Why Trump’s US Has Lost The Plot On China, Russia And The New World Order

Why Trump’s US  Has Lost The Plot On China, Russia And The New World Order Donald Trump signing an executive order. (Andrew Harrer, Pool/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • The fundamental misunderstanding flowing through American strategists’ veins is the belief that the power-shift of the last 500 years – which shifted economic dominance from Asia to Europe and America – is permanent.

    In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; power is returning to its logical places, driven by demographics and the cycle of history.

The US decision, by overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and Congress, to impose sanctions against Russia for allegedly meddling in the recent presidential elections, is yet another proof that most generals are fighting the last war. It also shows that the Chinese are better at understanding current global realities and seizing the initiative than the US, which is still locked into a Cold War mindset where Russia was the enemy; whereas today’s “enemies” are often “part friends” with whom the conduct of warfare must be subtler.

The net result of imposing sanctions on Russia will be the following – all negative from the US point of view. Moscow has already threatened to seize facilities used by US diplomats in Russia and cut down their size; western Europe will begin fretting about the value of US leadership when it depends so much on Russian energy supplies; the war against Islamic State will now be more fragmented, as Russia conducts its own policies in West Asia; and, most importantly, Russia will now be fully in the Chinese camp. Chinese President Xi Jinping must be jumping with joy that Americans can so easily shoot themselves in the foot in this battle for global dominance. America’s antipathy to US President Donald Trump has resulted in Congress tying him hand and foot to a flawed policy.

If any policy can make America’s global power less dynamic, it is this. Under Trump, as America focuses more on its internal squabbles and less on what is going on outside, China is soon going to be kicking a** everywhere.

The fundamental misunderstanding flowing through American strategists’ veins is the belief that the power-shift of the last 500 years – which shifted economic dominance from Asia to Europe and America – is permanent. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; power is returning to its logical places, driven by demographics and the cycle of history.

In the evolving world, European power is on the descendent and American power will plateau even as China rises as the world’s next superpower, and India waits its turn a little further down this century. An Islamic superpower could also emerge, though it is too early to indicate the direction in which Islamism will evolve. Right now it is more self-destructive than constructive.

Here is a summation of obvious and less obvious trends one can note.

First, and foremost, we need to recognise that the rise of the West over the last 500 years is an aberration, the result of a sharp shift in military prowess based on what the late Samuel Huntington called the western superiority in killing technologies. He said:

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion […] but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.

The Chinese are the ones who learnt this lesson best. China is an Abrahamic power minus the religious underpinnings, bent on improving its military might in leaps and bounds. Once you have superiority in killing technologies, your overall levels of innovation and technological prowess in all areas will improve. Chinese military and economic prowess can only rise from where it is today. China is already the world’s biggest seeker of patents, topping one million patent applications last year. It is only a matter of time before Chinese power rivals the West fully.

Remember, even the internet was not a private sector innovation; it emerged from US defence investment. Chinese domination in the next quarter century will be driven by its improving military might, which will ride on its economic and innovation might. The west – and India, in the short run – will not be able to do anything about it in the next one or two decades.

Second, the reason for this shift is demography, which is moving geopolitical power decisively towards Asia (more so in the case of India and Muslim countries, and less so for China). This was always the case before the rise of the West around 500 years ago. Ultimately, power is determined by demography, harnessed by economic and military prowess. What this means is that western power has peaked, and the Chinese know this better than anyone else.

America is still the world’s biggest economic and military superpower by far, but its geographic isolation means this power cannot rise any more. Its power will last if the Chinese still think the American market is important for its own growth – and that could last for another decade or so. Once its new Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) starts taking off, the economic centre of the world will even more decisively turn towards Asia.

While the continental shift is worth noting, power shifts within continents and large countries are also worth recognising.

For example, within Europe, Eastern Europe will grow faster than Western Europe, even if you consider Germany as part of Western Europe. This is for two reasons: eastern Europe, which was dominated by the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is poorer and has much catching up to do. And, more important, it is closer to the trading routes to Asia by land. If Central Asia and China rise over the next quarter century, driven by Chinese investments and BRI, it is Eastern Europe, Turkey and West Asia that will gain most from this.

Within China, the hinterland regions – Xinjiang and Tibet and South-West China – will grow faster as they are closest to the resource-rich regions of central Asia, where the Muslim dictatorships of the former Soviet Union are sitting on huge reserves of oil, gas, rare earths and other minerals. Growth in China is also shifting towards the west, even though it was initially led by the eastern seaboard of Shanghai and Guangdong in the south with access to Hongkong. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is wrongly named for the focus of this organisation is central Asia, which had dominated trade routes before the rise of the West around the middle of the last millennium. It is also significant that China’s Economic Corridor in Pakistan links the growth of Xinjiang with investment in Pakistan.

China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), apart from being an effort to rebalance the old ocean-based trading routes between Asia and Europe, essentially brings land routes back into the reckoning for trade. The problem is land routes pass through some of the most conflicted zones of the world. China, in its drive to obtain resources for future growth, is betting that a mix of money and military power will ensure the future of BRI.

In India, growth in the past has been led by the southern and coastal states, which are now demographically falling below replacement rates of fertility. But northern India is still growing its population robustly, and this is why the next growth upsurge in India will be led by the Hindi belt, and migrants from the Hindi belt to the south. Trying to keep Hindi out of the south is thus a losing proposition, and the southern states would do well to focus positively on growing their own languages and culture instead of trying to block Hindi.

The changes in demography in favour of the north is what is shifting political power towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva forces. This force is given its religious edge by the fact that demography in northern and eastern India is driven by higher Muslim birth rates and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. This gives the BJP reason to grow further, by focusing on Hindu consolidation.

India’s trade future is currently linked more to ocean-facing routes than land routes because of our western neighbour’s unremitting hostility to anything Indian. On the east, trade is constrained by Myanmar’s weak control of its borders. At some point, an eastern road linkage will allow India’s growth cart to be hitched to dynamic south-east Asia and southern China. On the west, India’s access to BRI depends on the breakup of Pakistan, or its reining in by China.

The West is floundering in this new world due to its inability to distinguish between the importance of projecting power and the need to expand the frontiers of democracy. As an inheritor of Abrahamic values, it intrinsically believes in the use of power to get its way. But its historical experience of the enlightenment also makes it an evangelist for freedom and democratic values. It has forgotten that democracy is a value less than 100 years old, and can hardly be said to be built on solid foundations outside America and western Europe. Democracy is not a prerequisite for economic progress.

This is evident from its basic inability to distinguish between greater and lesser evil. It got rid of Saddam Hussain, when he kept Islamists at bay. It is going after Bashar Assad in Syria, when Islamic State was the greater threat.

The breakdown of the old bipolar world order means that the West ought to be aligning with those who promise to hold the line on extremism while delivering some benefits to their people. Russia President Vladimir Putin may not be your ideal democrat, but Russia may well sink into demagogic chaos without his firm hand. But the US is trying to waken Putin when the alternative is worse.

At another level, it is also clear that in the short run (probably the next quarter century), the concert of non-democracies will lead global growth, and their power will be greater and more decisive in world politics than the concert of tired, old democracies. This stands to reason as the rise of the Asian tigers and China itself shows. All of them grew fastest and ended poverty when they were dictatorships. Democracy should be seen as being the result of growth and growing aspirations, and not a precondition for growth, as the Amartya Sen formulation keeps telling you wrongly. Democracy faces a short-term eclipse in the growth regions of the world as economic aspirations temporarily swamp political ones.

As for America, let’s not forget that it is essentially an island like Britain – though a very large one. The Americas – both north and south – were the Central Asian republics of western Europe a few centuries ago, when European sea and military power led to its colonisation. Its resources were captured by European powers, and America’s rise was an accident of this history. The US, now that it is a superpower, cannot easily let go of the world, but logically its trade and resource interests will have to focus on South America and Africa, where China is already beginning to dominate. US and Chinese interests will clash in the Pacific, and in Africa – these are the regions you can see when you look at the world from the Eastern coast of America or the Western. Europe and India are good-to-have friends, but not central to American strategic goals.

The rise of Trump is essentially a clash of interests between the two coasts of America – which are outward looking and Democratic – with the conservative Red (Republican) states right in the middle of America. The US has many nations residing inside it, but the two shaping its future are the Red middle and the Blue coasts. It is similar to the divide between the land-locked Hindi/Hindu belt and ocean-facing peninsular India.

So, the divides we are going to see in future – to sum up – are the internal divides inside the US, the east-west divide in Europe, the eastern coast versus the western land-locked regions of China, and the northern Indian demographic bulge versus peninsular India.

These divides will shape the future of all countries, all continents.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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