Why China Cannot Replace the US

Shyam Saran, Member, ICS Governing Council and former Indian Foreign Secretary

We are currently at one of those rare inflexion points in history when an old and familiar order is passing but the emerging order is both fluid and uncertain. And yet it is this very fluidity which offers opportunities to countries like India to carve out an active role in shaping the new architecture of global governance.

The international landscape is becoming chaotic and unpredictable but this is a passing phase. Sooner or later, whether peacefully or violently, a more stable world order will be born, with a new guardian or set of guardians to uphold and maintain it. This could be a multipolar order with major powers, both old and new, putting in place an altered set of norms and rules of the game, anchored in new or modified institutions. Or, there could be a 21st century hegemon which could use its overwhelming economic and military power to construct a new international order, which others will have to acquiesce in, by choice or by compulsion. This was so with the U.S. in the post World War-II period, until its predominance began to be steadily eroded in recent decades.

As we look ahead, there are three possible scenarios which could emerge. One is that China will continue to expand its economic and military capabilities, becoming the most powerful country in history. Some analysts are already conceding that role to China but I think this is premature. The Chinese economy is slowing down and it remains a brittle and self-centred polity. The second scenario is more realistic, that of a U.S.-China (G-2) dyarchy, with a tacit acceptance of respective spheres of influence, but also zones of contestation. But such a dyarchy is likely to be unstable with one or the other power seeking uncontested dominance.

The third scenario is of a multipolar system, similar to the European led world order of states with comparable power and with rules of the game broadly agreed upon.This was created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and kept the peace for almost a hundred years till the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The current shifting international landscape lends itself more appropriately to a 21st century version of that multipolar world order and this suits India’s interest.

Our country is still in the phase of accumulating economic and military power and would not wish to have our room for manoeuvre severely narrowed by either the emergence of a new hegemon or a dyarchy. India should try and shape a multipolar order with the support of other major powers, which is likely to be more stable and more conducive to maintaining peace and security and, importantly, mobilising collaborative responses to tackle contemporary and emerging challenges such as global warming, pandemics, cyber crime, drug trafficking and international terrorism. These, by their very nature are cross-cutting and not amenable to national or even regional solutions.A hegemonic order can constrain other states; it will rarely be able to promote collaborative action, which can be effective only if based on consultation and consent.

The US as a hegemonic power, presided over a world order which had been in the making over several centuries under prolonged Western dominance. The US was a legatee of Western dominance not its progenitor, though it did expand and extend that dominance. For any aspiring hegemon, there is no such legacy to build upon, though China may claim a history of pre-eminence in Asia, which is more imagined than real.

Thus China cannot just step into the space hitherto occupied by the US. It is only a cluster of major powers, China included, which could together occupy that space and impart a degree of stability and coherence to the evolving international situation. India has the opportunity to play a key role in building an effective, enduring and rule-based order by mobilising other major existing and emerging powers all of whom would prefer a multipolar order in preference to a hegemonic or G-2 system which consigns them to secondary status. Such a multipolar order would also be preferable to powers in relative decline since it would still enable them to retain residual influence rather than be compelled to submit to a latter day hegemon.

We are living in an intensely globalised and inter-connected world where inter-dependency is the dominant trend. This demands a cosmopolitan temper, an instinctive embrace of plurality and a relatively democratic governance structure, enabling collaborative responses. India possesses all the necessary attributes to lead the way in shaping such a new order. Indian diplomacy should rise to this challenge and grasp a historic opportunity. Let us shape events rather than be shaped by them.

This article was originally published as ‘Democracy, pluralism and cosmopolitanism can put India in a leading role in a multipolar world’, Hindustan Times, 9 May 2017.


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