The rise of China, and the consequent loss of global American influence, has the potential to be a moment of tremendous significance in the global power structure. We seem to be living through the flux of a tectonic shift in world history. Much like the period of the two World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century, or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – when global power dynamics resulted in the rise or fall of established superpowers.
History bears witness to the empirical fact that an alteration in the global power structure necessarily affects the governance systems of corollary states.
Let us attempt to investigate this claim.
Modern history, its alliances, and its flashpoints, stretch only as far back as a hundred years. At the turn of the twentieth century, the world was an unrecognisably different place. Europe and the Middle East were predominantly split between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Caliphate and French pockets of power. Russia, China and Japan had empires of their own. India, which had been ruled by the Mughal Empire for centuries, now belonged to the British. And the ‘empire’ structure of the ruling powers also dictated the manner in which local governments operated.
Democracy was not the mantra of any people. Raj, Khilafat and Kingship, were the accepted norms. The only exception to this, at the time, was the United States, which had not yet expanded its influence beyond the oceanic boundaries.
The First World War changed all that, completely obliterating the old-world order. All of the major empires collapsed, or were reduced to a fraction of their past glory. The Ottoman Empire, along with its Khilafat structure was entirely obliterated. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, giving way to the creation of German Austria, Hugarian Republic, Czechoslovak Republic, and the spinning off of Croats, Serbs and parts of Romania.
The United States, which had just arrived at the scene, was not yet the power we see today. And its governance structure, an open democracy had not been proclaimed as the preferred form of state structure across most parts of the world.
Then came the Second World War, and its decisive victory for the Allied Forces. And this victory obliterated the ‘empire’ structure of old, ushering in the advent of American democracy. Japan effectively shed its cloak of kingship, under American dictate, and adopted western governance structures. Even the British Empire, which was among the victors of the Second World War, could not long retain its empire status, and chose the American form of democratic enterprise.
Importantly, as empires crumbled, ruling powers carved out a new map of the world. Israel was born out of thin air. Middle East was (literally!) split across lines that the Queen drew at the back of a napkin. Countries like Jordan, Qatar and the UAE were created out of nothing at all. The Indian subcontinent was split across borders drawn by the Viceroy. Parts of Africa were split into smaller nation states. And institutions such as the United Nations and allied authorities were put in place to institutionalise the allied power structure.
Most importantly, the western global powers, which redrew most of the global map (in the Middle East, Africa and Asia), also guaranteed sanctity of the new borders, either directly or through their proxies.
For almost four decades after the Second World War, the only real challenge to Western hegemony was the Soviet Union. Within the territories controlled by the Soviet Union, the ‘American democratic enterprise’ was resisted. These territories – from Eastern Europe to Cuba – took their governance lead and state structure from the Soviet Union. And the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, once again resulted in remaking of international boundaries. The eastern part of the Soviet Union was carved into 18 different international territories. Each of these borders were redrawn with the consent of the only superpower remaining (the United States). And the consequent government formed within these territories, also took their lead from the United States.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union ushered in the age of a unipolar world. For the first time, since the collapse of the Roman Empire, all of the world was ‘dominated’ by a single country: in this case, the United States. This extraordinary turn of events ushered in the age of American imperialism. Since 1990, the United States has enjoyed almost hegemonic power. It has invaded countries at whim, ousted governments it didn’t like, and supported despots of its own choosing. Just as importantly, this period saw the growth of the ‘American form of government’. Democracy, of the US brand, was the preferred system. Even when the domestic population did not want it – e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq. International governance bodies (e.g. IMF) forced countries to undergo domestic reforms that suited the United States’ interest, and adopt the American style of governance methodologies. Those who followed the American lead were rewarded (South Korea, India etc.). Those who differed with the United States were punished (e.g. Venezuela, Iraq, Syria etc.).
But something incredulous has started to happen recently. Having been drained of its global image during two ill-conceived wars, and powered by Donald Trump’s reactionary “America First” policy – which shuns the idea of an inclusive American Dream – the United States seems to be losing its status of the only real global power. Competing global interests are already gaining ground. In Syria and Lebanon, for example, Russia is already more important to the local power structure than America is. Countries like the UAE and Qatar are looking east, towards China and Russia.
The rise of China, which was slow and sluggish till recently, has gained tremendous pace during the course of the coronavirus epidemic. As the west reels from the effects of coronavirus, America has already lost its grip on institutions such as WHO and even the EU. In the South China Sea, as the Chinese assert their claim on various territories (including Taiwan), American influence can only be maintained through some form of military conflict. On that, the Americans are not sure they can win.
China’s aggression in Ladakh, and a speeding up of the CPEC projects (despite coronavirus lockdowns) is a testament to the global repositioning of China. They are the new power around this block. The days of western hegemony seem to be over, or at least on the decline. A new age, of ‘Look East’ is about to start.
This shift in global power has real consequences for international boundaries that were artificially drawn across the Middle East and even Asia. The powers that created those boundaries, and guaranteed their sanctity, can no longer do so. And places like Taiwan (even Ladakh) are a perfect example of this. As China decides to take over Taiwan and Hong Kong, will the US risk a war to ‘liberate’ it? If China stays in Ladakh, or expands its dominion across the Indian border through Nepal, will the United States and its friends come to the military aid of India? Will they fight a war to jeopardise CPEC, or the larger Belt and Road Initiative?
In the months and years to come, countries in our region (and perhaps across the world) may be forced to pick sides between the United States and China. Those who come to the Chinese camp, may also have to grow out of the adopted American model of democracy, and follow something closer to the ‘Chinese Model’ – where a loose democracy is coupled with a decisive writ of the state.
Of course, large parts of this is speculative for now. But history bears witness that the rise of new global powers also sees a corresponding spread of their peculiar governance structure. Like the structure of the ‘empires’ in the time before the First World War. And the structure of American democracy, in the post-World War II period.
We are living through a critical period of global history, and witnessing the rise of the East. And this new world order, which seems to be evolving before our eyes today, will have profound impacts for Pakistan and its dysfunctional democratic enterprise.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @SaadRasooll