Even as the world remains focused on the war in Europe, the major actors on the geopolitical and the geo-economic stage, the United States and China, are on two different continents. It is not quite a ‘New Cold War’, given the inter-dependence that still characterises the relationship between the US and China, but the growing ‘decoupling’ of the two, some suggest, points to a future of a new bipolar contestation like the one we lived through in the ‘old’ Cold War era, between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Even as the US-China contestation becomes bigger, it is still not clear whether China would emerge as the new global superpower, overtaking the US, or whether the US would be able to weaken China to the point where it would no longer constitute a serious threat to Trans-Atlantic global dominance. Indeed, it is also not clear whether at some point the US and China enter into a G-2 partnership and whether that partnership would produce a stable or an unstable equilibrium in a global balance of power system.
What is clear, however, is that even when the principle contradiction in the global balance of power system is today between the US and China, other nations are increasingly securing space either to benefit from this rivalry or ensure independent action.
If the US uses European proxies to extend its influence into Eurasia, China is using Russia. The war triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nothing more than just that – a trigger. Its denouement will be in the re-balancing of global power equations. The interconnections between the US and China are at present so complex that a direct conflict between the two, for instance if and when China invades Taiwan, appears unlikely in the near future. That does not mean that the two are not preparing for a showdown, if required, in the future.
For the present, though, they seek to manage their own bilateral relations even as they demand allegiance from other countries. Against this background, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again pushed a confused Europe into the American embrace while across Eurasia many countries seek space for themselves as yet refusing to be forced into taking sides.
In the two books under review, Seth Schindler and Jessica DiCarlo, and Felix Heiduk have brought together interesting essays on the implications, the consequences and the opportunities provided by this Big Power conflict for the countries of the Eurasian region.
Big power conflict
In The Rise of the Infrastructure State: How US-China Rivalry Shapes Politics and Place Worldwide, Schindler and DiCarlo argue that the “key to unravelling the complexity of US-China rivalry is its territorial logic. In contrast to the Cold War, the US and China do not compete to establish blocs of loyal allies and client states. Instead, contemporary great power rivalry is geared towards the management of territorial integration, as both the US and China seek to establish positions of centrality in the networks of trade, production and consumption through which power will be projected”.
They see infrastructure as the space in which this US-China rivalry is most manifest, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being China’s play and the US responding through a series of initiatives on terrestrial and maritime domains, including Build Back Better (BBB).
Infrastructure finance and construction have become an “arena of geopolitical competition”, suggest the essays in the Schindler and DiCarlo volume, with highways, ports, pipelines, energy grids, high-speed rail and undersea cables being the networks that Big Powers seek to secure control over. However, both the US and China are presently competing for influence through such projects in third countries, and these countries, especially their power elites, have their own interests in mind. They are no passive recipients of funds and pressure, but active participants who are trying to make use of the space provided by Big Power rivalry to secure their own developmental interests.
Thus, Schindler and Di Carlo sum up, “While acknowledging the significance of great power rivalry, the chapters in this volume simultaneously attend to the agency of other countries, and show that the US and China are not free to compete as they like across the globe. This book draws attention to the risks and opportunities for states adapting to the emergent multipolar order. It also highlights the role played by middle and regional powers such as Japan, India and Vietnam.”
We have seen in the past few months how India and other major countries of the Global South have tried to voice their own interests and secure their own space in the extant Big Power conflict. Even as the US and China use their financial power to seek geopolitical support from a range of countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America by funding large infrastructure projects, the target countries are able to assert their relative autonomy, securing the benefits of such investment without as yet getting drawn into a military alliance with either.
This is a theme echoed in India’s own response to the US-Russia conflict being staged in Europe with its focus on retaining strategic autonomy and promoting the interests of the Global South.
Growing assertion of the ‘Not Big Powers’ in the US-China rivalry
The book – Asian Geopolitics and the US-China Rivalry – edited by Heiduk explores a related theme of the role of ‘other’ powers, so to speak, in the era of renewed ‘Big Power’ rivalry. In his detailed introduction to the book Heiduk sums up the book’s key proposition as follows: “Risking overgeneralization, it seems safe to state that mainstream IR (international relations) literature, therefore, traditionally has focused overtly on great powers in order to explain structural change and continuity in international politics. This has often reduced, conceptually speaking, other states to a de facto secondary or tributary role with their foreign policy options strongly constrained by structural factors over which they have little agency.”
However, hypothesises Heiduk, “to many an international audience such binary choice might appear like one between the devil and the deep blue sea”. Smaller states do have the space to pursue their interests and often do so. The volume examines the postures of several countries in Asia and the Indo-Pacific to explore the extent to which they make use of the space made available by the US-China rivalry.
What both these collections of essays point to is a difference between the ‘Old Cold War’ (OCW) and the potential ‘New Cold War’ (NCW) represented by the growing assertion of the ‘Not Big Powers’ (NBP). In the post-colonial era of OCW, the NBP constituted itself into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). However, not only were the NBP too weak to assert their autonomy from the Big Powers – the US and USSR – they were often drawn into situations wherein they were forced into the willing arms of one or the other power. Thus, NAM founder-leader India drew closer to the USSR, while Egypt, another founder leader of NAM, drew closer to the United States.
In the unfolding era of NCW, many NAM members have become big and strong enough to refuse to align themselves fully with one or the other Big Power or at least secure enough space for independent action on matters of vital national interest. The so-called Global South was a supplicant during the OCW era, while it is today in a stronger position to assert its own strategic interests in the NCW era. The opportunity provided to countries of the Global South by their successive chairmanship of the Group of Twenty (G-20) – Indonesia, India, Brazil and South Africa – is enabling them to shape the agenda on global issues, even in the midst of a renewed conflict between Big Powers.
In my essay, the ‘Geo-economics of Multipolarity‘ (Published in Sujan Chinoy and Jagannath Panda (Edited), Asia Between Multipolarism and Multipolarity, IDSA, 2021), I have defined the global system within which the NBP can protect their interests in the midst of Big Power rivalry as being ‘Bi-Multipolar’. The historian Samuel Huntington coined the term ‘Uni-multipolar’ to define the global power balances in the 1990s when the United States was the dominant world power, after the USSR imploded, but faced several countries including France, Germany, China, India and Brazil that asserted their strategic autonomy even within that system. The US cannot take unilateral action, Huntington concluded, without the support of one or more of the other regional powers.
With the rise of China after the trans-Atlantic financial crisis of 2008-09, the global power system has increasingly become ‘bi-multipolar’, rather than remain ‘uni-multipolar’ or become the old ‘bipolar’ system of the OCW era. While the US and China are the only Big Powers today, there are many other nations capable of retaining their strategic autonomy, or at least secure adequate space for an independent foreign policy. This would certainly include Russia, India, Brazil, France and South Africa and could potentially include Germany and Japan. Apart from these countries, many other countries may seek to utilise the opportunity provided by East-West rivalry to pursue their own national developmental and security interests.
The two books under review provide more evidence in support of my hypothesis that the world today is ‘bi-multipolar’, perhaps moving in the direction of greater multipolarity.
Sanjaya Baru is a writer and policy analyst.