Change is the only constant. The evolution of political models and drastic shifts in the concentration of power at the system level is an embodiment of the changing world orders. The evolution of empires and civilizations into nation-states and the inter-state globalized world is also an incarnation of this political change and changing world orders. In the 17th century, our world was somewhat multipolar in nature and it was not connected and globalized as it is today. The technological revolutions occurring over the last century no only provided us with means to connect the world and lessen the distances, but also resulted in the precipitous political evolutions. It also shifted the centres of power and changed the world order from a bipolar one, where the Soviet Union and the US were leading the global polities, to an unparalleled unipolar order led solely by the USA as the supreme power. Similarly, with the beginning of 21st century, scholars argue that the global order is again evolving and it may result in the multipolarity, where economic, cultural, military and technological influences of nations will be distributed among three or more nations. Thus, the thesis implies that we are stepping away from a world, which is influenced by the Western powers, especially the USA and its material supremacy, to a world where the power is distributed among various actors. Apart from the hard power distribution, in terms of military and economy, the emergence of multiple models of political order backed the multipolarity thesis. Although these different political orders will contend themselves in the marketplace of ideas in the coming decades. However, with the passage of time, it is becoming certain that we are again entering into a multipolar world and unlike the 17th century, now the world is interconnected and supranational bodies regulate their state-of-affairs. On top of this, the emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence and machine learning etc. are heralding us into a digital and paving path of new world order.
The 21st century hailed as the Asian Century is a time when Asian nations are becoming the forerunner in the economic, cultural and technological spheres. Parag Khanna calls this the “Asianization of the Asian continent in the 21st century”. It is also noticeable from the economic rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), where three out of five actors belong to the Asian continent. World Economic Forum (WEF) deems India and China as the emerging economies who will rule the world in near future and their enormous production capability, renewed connectivity, and their oversized population is a proof of this conjecture. Similarly, the population of Asia is approx. 60 per cent of the world’s total population and if they intend to follow a common political order, it will be a metamorphosis of the prevalent world order into a new one. Through the same line of reasoning, three of the top five leading world economies Asian and in technological expertise, five out of ten nations are also Asian. All these statistical figures substantiate the emergence of an Asian-led order, because the latent power and ingredients required for establishing and sustaining a world order, like thriving economy, military supremacy, and technological advancement etc. are present in Asia. However, the geopolitical discord, lop-sided alliances and varying political models of Asian actors can be an impediment in the institution of an Asian led world order.
To envision an Asian century and Asia-led world order, we will examine the constituents of world order separately. Firstly, understanding the geography of Asia is key to examine any political development like a world order. Secondly, the nascent associations, whether economic or political ones, formed in the wake of regionalism or erecting a common order are significant to any such analysis.
As we know, Asia is the largest continent, sub-divided into six regions, namely, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, and North Asia. According to the modern-day political map, many countries are not part of Asian continent but conferring many other geographers, Asia is a composite of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, which includes all the landmass existing between Russia to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and from Japan to the New Zealand and Australia. Disregarding this ancient conception of Asia and considering the modern geographical boundaries of the Asian continent, the continent is spread between the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south, the Red Sea as well as the inland seas of the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest, and Europe to the west. By zooming into these sub-regions of Asia and looking for the powerful country, it is palpable that China holds a significant position followed by Japan, Russia, India, South Korea and Pakistan. However, China remains the centre of attention to the literature published in the last century whereas giving very little weight to other Asian countries, hinting the importance of China.
Diving deep into the history of China, one will come to know that China was not an underdeveloped country neither a poor economy, but it was the one ranked among the world’s top economies, military powers and the territorial empires in past. The apparent rise of China as the dominant power signals the desire of Chinese to lead the world again and the revival of its glorious past. It is also manifested in the statement given by Xi Jinping in 2017, stating that, “it is time that China guides the economic globalization”.
Furthermore, the apparent economic rise of China as the leading power and formation of alliances with neighbouring Asian powers, for their geopolitical, economic and military interests hints that the Asian identity is in its remaking and will congeal once the region will become totally integrated and connected. These alliances and forums provide Asia and especially China an opportunity to establish an order in the region, which can be exported abroad. Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance is an epitome of these regional alliances where four nuclear-armed Asian powers, namely China, Pakistan, India and Russia are members. The diplomatic regional forum of SCO, at one end, brings the regional powers closer and provides China and Russia to further their vision of global multipolar order, while on the other hand it diminishes the US dominance and provides an alternative to the regional powers. Although the regional body restricts itself to the joint intelligence sharing and military exercises, the critics call this a disguise of defence agreement culminating into military integration. Either way, SCO is an alliance of the most advanced military powers led by mainly China, and to which four nuclear-armed nations are a party.
The development of new financial institutions like Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank by China and its mega-developmental in the region in form of BRI and economic corridors is an indicator of China’s economic rise. Similarly, the recent economic integration initiatives of China, namely the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or One Belt One Road (OBOR), provides China with an opportunity to become the global economic and trade hub while also furthers the Chinese ambition to build a new world order.
The question arises that, one the requisites of economic and military alliances are fulfilled by China specifically and Asia in general, how a new order will be created and whether or not the melting pot of cultures (Asia) will unite under a single flag. The answer lies in the recent history of Europe. The economic integration of diverse European nations, which were once an archrival to others, the states became friendly and opened up their borders to each other and strived for collective defence. It could be emulated in Asia as well.
The renaissance of Asian led order is manifested in the regional connectivity of Asia, which largely remained disconnected during the west-led globalization process. Since the end of the cold war, there has been a surge in the process of reintegration in Asia and China has been its key driver. The Asian connectivity project will bridge the gap while also imbibing a sense of Asian identity similar to that of European. The people of the New Silk Road are rediscovering each other and becoming cognizant of their collective power as they collectively constitute of more than half of world’s population and possess an even greater portion of the global economy. Effortless trading between the Asian economies is a prerequisite for the process of regionalization, which is why China is building these economic platforms and engaged in the development of economic corridors in the region. It is an epitome of this regional economic integration that three great powers, namely China, Russia, and Pakistan are about to trade in their local currencies rather than using the US greenback. Similarly, connectivity will lead to the intermingling of different cultures, free flow of information and inter-faith harmony, congealing the Asian identity. This intra-regional connectivity in Asia will overcome the shortcomings of US-led globalization and will connect Asian economies with neighbouring regions like MENA and Europe, providing a strategic advantage to Asian powers beyond Asia.
In the longer run, China envisages connecting the different regions and materializing the dream of a Greater Asia with the help of its like-minded neighbours, Pakistan and Russia. This trilateral alliance of three Asian nuclear and military powers, apart from becoming the NATO of Asia, will provide the military strength to uphold and sustain the emerging multipolar world order. A solvent economy, an insuperable military power and diplomatic competency were the three pre-requisites of the establishing a new world order and this was meticulously achieved by the Chinese rulers over the period of time by interacting, planning and acting in a systematic and coordinated way.
The revamped alliance formation in Asia is also a natural response to the actions of the global hegemon USA. The balancing policy of the US favoured India and used India as a counterweight against China, but at the same time, it impelled Russia to look join hands with Pakistan and move closer to China. In times when China is extending support to Pakistan and Russia through economic corridors and military partnerships, it was a poor choice by Indian decision-makers to put all eggs in the American basket. If India thought of Japan, South Korea and Vietnam extending help on a call from the USA, then its optimism goes pear-shaped. Even though India was competing with China economically and bandwagons the US strategy to contain Chinese rise, but it has not foreseen the formation of a troika of nuclear powers in the region. As discussed above, the mega scheme of regional integration led by China is changing the global political economy and it is evident that this arrangement is not a zero-sum game, it is just a matter of time, that India whole-heartedly joins the Asian club.
Apart from the geopolitical alliance formations, and economic and military integration schemes, the future of human civilization has always been shaped by the advancement in technology. In terms of technical expertise and technological advancements, Asia is becoming a hub of technological innovations. As mentioned before, that new world order will be a digital one, backed by the nascent technologies like 5G, Artificial intelligence and Robotics etc. and China is a leading nation in this realm. Massive investment from Chinese state-owned mobile operators and growing enthusiasm from consumers and companies have all helped China maintain its global leadership in next-generation 5G wireless networks, according to a report published by GSMA. As we know that the future of technology pivots on automation and machine learning and with the help of 5G connectivity, China is spearheading the automation of transportation and other industries. Moreover, the promising developments of China in Quantum computing is another indicator that China is becoming a forerunner in the technological realm.
In terms of technological impacts of culture, the famous Chinese mobile applications related to finances and global trading as Ali Express and AliPay are leading the global apps market with their gigantic user base. Aaron Klein documents that, “whereas America led the global revolution in payments half a century ago with magnetic striped credit and debit cards, China is leading the new revolution in digital payments,” moving to a system based on smartphones and QR codes (two-dimensional bar codes), in which traditional banks play a diminished role. WeChat Pay and Alipay, based on social media and digital commerce platforms respectively, are China’s primary digital payment systems. Chinese rise in the FinTech will ultimately alter the global payment systems.
Similarly, in the last decade or so, along with the Chinese commodification of mobile phone, computers, and other digital technologies, the country is also becoming a leader in the development of mobile applications. A recent example of this is TikTok, which according to analysts, has the potential to reshape the future of technology – a future in which the culture, and the interests, of Shanghai or Beijing, could mould the industry more than that of San Francisco Bay. Many countries, like the USA and India, banned Chinese mobile apps like TikTok, Likee, Shareit, CamScanner, BigoLive and numerous other apps, calling it a threat to national security. This is due to the emergence of China in the social media platforms and we know that now a day, the social media is a significant instrument of forging narratives and Chinese dominance in this domain could alter the social-media status-quo. As we know that people can speak out now through social media and the platform is leading to more transparency in diplomacy and political developments. If Chinese companies continue to play an increasingly influential role in this realm, our online world could look very different by 2030.
Another assessment shows that Chinese rise in the computing and software industry is related to the country’s investments in the developing nations of the Asiatic region because the low-income countries and social groups are benefitting most from the Chinese developments in this particular sphere. It is due to the affordability of Chinese manufactured technologies and their increasing demand in the world. Analysts also relate this development as one of the key drivers behind the Belt and Road Initiative.
Similarly, the automation and intelligent systems play a decisive role in the military technologies and it is contemplated that Chinese military and defence industry have undertaken major initiatives in research, development, and experimentation in autonomy and AI-enabled weapons systems that could threaten global security and stability, particularly as U.S.-China rivalry intensifies. Apart from China and the US, several nation-states are engaged in developing advance technologies and their incorporation in military affairs, which will ultimately alter the balance of power and will require the renewal of prevalent confidence-building measures and restrains to curb the tech-led arms race.
This also alludes to the shift in geopolitics, globalization and global identity. As one can observe, the problems of economic nationalism and populism, challenges to the dictatorships and democracies, a decline in the global values and rise of xenophobia and extremism, and on top, the looming threat of automation. All these developments and emergence of new realms of competition shows a shift in the global trends and new grounds of contestations.
A cursory glance at the prevalent geopolitics of the world shows that issues and relationships are different now and change us upon us, as it was never before. There is a return of the notion of old empires and identities, and it is questionable that with this renewal of old identities, whether there will be a clash of civilizations or not. Looking at the changing dynamic through the regional lens shows that the Middle East is in fermentation, the centrality of ASEAN is changing, African demography and economic trends are shifting, and South America is again becoming a battleground of new ideas. A probe in the regional geopolitics furthers the idea of change in the global order, especially the dissatisfaction of the nation-states with the prevalent liberal order. The changing alliances across the globe and emergence of new economic leaders like Brazil, China, India and Russia hints towards a change in the decision makers and the benchmarks of power and national standing in the 21st century. Similarly, along with the change in global economic leadership, other factors such as technology and connectivity are at the heart of this new contestation. There is a clear change in the multilateralism as well where the multilateral bodies formed after the World War-II are weakening and now informal and regional alliances are strengthening. The battlegrounds also changing now and the nations are establishing their defences in the cyberspace and outer space. All these developments hint towards a changing world order or at-least a challenge to the prevalent status-quo.