opened up China in an unprecedented way. Beijing may have been gratified by the nationalistic feelings that erupted in the wake of the Tibetan protests, but they know nationalism is a monster that cannot be easily controlled, by the party, or by anyone. Within China, the debate over whether China needs to integrate itself with the world system or go its own way, as it has done till now, has not been decided either way.
China has so far observed mercantilist principles in its dealings with the world — putting economics ahead of everything else. But the luxury of refusing to take positions on issues like Darfur may not last too long. If China wishes to be a world leader, it must display leadership, which also means taking the world community along with it on matters of international concern.
Nothing in these trends affects India in a negative way. We may not be growing as fast as China, but we are growing. “Rising India” can take advantage of China “risen” which has become an object of envy and fear in many world capitals. We are not competing with China for anything, most certainly not in the Olympics.
Our inner divisions and weak polity inhibit any aggressive Indian response to the rise of China. On the other hand, the Chinese ascendancy has pushed many countries to come closer to us as a way of hedging their bets on China. The problem is that there is no consensus on even the most obvious measures that would help India, such as the Indo-US nuclear deal which will remove India from a set of pariah regimes and provide it the wherewithal to make up its abysmal energy deficit.
In these circumstances, India will have to be a middle-of-the-pack runner till it can gather the wherewithal and the nerve to move to the front.
This article appeared first in Mail Today August 14, 2008