One story from the Panchatantra which holds a lesson for students of geopolitics and international relations is that of the clever monkey and the quarrelling cats. Seeking to arbitrate between two cats fighting over some leftovers, the monkey brings in a weighing scale to ensure equal division. Finding one part of the cake bigger than the other, the monkey takes a bite of the bigger slice to make them equal. Finding it has bitten off too much, it takes a bite of the other side to ensure balance. And so it goes on, till the entire cake is devoured.
Divide and rule has been around for ages as a tactic of control and domination. With Japan and the Koreas quarrelling, China and India quarrelling, Pakistan and India quarrelling, the Arabs and the Iranians quarrelling, there are so many Asian cats chasing each other’s tail that western monkeys are back in play, arbitrating across Asia.
The story over the past quarter century was the much heralded “geo-economic” rise, or resurgence, of Asia. The focus this year seems to be turning to multiple geopolitical quarrels among Asians. That a rapidly retreating Britain would allow its capital city to become a stage for an old South Asian quarrel it facilitated over a century is as much a comment on the monkey’s delusions of past grandeur as on the cats’ lack of wisdom.
Equally, if not more, China’s questioning of India on matters pertaining to territory on one side of its borders sounds fanciful given its quarrels with many neighbours all around. Not long back, a Chinese premier said to his Indian counterpart that when India and China shake hands the whole world looks at them. What was not stated was that some would look with hope and others with concern. Today, when China and India quarrel on the status of Jammu and Kashmir, it could be said again that the whole world looks at them, some with hope and others with concern. The hope this time is that quarrelling Asians will bring to a halt the narrative of a “Rising Asia”.
In 2007, the late Lee Kuan Yew, founder-mentor of Singapore, famously said that China and India were the twin engines of the Asian aircraft and that together the two engines would lift the continent as a whole onto a new trajectory of growth. Have we, within the decade, come to a point when “differences turning into disputes”, not just between the two Asian giants but between so many Asian neighbours, could ground the Asian aircraft and delay the dawn of the so-called “Asian century”? Does China imagine its future is secure without Asian stability?
It is no secret that the US is now engaged in a “geo-economic containment” of China, as originally theorised by the Harvard scholar Edward Luttwak in his wonderfully crafted book, The Rise of China and the Logic of Conflict (2012). Of course, the Chinese understand this. Must they, then, pick a quarrel with so many of their neighbours, making many of them turn West, seeking balance? Would a burnt-out power like Britain have the courage to voice concern about human rights in Hong Kong but for the courage it derives from concerns around Asia? Would it allow anti-India demonstrators to disrupt traffic in the heart of London but for the fact that it sees new opportunities to regain lost influence?
Major Asian powers have a responsibility towards the continent as a whole. No power, howsoever big and powerful, can hope to dominate the continent. Asia will never become China’s backyard the way the US converted western Europe into its backyard after the Second World War. If the US succeeds in the “geo-economic containment” of China it will be because of China’s inability to reassure its neighbours rather then because Asians will once again wish to be dominated by the West.
The real and present challenge for all of Asia is the slowing down of its growth engines. Sure, the global growth engine is itself slowing down, but for most Asian countries the slowdown threatens livelihoods, not merely lifestyles.
For India, the slowdown is even more challenging since it is now clear that it is not merely a cyclical downturn that can be addressed with fiscal and monetary policy intervention but has deep-rooted structural foundations that need urgent fixing. Analysts have pointed to inadequate improvement in labour productivity, reduced rates of saving and investment, inadequate demand constrained by inequalities in wealth and income as structural factors that are holding the Indian economy back.
Many other Asian economies, including China, are facing structural constraints to growth. Given global demographics and income distribution, any hope of restoring momentum to global growth depends vitally on the Asian growth process rebounding. But, for growth to return to Asia, the continent needs geopolitical stability. Asia cannot look to the West for a return to such stability for a variety of reasons. Europe is constrained by a lack of vision and capability while the US is actively engaged in disrupting global growth to ensure its own continued dominance.
Luttwak’s advice for the US leadership was to seek the geo-economic containment of China. However, President Donald Trump has acted as if he is seeking the geo-economic containment of Asia as a whole. Indeed, many in Europe see him as disrupting the prospects for growth in Europe too. As for Latin America and Africa, all hopes of their growth articulated so convincingly a decade ago seem less plausible now.
Against this background, Asian leaderships across the continent have a responsibility to the future. A decade ago, it was hoped across Asia that China and India can offer that kind of leadership to the continent. Today, that hope has receded. If Asians will not shape Asia’s future, who would want to? This question ought to be the agenda for the next meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies & Analysis, New Delhi