Columns/Op-Eds, Politics / Globalisation

The multipolar Asian century (part 2): Contestation or competition?

By Samir Saran, Senior Fellow and Vice President and Ashok Malik, Senior Fellow, both of the Observer Research Foundation. Part 1 can be found here.

In the seven decades since 1945, the US largely succeeded in scripting some significant rules that still survive, and they have guaranteed the stability of global institutions that are the bedrock of contemporary multilateralism. The UN system, the key security treaties, conventions and norms for managing common spaces, all emerged from the conversations of that era. The period since 1990 saw the triumph of the liberal order, and placed the globalisation project firmly within the Atlantic consensus.

The economic imperative to rebuild post-war Europe inevitably necessitated some of these political responses and military instruments. Superpowers became the global guarantors of predictability, whether in trade and commerce or the security domain, and by extension, of multilateralism. This task is now devolving in Asia, but in an Asia that has not been dominated by one sovereign power since the times of Genghis Khan, and an Asia that is stubbornly multipolar.

Asia needs to discover a bridge between multipolarity and multilateralism.

This is occurring at a moment when many holdover institutions are flailing, if not failing. The UN resembles not an NGO, as is often suggested, but a think tank. It offers a good platform for talking about norms and rules, but is ill-equipped to enforce any. Inaugurated in 1995, the WTO is in a premature midlife crisis. So where are the new institutions for the Asian century? Where are the important conversations taking place, and among whom? Or, is it time to face up to the harsh truth and accept that rules, actors, institutions, arrangements and ethics that may be able to serve the Asian century are yet to be discovered, born, written and even conceived?

Perhaps, it is time to pursue a new project, one that begins to create a political Asia. Like the Atlantic order needed to flourish on the basis of the Bretton Woods and UN systems, Asia needs a new management, a new board of directors and a new security architecture. At the very least, this system needs to bring three resident actors (China, Japan and India) and two regional stakeholders (the US and Russia) to the same table. Other sub-regional influencers should be drawn in as well.

The East Asia Summit, of which all these countries are members, has been suggested as a possible fulcrum of such an architecture. Yet, the East Asia Summit is insufficient to address the concerns of Central and West Asia. Is an expanded mandate for the G20 (seven Asian countries, two more if one were to include Turkey and Russia) the answer? Alternatively, is a greenfield institution inevitable?

Three possibilities — distinct, but not mutually exclusive — emerge. At the commencement of the 21st century, Asia’s politics resembles the fraught, rudderless multipolarity of the beginning of the 20th. It took 50 years and two wars for that reckless order to settle into a multilateral equilibrium. Asia has to do it better, faster and without the external stimulus of a great War. As the dowager power, the US can incubate new institutional arrangements in Asia, playing Greece to emergent Asia’s Rome, to borrow from Harold Macmillan’s description of the post-war relationship between Britain and the US.

Should the US choose to bequeath the liberal, international order to Asian forces, India will be the heir-apparent. India would not, under this circumstance, play the role of a great power — because Asia is too fractious and politically vibrant to be managed by one entity — but simply that of a ‘bridge power’. India is in a unique and catalytic position, with its ability to singularly span the geographic and ideological length of the continent. But two variables will need to be determined. Can the US find it within itself to incubate an order that may not afford it the pride of place like the trans-Atlantic system? And, can India get its act together and be alive to the opportunity it has to become the inheritor of a liberal Asia?

The second possibility for an Asian order is that it resembles the 19th century Concert of Europe, an unstable but necessary political coalition of major powers on the continent. The ‘big eight’ in Asia (China, India Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, Russia and America) would all be locked in a marriage of convenience, bringing their disparate interests to heel for the greater cause of shared governance. Difficult as it would be to predict the contours of this system, it would likely be focused on preventing shocks to ‘core’ governance functions in Asia, such as the preservation of the financial system, territorial and political sovereignties and inter-dependent security arrangements. Given that each major player in this system would see this as an ad hoc mechanism, its chances of devolving into a debilitating bilateral or multi-front conflict for superiority would be high — very much like the Concert that gave way to the First World War.

A third possibility could see the emergence of an Asian political architecture that does not involve the US. This system — or more precisely, a universe of subsystems — would see the regional economic and security alliances take a prominent role in managing their areas of interest. As a consequence, institutions like ASEAN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the AIIB, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation will become the ‘hubs’ of governance. The US would remain distantly engaged with these sub-systems, but would be neither invested in their continuity, or affiliated to its membership.

Rather than crystal gazing these three possibilities, our objective is to gauge the political underpinnings behind an emerging Asian architecture. Very simply: will it be defined by contestation or cooperation? Can the US incubate a political order that is largely similar to existing multilateral systems or will the cost of creating disruptive institutions keep Asian countries from buying into them? And finally, can any credible pan-Asian governance institution successfully absorb — or at the very least acknowledge — the cultural, economic and social differences that characterise the continent? The quest for the Asian century is not for the Holy Grail of shared governance, but diagnosing the right means to reach a sustainable and inclusive platform.

Original link is here. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Studio Incendo.


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