Just one year ago, in the first few days of January 2020, no one could have predicted or imagined that the world would go through such tectonic changes within a period of just 12 months. No one, in their reasonable mind, could have foreseen the spread and impact of COVID-19 across the world. No one could have imagined that, in the wake of COVID-19, entire industries (like airlines and tourism) would collapse overnight; that the oil-dependent economies would suffer irrecoverable losses; that the West would be forced to yield to the irresistible rise of China (and the East); and that the myth of Indo-Pacific, designed to ‘contain China’, would evaporate into thin air, resulting in the ‘containment of India’ instead.
We seem to be living through the flux of a tectonic shift in world history. Much like the period of the two World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century, or collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—when the global power dynamics resulted in the rise and fall of global powers.
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History bears witness to an empirical fact; that an alteration in the global power structure necessarily affects the governance systems of corollary States.
Let us investigate this claim.
Modern history, its alliances and its flashpoints, stretch only as far back as a hundred years. At the turn of the twentieth century, the world was an unrecognisably different place. Europe and the Middle East was predominantly split between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Caliphate, and French pockets of power. Russia, China and Japan had empires of their own. India, which had been ruled by the Mughal Empire for centuries, now belonged to the British. And this “empire” structure of the ruling powers, also dictated the manner in which local governments operated.
Raj, Khilafat and Kingship, were the accepted norms. Democracy was not the mantra of any people. The only exception, at the time, was the United States, whose influence did not extend much beyond its oceanic boundaries.
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The First World War changed all that, completely transforming the old-world order. All of the major empires collapsed, or were reduced to a fraction of their past glory. The Ottoman Empire, along with its Khilafat structure, was entirely obliterated. The Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated, giving way to the creation of German Austria, Hungarian Republic, Czechoslovak Republic, and the spinning off of Croatia, Serbia and parts of Romania.
The United States, which had just arrived at the international scene, was not yet the power we see today. And its governance structure, an open democracy, had not been proclaimed as the preferred form of State structure across most parts of the world.
Then came the Second World War, and its decisive victory for the Allied Forces. This victory abolished the “Empire” structure of the old, ushering in the age of American-esque democracy. Japan effectively shed its cloak of kingship, under American dictate, and adopted western governance structures. Even the British Empire, which was among the victors of the Second World War, could no longer retain its empire status, and chose the allied form of democratic enterprise.
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Importantly, as empires crumbled, the ruling powers carved out a new map of the world. Israel was born out of thin air. The Middle East was (literally!) split across borders that the Queen drew at the back of a napkin. The Indian subcontinent was split through a border drawn by the Viceroy—in many places, against the will of the domestic people. Parts of Africa were split into smaller nation States. And institutions such as the United Nations (and other Western alliances) were established to institutionalise the allied power structure.
Importantly, the Western global powers, which redrew most of the global map at their whim, also guaranteed the sanctity of the new borders—either directly or through their proxies.
For almost four decades after the Second World War, the only real challenge to Western hegemony was the Soviet Union. Within the territories controlled by the Soviet Union, the ‘American democratic enterprise’ was resisted. These territories—from Eastern Europe to Cuba—took their governance lead from the communist State structure of the Soviet Union.
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Fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, once again resulted in remaking of international boundaries. The eastern part of the Soviet Union was carved into 18 different international territories. Each of these borders were redrawn with the consent of the only remaining superpower (the United States). And the consequent governments formed within these territories, also took their lead from the United States.
Collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the age of a unipolar world. For the first time, since the Roman Empire, the world was ‘dominated’ by a single country: the United States. This extraordinary turn of events ushered in the age of American imperialism. Since 1990, the United States has enjoyed almost hegemonic power. It has invaded countries at whim, ousted governments it didn’t like, and supported despots of its own choosing. Just as importantly, this period saw the growth of the ‘American form of government’. Democracy, of the US brand, was the preferred system of government. Even when the domestic population did not want it—e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq. International governance bodies (e.g. IMF) forced countries to undergo domestic reforms that suited interests of the United States, and to adopt American style of governance. Those who followed the American lead, were rewarded (South Korea, India etc.). Those who differed with the United States, were punished (e.g. Venezuela, Iraq, Syria etc.).
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But 2020 seems to have changed all that. Crippled by the spread of COVID-19, and having been drained of its global energies during two ill-conceived wars, Donald Trump’s reactionary “American First” policy—which shuns the idea of an inclusive American Dream—resulted in withdrawal of America’s hegemonic global influence. And American withdrawal has prompted competing interests to fill this vacuum. In Syria and Lebanon, for example, France and Russia are already more important to the local power structure than America is. Countries like UAE and Qatar are looking East, towards China and Russia, for their long-term goals.
In particular, the rise of China, which was slow and sluggish till recently, has gained tremendous pace during the course of the Coronavirus epidemic. As the West reels from the effects of COVID-19, and America loses itself to the madness of domestic strife, China is gaining ground. Already, institutions such as WHO and even the EU are no longer in the strangle of American influence. In the South China Sea, as China asserts its claim on various territories (including Taiwan), American influence is dwindling. Maintaining status quo in the South China Sea may require the United States to threaten military conflict. One that the Americans are not sure they can win.
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China’s aggression in Ladakh, and a speeding up of the CPEC projects (despite COVID-19 lockdowns) is a testament to the global repositioning of China. A global reset is afoot. And the new age of “Look East” is about to start.
This shift in global power has real consequences for international boundaries that were artificially drawn across the Middle East and even Asia. The powers that created those boundaries, and guaranteed their sanctity, can no longer do so. And places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, even Ladakh, are a perfect example of this. As China decides to consolidate its control over these areas, will the US risk a war to ‘liberate’ them? If China stays in Ladakh, or expands its dominion across the Indian border through Nepal, will the United States and its friends come to the military aid of India? Will they fight a war to jeopardise CPEC, or the larger Belt and Road Initiative?
In the months and years to come, countries in our region (and perhaps across the world) may be forced to pick sides between the United States and China. Those who come to the Chinese camp, may also have to grow out of the borrowed American model of democracy, and follow something closer to the “Chinese Model”—where a loose democracy is coupled with a decisive writ of the State.
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Of course this claim is speculative for now. But history bears witness to the fact that the rise of a new global power usually results in the corresponding spread of its peculiar governance structures. Like the structure of the ‘Empires’ in the time before the First World War. And the structure of American democracy, in the post-World War II period.
2021 may be the first year of the rise of the East. And this new world order, which seems to be evolving before our eyes today, will have profound impacts for Pakistan and its dysfunctional democratic enterprise.