Cover Story

Who Will Shape the Asian Century?

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Easternisation and the question of freedom

IN the popular science of ‘Endology’, the decline—and the eventual fall—of the West is a perennial fascination. Strange, isn’t it, that it took only a quarter of a century after the demise of history—or the triumph of liberal democracy on the ruins of the Iron Curtain—for the winner to show signs of intercellular disintegration. It is inevitable, argue the apostles of declinism, that the West, after its unchallenged dominance of the marketplace and mindspace, is ceding ground to the new usurpers of the international order from the East. And in the evolutionary history of power, apogee is followed by atrophy, so it is the West’s turn to retreat to irrelevance. The new crop of navel-gazing nativists, with their focus more on the glorious home rather than on the spheres of influence, makes the fall even faster. The proverbial lamps are going out in the lands of enlightenment, and the darkness that spreads across the pages of ‘Endologists’ is scarier than the reality of the fallen.

Don’t abandon hope. Every fall needs to be balanced by a rise, and here it is essentially the story of China. The People’s Republic continues to delight professional panegyrists of the Eastern thunder, a rejoinder to the imperial transgressions of the West. For them, it is the sight of a civilisation reclaiming its place under the sun; it is a culture war powered by the historical memory of humiliations—the Opium War and more. China, where pinstriped social capitalism has exiled Mao to the souvenir shop, is determined to build everything bigger than the West, a terrestrial recreation of the enemy it admires and dreads in equal measure. It is all set to become the world’s largest economy, and it will never stop playing up its military power to extend its influence across the seas. China is the geopolitical story of our times. Its temptations and obsessions make it the most inscrutable superpower. We get little respite from reading tea leaves.

Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, has been reading them with remarkable diligence. In Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century (The Bodley Head, 280 pages, Rs 699), he is, thankfully, not celebratory; he is too sophisticated a writer to join the death-of-the-imperium chorus. The West has had its day, and at the moment it has lost the moral will to be a civilisational catalyst in a world under attack by Islamism and other ideologies of unfreedom. America has come a long way from Wilsonian idealism, and there is no leader in Washington or elsewhere in the West today who is not a risk-averse pragmatist. The action has shifted to the East, which is no longer in the thrall of the West. Rachman writes, “It is clear that the Second World War was a decisive moment in weakening the West’s political domination of Asia—and so creating the conditions for the process of Easternisation that is currently unfolding. As the historian John Darwin puts it, ‘The end of British rule in India in 1947 and the withdrawal two years later of Europe’s navies from China marked the end of the Vasco da Gama epoch in Asian history.’”

Even as de-Westernisation gained pace, the idea of the West has not ceased to inspire the East. It is best illustrated in China, where the new helmsman Xi Jinping is supervising the country’s biggest manufacturing event: his own cult. The past for the Chinese establishment is a narrative of highest glories and lowest shames, and its possibilities are immense in renewing the nationalist mind. When China looks at the future, it cannot escape the Western horizon. Xi’s now-famous China Dream is a sneaky homage to the American Dream. It is also a way of saying that the trajectory of history has changed. The problem is that the state still wants to control the dreams of its wayward children, and the residents of Zhongnanhai, paranoid as ever, believe that the counter-revolutionary viruses have Western ancestry. As Rachman writes, ‘Xi’s China presents a paradox. Its assertive foreign policy and rhetoric suggests that China is a country that is increasingly confident of its own power and international role. But a crackdown on dissent and corruption at home, against the backdrop of a slowing economy, point to a strong sense of insecurity at the top levels of government. The two themes—assertive nationalism overseas and nagging insecurity at home—come together in the government’s fear of Western subversion.’

It is this paradox that makes India an important architect of the Asian century (see excerpts). Narendra Modi’s hyper-active foreign policy strikes a fine balance between East and West, though his Western excursions are richer in atmospherics. Thanks to him, India’s liberation from the shackles of Third Worldism is now complete, and South Block does not see the world through the prism of anti-Americanism any longer. The project that began in the Vajpayee era has reached its final stage with Modi: it is not ideology but ideas of national interest that define India’s engagement with the world, especially the US. Still, a section of the establishment suffers from a China complex: why is it that we can’t build roads the way the Chinese do? We may lack a fierce nationalist focus, but an open society has its own advantages if we are good at the management of democracy. After all, the world has prospered more under democracy— in Europe and the US. A firmer alliance between Delhi and Washington minimises the prospect of Easternisation becoming an illiberal Chinese project.

So, Rachman too asks: In the age of Beijing’s belligerence, will the world be spared ‘the Thucydides trap’? According to the ancient Greek historian, war was the most likely outcome whenever a rising power challenged the prevailing one. Worry not, it will be difficult for China to wage two wars at the same time. The one within makes it a superpower scared of its own people. It is a system—a gleaming, towering system—built on fear. A paranoid power can never be the leader of the world; it can only threaten the world. Add to that the disunity and old mistrust within Asia and Easternisation becomes a slower process. Freedom is the most precious idea of our times, and there are plenty of reasons to be happy about the truth that the fin of the American siècle is not yet in sight.