The past week has been a significant one for speeches. The first was President Xi Jinping’s marathon three-and-a-half-hour-long “report”, inaugurating the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 19th National Congress. The 64-year-old Xi, widely regarded as the most influential Chinese leader since Chairman Mao, laid his ambition for the Asian giant bare, with his plan for “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in a “new era”.

As head of the party, military and state, Xi has accomplished what other world leaders can only dream of: an unprecedented centralization of power. He has the authority to make the world’s largest armed forces and the huge transnational Chinese corporations an instrument of his state policy, and this gives him the muscle to rewrite the rules of international politics.

His repeated swipes at President Trump’s “America first” policy, and emphasis on China’s positive role in global governance, sent a clear message: this new era would be Chinese-led, with China able and willing to commit political, military and economic capital to ensure that it happens. Needless to say, the “Chinese dream” – which includes becoming a global tech leader by 2035, reconnecting Eurasia with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and achieving a strong, prosperous society by 2049 – brings with it implications for the rest of the world.

Before China can become a global leader, however, it must consolidate its position in Asia – arguably the most important region in the 21st century. What truly defines China’s ambitions in Asia is the BRI – Xi’s signature development strategy, which he called on the country to pursue as a priority. There was an underlying message to those who oppose or question it.

Image: Lowy Institute

China’s proposition

Ostensibly, the BRI is a regional connectivity project, stretching from oil and gas projects in Myanmar to ports in Malaysia and Pakistan, to a military base in Djibouti. This also creates the physical infrastructure for China’s “march west” to capture high-value markets in Europe – an essential part of its rise.

At its core, however, the BRI creates strategic co-dependencies between China and host states, setting the stage for what may be a Sino-centric world order. Already, China is in a position to create norms and rules across the wider region. Its leadership, through institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Trade Partnership, significantly aid China in this effort.

While Xi was careful to point out that China’s rise would not be hegemonic, his speech also celebrated China’s militarization of the South China Sea (SCS), regarded by some as detrimental to the smaller littorals in that region.

Additionally, several of China’s regional projects have saddled smaller nations with debts they are struggling to repay, as was Sri Lanka’s experience with the Hambantota port. New Delhi, which boycotted the BRI summit in May over these very concerns (alongside the principal concern around sovereignty), was rewarded with a 73-day military standoff in the Himalayas.

Xi is confident that other developing countries would benefit from China’s rise. He was clear, however, that China would always protect its national interests – an attitude that will by definition be disadvantageous to many of its neighbours.

A democratic counterweight

Against this backdrop, the second important speech was delivered by the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, a week before he is expected to visit New Delhi. Emphasizing on the importance of “shared democratic values”, Tillerson set out to define America’s “relationship with India for the next century”. Delivered on the same day as Xi’s landmark address, the speech extolled India’s peaceful rise, while chastising China’s disdain for international law and sovereignty.

Notably, Tillerson’s critique of the BRI was the strongest the Trump administration has made so far. Earlier in July, an Indo-US joint statement made only an oblique reference to “regional connectivity”, echoing some of India’s concerns. Tillerson, however, was more direct.

Tillerson hailed the US and India as the “eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific”. Having struggled to balance China’s rise in the SCS, the US is keen to prevent the same kind of maritime militarization elsewhere – an objective India undoubtedly shares. Tillerson sees cooperation among the “Indo-Pacific democracies” – namely, India, Japan, the US and Australia – as key to stability in Asia.

With an eye on China, Tillerson’s speech is a call to like-minded states to ensure a rule-based multipolar governance architecture. Already, there is clear convergence of norms between the democratic powers – the US and Japan have reiterated India’s position that regional integration must be financed responsibly and must respect sovereignty. Similarly, Japan and India have echoed the US stance on freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. India led by example when it peacefully settled its dispute with Bangladesh recently.

Leading from behind?

What Tillerson’s speech tells us is that the Trump administration is correct in its reading of the geopolitical currents in Asia. It also tells us, unfortunately, that the US has no coherent response. Tillerson’s vague call for “some means of countering [the BRI] with alternative financing measures” underlines the fact that this and previous American pronouncements have not been matched by actual political actions and propositions. There is little to demonstrate that there has been any serious attempt to put together an alternative to the Chinese-led BRI in Washington, DC.

Unlike China, which is forging ahead on its own with its own roadmap, America is attempting to stitch together an alliance that is heavily limited by the larger political compulsions, both its own and those of its partners. Australia, for example, is still debating the nature of its relationship with China, and refusing to take a clear stance on either the BRI or on a maritime order, while Japan is still unsure about transitioning from its pacifist constitution. The US’s own willingness to engage with Pakistan limits its ability to integrate with India. India will confirm that, while it was staring down the dragon in the Himalayas recently, it was indeed lonely.

Xi has transformed China into a military heavyweight. Taking into account Beijing’s relaxed purse strings, no developing country can ignore China’s allure. American reluctance to address China’s rise head-on has already seen it lose influence in Asia, including with strategic partner the Philippines. While Tillerson’s words may constitute fresh rhetoric from DC, they will have limited impact on China’s influence, unless backed by real political and economic investments in the region.

Hardening fault-lines

The speeches by Xi and Tillerson are a study in contrast, and are reflective of the complex times in which they are given. At a time when US primacy is waning, Asia is rapidly emerging as the centre of global economic growth. The geopolitical implications are significant, and the institutional arrangements in Washington to manage this development are missing or feeble.

Both politicians sought to address this paradigm and were distinct in their tenor. Xi was imperious and forthright; with no signs of hesitation, he appeared certain that China was a power whose time had come and that he was destined to deliver “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Tillerson, on the other hand, voiced anxiety around managing a rapidly changing environment. It was a plea for collective action; to serve ambiguous goals; on behalf of a country whose policy of “leading from behind” is fast turning into, as US diplomat Richard Haass puts it, “leaving from behind”. The fate of the international order depends on which narrative ultimately prevails. Writing the script for this era will require a strong hand. As things stand currently, we know from whom the ink flows.