This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
The “Indo-Pacific” is in the news. The US has renamed its Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific Command, the shared regional vision outlined by India and Indonesia has emphasized its centrality, and the region’s political importance to India were at the core of the expansive foreign policy speech delivered by Prime Minister Modi in Singapore.
All of these are a response to the spectacular rise of China. If this points to a future concert of powers in the region to balance Beijing’s power play, it will be an important yet insufficient measure to the Chinese project that spans Asia and Europe.
Covering 35% of the earth’s surface, Eurasia is home to five billion people living in over 90 different countries and producing 65% of global GDP. For millennia, conquest, trade and migration have organically bound Asia and Europe – the ebb and flow of great civilizations across this vast landmass spawned myriad political and economic dynamics.
Only in the recent past, in historical terms, have these been interrupted. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the subsequent colonization of Asia and Africa created an artificial divide where geographically there was none, concentrating economic and military power in ‘the West.’ That this community emerged as the victors of the second World War only institutionalized these power structures and geographies.
Asia’s contemporary economic ascendance, and the integration of its own communities and markets is rapidly disrupting this status quo. Today, people, goods, innovation and finance to flow relatively freely across Eurasia again. But the re-emergence of the supercontinent is not frictionless. New integrative geo-economic forces bring with them new political tensions.
As history repeats and Eurasia coheres, the outlines of a new world order will be defined by who manages it and how it is managed. It is in this super-continent that the future of democracy, of free markets and of global security arrangements will be decided. And there are three key factors that are shaping this landscape.
The first, to borrow a phrase from Robert Kaplan, is the revenge of geography. As much as Eurasian integration is organic, its current avatar is decidedly Chinese. Having assessed that the divide between Europe and Asia was an artificial, modern and Western construct, China is doing what no other power had the appetite for: conceiving of, defining and then managing Eurasia.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s choice of instrument, is creating sprawling networks of connectivity projects – each designed to embed dependency on China’s economy into the very geography of the super-continent.
China is driven, not by ideology, but by the desire to revive and extend its historical position as the cultural, economic and military centre of the world. This drive, combined with China’s economic heft, makes its Eurasian vision significantly more potent, farsighted and durable than simple balancing strategies.
Unsurprisingly then, the BRI dilutes the importance of the landmass’ sub-regions, thereby upsetting settled balance-of-power arrangements. India and the European Union (EU), for example, are struggling to curb China’s creeping influence on Eurasia’s political, economic and security conversations.
China is admirably relentlessness in pursuing this project: building infrastructure, facilitating trade, and creating alternative global institutions. Surreptitiously, China also exports its political model: “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” – a unique blend of state capitalism and authoritarianism. Unless liberal democracies propose an alternative in Eurasia that effectively addresses the infrastructure and governance needs of countries in Asia and Africa, China’s proposition will succeed.
Here lies the second factor: the revenge of democracy. Whether it is the US, the EU or even India, democracies are more polarized than ever before. The Pew Global Attitude Survey consistently records that trust in democratic governments is at an all-time low. More than ever, it appears that liberal democracies are bogged down by domestic crises, leaving them little energy for strategic planning. At a time when China’s timelines are decadal, democracies are struggling to look past their next election.
And the final factor, demography, is a double-edged sword for the entire region —especially for China. In many Eurasian countries, the economic benefits of the BRI are obvious. However, in an era when nationalism is the defining mood of politics, China’s presence can be unwelcome. China’s labour exports create tensions with younger host-country populations who must now compete for employment opportunities. There is the risk that the BRI will merely create infrastructure networks for extreme and radicalized organizations in unstable countries.
At home, demographic pressures might force Beijing to reconsider its ability to deliver. As younger Chinese move up the income ladder, their expectations from their government will increase. Simultaneously, the preponderance of single young men in urban regions and ageing rural populations makes Chinese society susceptible to violence and unrest. What will these demographic pressures portend for the project of Eurasian integration? Will the Chinese state have the political capital to recklessly buy influence across the world? Will demographic complexities allow others to cobble together a viable counter to the Beijing consensus?
Sitting in New Delhi, it cannot be more obvious that India’s development trajectory is inextricably tied to Eurasia. India sits at the crossroads of continental Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific — the two regions that will define the 21st century.
New Delhi will, however, be one among a constellation of actors — and its ability to adapt to and perhaps even shape their visions will influence Eurasian conversations for decades to come.
Russia, which plays second fiddle to China due to economic necessity and a common disdain for American power, shares a perverse relationship with the middle kingdom. The original Eurasian superpower is currently nothing more than a glorified policeman — or more charitably, a crafty risk management consultant for Chinese expansionism.
The two economic visions they seek to integrate — the BRI and the Eurasian Economic Union – operate under different logics. The first seeks to reorient multiple markets in order to position China as the engine of trade, while the latter seeks to create a single market to expand Moscow’s limited economic influence. Simultaneously, China has so far avoided hard security commitment’s in the region in deference to Moscow’s concern — a position that is hardly tenable in the long term.
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The contrast between Moscow’s modest regional capability and China’s multi-continental ambition begs the question: what happens if both autonomously and organically come to two different visions of Eurasia? Will Moscow defer to China’s objectives? Or will competition between the two create complex security dynamics in an already volatile region?
The EU on the other hand is discovering Eurasia the hard way. Long isolated from Asia’s political turmoil, Europe shed power politics and developed its vision for multiculturalism under the shadow of American security.
The rupturing of West Asia, however, sent a wave of refugees into their debt-ridden economies, forcefully reminding Europeans of their proximity to the continent.
Now Europe fractures, both from within and without. Even as ageing European societies struggle with reactionary populism and the splintering of a well-established political and economic consensus, their borders are being chipped away by the Belt and Road Initiative. The EU must now make difficult choices: either act to preserve and expand its agency or be acted upon, one slice at a time.
The US, for its part, has expended blood and treasure over the past nine decades to maintain its privileged place in these two regions. However, in a quest to balance Russia and China, and to prosecute a “war on terror,” its power and influence are diffused between NATO, Central Command and the recently renamed ‘Indo-Pacific’ Command, each with their own strategies and legacies.
Can America, now unexpectedly flirting with economic nationalism, claim leadership in a world that is cohering and integrating faster, perhaps, than its institutional capacity to respond?
It is critical that all of them, and more particularly India and the US, imagine an arrangement beyond the Indo-Pacific, into the heart of Eurasia. This imagination must look past the normative considerations of democracy; Eurasian geopolitics will be defined by the provision of finance and technology, of connectivity and trade and a willingness to accommodate diverse political arrangements.
China’s continental-sized question requires a super-continental answer. It is for the liberal world to stand up and be counted, or step aside and let Pax-Sinica unfold.