The 21st century world system that we are witnessing today is transforming from a unipolar world to a bipolar world system, with China rising as a new player to counter the unipolar hegemony of the United States. The new superpower of the world from Asia made the Asian region an important part of the grand chessboard of world affairs. China is working towards integrating Asia and Europe through various projects like the BRI. But this regionalism process is not something acceptable for the existing superpower- the US, urging the US to contain the rise of the new power. In the 21st century containment plan of the US involving the major players of Asian region, the Asian regionalism process will indeed be impeded.
RISE OF CHINA & FALL OF US
Since the cultural revolution in China, the nation has been growing at a rapid speed. For more than three decades, it overcame all the major economic crises of the time. One such economic crisis that affected the economies of the world is the sub prime crisis of 2008. This crisis is the spark that ignited the change in the world order that we are witnessing today, which China managed to dodge, thanks to its novel political economical system with its communist political system and a capitalist economy, a blend of both capitalism and communism. After the subprime crisis the world nations started questioning the century-long Washington Consensus related to market leadership, which failed to give solutions to the East Asian crisis, and caused the subprime crisis. Whereas the Beijing Consensus, based on authoritarian ruling and the state intervention in the economy, got prominence. This gave China an opportunity to “initiate” one of its important goals: transforming Shanghai into an International Finance Center in 2020 and ensuring internationalisation of its currency renminbi instead of dollars. The first step towards this goal happened in 2010 when China became the second largest economy in the world and in 2016 renminbi got accepted as one of the hard currencies in the IMF.
the China economy is growing rapidly, on the other side the US economy is deteriorating into a huge fiscal deficit, because of unfair trade practices that the country dealt with in the recent past. This was used by the Republicans to approach the American people during the 2016 elections, leading them to win the 2016 elections. Since the time the Trump administration had taken over, the US has been moving back to its isolation its policy of isolation from the world politics with his motto “American’s first”. The Trump administration follows the foreign policies, such as withdrawing troops from the Middle East, discrediting NATO, changing the foreign trade in its favor by imposing high tariffs to the EU and Canada, and withdrawing from all the major multilateral agreements. The dragons, on the other side, are expanding in all directions with its ambitious Belt and Road initiative in the Eurasian region and the RCEP in the Asia Pacific region through which they are trying to fulfill the vacuum created by the Americans. This competition between the two major economies in an anarchic world order has turned into an intense rivalry.
CHINA’S EFFORT TOWARDS ASIAN REGIONALISM
Pan-Asian regionalism is not something new. It is a century long ideology, first initiated by the Japanese, followed by the ASEAN countries around the 1960s. But the Chinese rejected the idea of regionalism at that time because of their own insecurity towards capitalism, as the regionalism process that was initiated at that time was more of a functionalist/ liberalist in nature. This was not compatible with their political system at that time which was socialist in nature. However after the cultural revolutions, the Chinese economic system underwent fundamental changes, which was in sync with other world capitalist systems. This change made them who they are today to lead the Asian region. The major reason that was pointed out by the Chinese for rejecting regionalism earlier; the functionalist approach under the Western nations, were replaced by a blend of both constructivist and functionalist approaches under Chinese supremacy. For any regionalism process, the first step is to attract the nation states within the region economically, as money induces greed and gives the reasons for them to connect, something similar to what India tried in South Asia in the name of “collective prosperity”. China started it’s Asian regionalism process with economic cooperation, by forming multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements with various nations. It began with ASEAN, established ACFTA (ASEAN CHINA FREE TRADE AGREEMENT) followed by the Central Asian countries. China established the SCO and finally the important landmark agreement was signed between Japan, China, and South Korea, three nations who hold 20% of the world economy, set aside their differences and signed a free trade agreement. After connecting economically through bilateral and multilateral agreements, generally the trend will be to connect politically, but for integrating at the political level, common culture integration is a prerequisite.For instance, the EU went from economic to political integration directly because they already had a common cultural environment. On the other hand, Asia is a very diversified region, both politically and culturally, devoid of common cultural environment. So naturally the next step China needed to take was to make Asia into a “community” which coincided with Xi Jingping tenure. Since 2012, China has started to seek a community-building type of regional cooperation. It is characterized by efforts at deeper regional integration through calls for historical and cultural empathy among Asian neighbours. On April 7th 2013, Xi Jinping called upon Asian nations to firmly establish a sense of community of common destiny. The outcome of this finally came from them in the form of BRI, which includes both economic and social integration.
The BRI project has six main corridors out of which four corridors, the China- Central Asia-WestAsia EconomicCorridor,China-PakistanEconomicCorridor,TheChina-IndochinaPeninsula Economic Corridor, and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, are explicitly created to connect Asia economically, socially, and politically.
ASIAN REGIONALISM – A THREAT TO US HEGEMONY
The US – China bipolarity war is not a new phenomena that came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, rather it began in the latter years of Obama tenure. China integrated its currency as one of the hard currencies in the IMF and it has intensified in recent years. Furthermore, China added a new element to its policy initiatives along with its soft power diplomacy that is smartpower diplomacy with the BRI which has the characteristics of Hard power(economic and military) and soft power (cultural influence) on the countries . These smart and aggressive activities of China are a threat to the US hegemony in the long run. The US felt that China is trying to control both the heartland and rimland, in a way to control the world island as they have the geographical advantage of being both sea power and land power. This fear got embedded in the minds of the US the moment China became the second largest economy of the world in 2010. The great decoupling of the two superpowers began with the trade war that began in 2016, since then both are attempting to push third world countries into an alliance system that would see the world carved into two decoupled blocks, with the US or against the US.
But how are these patterns threatening the Asian regionalism? The new game is centred in Asia this time. The two superpowers are now engaged in conflict across multiple geographic theatres (South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and Latin America) and multiple vectors (trade, investment, technology, espionage, international institutions, health policy, naval, air power, missiles and territorial disputes). In the grand plan devised by the US to contain the Chinese expansion, the US has shifted its attention toward the “Asia – pacific region”. The US is planning to encircle China from all sides for that the cooperation of the big Asian players like India, Japan and Russia are crucial. If these countries cooperate with the US then the Asian regionalism will stay as a myth.
In the South Asian region, the US is backing India whereas China is supporting Pakistan. The two big nuclear powered countries are under the influences of the different blocs. India never considered itself as part of any power blocs, but the recent activities undertaken by the Chinese, starting from the BRI, String of pearls, and the border confrontations, pushed India towards the US. Even though the recent border confrontations between India and China was undertaken to remind India about the Chinese supremacy in the region and keep India closer, it is taking a different turn. India is moving away from the region, becoming closer with the US to protect its strategic interests and tilting towards Japan for economic interest. For example, India was always hesitant about being a part of Quad, impeding the organisation from becoming a reality. But the recent China’s aggression across the region made India participate in the recent QUAD meeting enthusiastically. Followed by this, New Delhi is planning for a 2+2 dialogue with Washington in which the long standing BECA agreement for transfer of sensitive information is yet to be signed . Moreover, Trump who is moving away from all the multilateral agreements, seems enthusiastic about Quad. On the other hand, China is investing billions of dollars through BRI in Pakistan to make the country an obligated ally of China.
Southeast Asia plays a major role in their grand strategy as well. Their geographical presence on the world is very crucial, covering the choke points that are connecting the Indian Ocean and the pacific ocean . The ASEAN always tries to maintain a balance between the two nations even though the region is having close confrontation with China on the South China sea region. China’s investment in the Southeast region is huge which cannot be foregone. Similarly they are dependent on the United States for security, the US is protecting the ASEAN countries from China’s aggression in the South China Sea. So, the region is entangled between the two power blocs, not able to choose both the sides. The recent US order on the ASEAN countries to not to sell the special semiconductor chips that are needed for the Chinese 5G ambition can be considered as a threshold.
The grand decoupling has begun in the world system which should be considered as the alarm bell for the nations of the Asian region. Almost all the countries of the Asian region from big to small are dependent on the US and China for satisfying their Security and Economic interests. This is a serious concern that needs to be addressed. It’s time for the countries to adopt the policy of NAM, and follow three important strategies. First is to stay neutral and exploit the benefits from both the nations, second is to establish new relations with the emerging nations like the South American countries or African countries and third, the most important countermeasure is to strengthen the already existing relations among the countries in Asia itself, like the ASEAN and South Asia that can work towards strengthening their relations.
*Haridass Sankar is a professional with M.A. in International Relations, established software engineer and an aspiring political analyst.