THANK you, Donald Trump. Uncertainty over the global impact of US president’s America First policy has unleashed an unexpectedly vigorous new “great game” of geopolitical musical chairs as nations rethink their age-old friendships and alliances — and enmities.
True, it’s not just Trump’s unpredictability that is triggering a re-ordering of the post-war, liberal, world order. China’s emergence as a self-confident and assertive “Great Power” is worrying many of its neighbours.
Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU has sparked uncertainties about the future of both Britain itself and of the EU. Russia is playing a secretive game of hide-and-seek with the alleged ambition of further destabilising liberal democracies and their leaders.
Taking their lead from the US president, populists — from both the left and the right of the political spectrum — are enjoying their moment in the sun.
And of course, everywhere you go there are signs of dangerous new power dynamics, strategic repositioning and emerging tensions and conflicts. If The Economist and a swathe of other recent books and articles are to be believed, the world is on the verge of a horrible, full-scale, war.
Certainly, inter-state and intra-state competition and rivalries are getting heated in many parts of the world. With their bitter age-old animosities, Pakistan and India are in a league of their own. North Korea’s “great leader” Kim Jong-un is as unpredictable as the current occupant of the White House.
The wars in Syria and Yemen continue to shock in their cruelty and disregard for the killing of innocent men, women and children. Afghanistan’s hopes of peace are dashed one terrorist attack at a time. And so on.
But these are not the wars that the scaremongers are fretting about. No, it’s about the Third World War, the clash around-the-corner between America and China, which, based on a precedent set by the Peloponnesian Wars of Fifth Century BC between a rising Athens and the established Sparta, pre-ordains that war is inevitable when an emerging power attempts to supplant a hegemonic power in international politics.
Could be. History can and does repeat itself. Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s latest book on the subject, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap?, has received global attention.
On the face of it of course, the stage is set for increased Sino-American rivalry. China’s increased economic, political and diplomatic heft is giving the US a run for its money especially — but not only — in Asia.
America’s new National Security Strategy singles out Russia and China as competitors that have emerged to “challenge American power, influence and interests”. Beijing is also criticised for its aggressive investment and other economic activities — a reference to the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — and leveraging advanced technologies which, according to Washington, it has often acquired through stealth and theft.
Beijing, meanwhile, is in no mood to be cowed down. President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his quest for Great Power status and a belief that he is leading China into a new era of global influence. In small and big ways, China is seeking to share America’s hitherto overarching Asian presence. For many, Xi’s real plan is to dominate all of Asia.
Which brings us to the “Indo-Pacific”, a term now being used by the US, Japan, Australia and India — which have also set up a so-called “quad” of democratic nations — to describe the region once known as the “Asia Pacific”. For many, it’s about trying to counter China’s growing influence in Asia by recognising India growing eminence and hopes of playing a more powerful political and economic role in the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s idea of a quadrilateral security arrangement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US goes hand in hand with his hopes for a “free and open Indo Pacific” seek to link the rising Asian economies with still largely underdeveloped Africa.
It’s not just about zero-sum games and pre-programmed confrontations, however. History can also teach lessons. The European Union, established after World War II, is one example of nations having learned through tragedy and experience that it’s best to avoid the horrors of war. The Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) also sees itself as a peace project.
And it is true that even as they compete and quarrel, most world powers are also engaged in an equally exciting — but less headline-making — game of cooperation and collaboration.
China is balancing its controversial actions in the South China Sea with a charm offensive — and plenty of money — based on its pro-connectivity Belt and Road Initiative. China’s previously tense relations with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are on the mend. China and Asean are going to start negotiations on a code of conduct for activities in the South China Sea.
Japan and India are working together on connectivity projects in Africa. India and Asean are drawing closer and the EU is working with Japan, India, Asean and China on critical 21st century challenges such as climate change, urbanisation and water management.
For some, the focus should now turn to “Eurasia” as a vast swathe of land encompassing both Asia and Europe but also as a new world order. Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese scholar and former minister, believes that 21st century will not be American or Asian, but rather “Eurasian” — dominated by the interplay of the powers on a Eurasian supercontinent, above all China, Russia and the EU.
Trump has certainly disrupted the way nations have conducted their affairs for over 70 decades. The current disorder and disruption can be scary at time. But they also offer a time for states and people to rethink, reassess and rewrite the rules.
Perhaps the lesson from history is simple: when in doubt, engage — and cooperate.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2018