The 21st century was hailed to be the century of Asia. A continent that had earned the name for a colonised land was considered to be the leader of the world in every respect at the beginning of the millennium. Asia was considered to be a promising geopolitical region that will lead the world in an era of ‘peace, prosperity and inclusivity’. Asia was expected to be the harbinger of stability in the otherwise unstable and turbulent global order marked by realist considerations and prioritisation of national interests.
But fast forward to the third decade of the 21st century, that exuberance and ecstasy seem to be irrational and irrelevant. The constituents of Asia seem to be divided among themselves. They are divided not just on issues of national interests but also on critical questions on which hinge the very fate of humanity. This has raised the doubt if Asia could truly be the world leader.
China and India – two behemoths at loggerheads
International Relations scholars and global leaders had predicted that China and India – two behemoths – will lead the Asian century. But both the gargantuan countries have had chronic differences on critical issues.
The first such issue is that of territorial integrity. China is repeating an old pattern – they transgress at the border on the one hand and on the other hand talk trade. The 2020 border standoff and conflict in Eastern Ladakh was a blatant example of China’s irredentist behaviour. India never invaded or for that matter violated Chinese territory. The border issue is still unresolved despite over fifteen rounds of Corps Commander level talks and several rounds of diplomatic meetings.
Another issue is that of the covert cyber war that China is waging against India. This is evident from the hacking of the AIIMS Delhi server last November; this was preceded by a cyber attack on Mumbai’s railway cyber system.
Another thorny issue is the origin of the COVID-19 virus that wreaked global havoc. India had to bear the brunt of this pandemic. While India never openly questioned China or demanded an impartial investigation into the origins of this deadly pandemic, there is an unspoken, yet palpable sense of grievance in New Delhi’s policy circles regarding the source of the virus which emanated from China’s Wuhan province.
On the other hand, there is the semiconductor war. Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly pitched India as the future destination for becoming the semiconductor capital of the world; China certainly would not take it easily, as after Taiwan China is the global hub of semiconductor manufacturing and export.
Nationalism & lack of action on climate change
Nationalism and religious extremism are two hydras that are threatening to upend this Asian century.
Nationalism doesn’t just mean the belief in the supremacy of one nation’s people over others but also involves making policies that prioritise one’s national interests over the global good. This is evident in the recent spate of trade protectionist measures that countries around the world have started resorting to. This is called economic nationalism.
In India’s case, it refers to the three month window that the Ministry of Electronics has given to the hardware companies on obtaining a license for the import of laptops, desktops and tablets. While the intention behind this policy measure is, indeed good i.e. to curb imports the lion’s share of which comes from China, the policy was announced only after flips-flops on an earlier notification issued by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) suddenly asking for a license on these critical imports even as shipments worth millions were stuck.
Such protectionist measures are also being used by other Asian countries to protect themselves. This flies in the face of globalisation and the free flow of goods and commodities.
Another problem is the disagreement among countries within Asia on the steps that they should take on tackling climate change. While India has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2070, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will do so by 2060.
However, Asian countries have not been able to come to a concrete understanding as to how to proceed with decarbonising their economies and making a non-disruptive transition to green and renewable energy.
It is absolutely essential to hammer out the disagreements. Humankind is on the cusp of alarming changes. The UN Secretary General said, “We have entered the era of global boiling”. No longer can we afford to remain divided, collective effort is the need of the hour.
–The writer is currently working as a Research Associate at Defence Research and Studies (dras.in) and is a columnist. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda