Historically, the term is associated with the awkward transition between reigns. A caretaker cabinet with a cabal of privy councilors work to smooth the transition and ensure continuity until a new Sovereign is ready to take over from his predecessor. But common-sense dictates that any number of players would be jostling for power and privilege to ensure their survival. The Americans are frantically ensuring that this does not come to pass on the Eurasian continent, where the economic center of gravity has shifted after 40 years of deindustrialization in North America. An entirely different world order is being planned in Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi. These are interesting times, as the old paradigms of polar competition and technological dominance are melting away through asymmetrical growth and Westernized consumerism.
This is the ultimate triumph of post-Cold War global capitalism ie the means necessary to spread the West’s concept of material growth are now borderless. But like a carefully cultivated sapling gone wild, the West is now struggling to contain its former protégé. In the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the US position was polite but forceful; Beijing has utilized stolen technology and employs unequal economic terms and illegitimate military expansionism to coerce its neighbors into submission. China’s technological players are predatory and deploy “dirty networks” to spread 5G in the developing world. The gold standard remains in the West and the ASEAN boomtowns had better heed DC’s warnings. The conversation is replicated in the think tank community within the Washington Beltway.
Anyone who disputes these claims is considered a “Panda Hugger” playing into Beijing’s hands as the American establishment gears up for the fresh round of another Cold War. America’s Asian allies are once again the economic, security and tech frontline against the “Red Menace” but this time in a more insidious way, that deploys the US’s traditional Capitalist tools against itself. It is imperative for the US to retain control over its Asian client economies. The Trump administration claims that the intellectual basis of this is a “civilizational struggle” that pits it against a “non-Caucasian” adversary and conveniently forgetting the millennia of economic and civilizational ties between the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the Chinese Mainland. Tokyo and Seoul are carefully navigating the briar patch, trying to achieve marginal Realist gains without triggering either side. The developmentalist model of capitalism, the main contention of the Trump administration’s trade war with China, has been the main growth engine of South Korea and Japan since the 1950s, but the US has dealt with these respectively via the Plaza Accord of 1985 and Korea’s forced financial liberalization in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, conveniently brushed under the table as the US must rally the troops against Beijing.
The South East Asian boomtowns, the most promising growth region in the coming two decades with almost half a century of American military investment, are being courted assiduously. All the ASEAN governments have significant security and economic engagements with Washington and Beijing and both sides pledge technology, capital and enhanced market access in return for allegiance. Lee Hsien Long of Singapore, the US’s long-time anchor in the sunrise region, warned that America must accept China’s rise as here permanent. This earned him a swift rebuke for making “false equivalences” between the American open market and navigation approaches with Chinese aggrandizement in the South China Sea. Asian elites have an institutional memory of the early Cold War period with its dominance of American corporate arrangements and military deployment in Indochina. Even Vietnam, the current darling of global neo-liberal capital, is quietly mindful of the last time when Cold War tensions played out within its borders.
Hanoi is in full-take off mode, with the hope of attaining developed economy status within the next two decades and has privately sought the development advice of Tokyo and Seoul, on the transition to an Asian powerhouse by 2040. In the next twenty years, all of the world’s most valuable economies will be within the maritime nexus of East Asia and ASEAN and none of their elites have an appetite for picking sides. For some reason, Washington refuses to listen.
But the world isn’t waiting for this interregnum to conclude; climate change has accelerated and the profusion of weather disasters in the last three years are threatening the survival of several major growth regions. Just as South Asia and Africa are beginning to enjoy the first fruits of growth, their proximity to crucial resources is being threatened by rising sea levels. The OECD may be able to shield its middle classes from the worst climate disasters, but the global web of commodities, services, and technology cannot be protected from their aftermath. Without immediate action and creative approaches, the bright spots in the developing world will be extinguished. An elitist approach to growth, that relies on financial speculation and manicured markets, will not be acceptable to the burgeoning populations of Africa and the Middle East as a gated community of exclusive global market thrives while the rest provide raw materials and cheap manpower. This is the message that the Trump administration is sending to the developing world as it has been unable to provide a viable alternative. For the first time in its history, the US is on the side of the status quo and hindering global progress.
The side that provides the fastest route to technical growth via proven policies, economical technology, and localized solutions will be the one that ignites the next round of development in Africa, MENA, and South Asia. As Prof Parag Khanna frequently mentions, this is not necessarily China. Much has been made about the supposedly malicious Chinese involvement in Africa and Central Asia. The oft-touted profusion of Chinese technological input in these locations has been relegated to naked realist intentions of securing cheap commodities and markets. But the numbers show otherwise in Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, etc. There has been a sharp uptick in technical growth, with OECD multinationals increasingly filling the market niches opened up by Chinese infrastructure investment. The black swan event, that Huawei’s 5G rollout will create a “Wakanda” type scenario where African unicorns sweep open up fresh market spaces, is quietly becoming possible. Even as the developed world recoils against Chinese tech development, the latter is moving swiftly to open possibilities.
The OECD approach of Public Private Partnerships, extensive involvement for IGOS and filtering development in Africa through the lens of classical liberal values such as water-tight intellectual property development and democratic governance on the ground, are the traditional “go-to” for technically constrained African states. But the alternatives offered by the Chinese have by-passed this relatively slower form of development at the grassroots. This has created real tension between the Washington Consensus and the Chinese BRI model that offers the developing world real alternatives now to the West. In the background of this struggle, the looming apocalypse of climate change is weighing on the minds of developing world elites in the form of possible famine, disease vectors running out of control and conflicts over water resources. There is fresh urgency that the bright spots in Africa and MENA must swiftly acquire independent growth and technical expertise before the inevitable occurs.
The developing world is not willing to choose between the West and China. Neither is it keen on some sort of technological show-down that cuts off routes to technical growth. But the party that is insistent on drowning out these voices, risks reaping the whirlwind.