An unmistakable feature of the international system today is the absence of a superpower, as a concept, actor, or dynamic. This 21st century has instead seen a gradual return to the balancer and bandwagon roles countries played before World War II. Henry Kissinger, who most earnestly advocated the former as an articulate scholar, went out of his way to reproduce the latter with his 'pentapolar' proposal in the 1970s as a policy-maker. Indeed, his 1971 ping-pong diplomacy, instead of adding China in the anti-Soviet camp, actually opened the curtains for China to enter the world, eventually to rapidly climb upwards. Still a cogent observer and analyst of global politics today, his 20th century insights might shed new 21st century light amid the changing leadership configuration, from contesting superpowers to a single superpower, thence a leadership scramble. As a review of key players, their positions, and the predicament each faces indicated in this series, China is better positioned than any other competitor.
Great Britain's flawless balancer role between Napoleon Bonaparte's threat to all of Europe (particular Russia), and Adolf Hitler's revival of the same threat to all of Europe (particularly the Soviet Union), has not been matched since, least of all by a superpower-minded China. No other country comes close to attaining both economic competitiveness and political/military clout: on the one hand, the stakes have become far higher, given the advent of nuclear weapons for conventional military contestation; and on the other, too many independent countries mean too many strategic objectives competing with each other, and even within any one country, competition between economic and military sectors undercuts any leadership quest.
Yet, bandwagon roles have proliferated: some countries shift to better-endowed countries for protection, as West European countries did to the United States in the 1940s and 1950s through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), others will simply free-ride any collective 'good' supplied by the dominant country, which could be NATO security or even, as China has been doing, easier market-access (than the United States is getting with Chinese markets), a currency, even development assistance.
Just as the Soviet Union tried unsuccessfully to balance the United States after World War II (and the United States sought to do of the Soviet Union simultaneously), a nuclear capability thwarted the essence of a third-party balancer, so what was known as a 'balance-of-power' system turned into a 'balance-of-terror' configuration. That system is now unraveling disturbingly. Not only are there many other countries with actual or potential nuclear weapons, but the leadership maturity shown by US and Soviet leaders during the Cold War cannot be expected from many other countries: they just have not built up that very long-term quality called credibility as yet. On that slippery slope, we see too many contending countries, each pushing its own interests. If such a mindset spreads, it will acquire legitimacy, thereby reaffirming China's successful formula of belligerently free-riding others. Used from the 1990s into the 21st century, it has silently destabilised the system to the point of a violent reaction.
Unlike the United States, which willingly supplied post-World War II collective goods largely from its own coffers (NATO, Marshall Plan, and so forth), China's collective goods, such as BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects, have to be paid for by the consumers, not from China's own resources. The skewed end result might make the 'Yankee capitalism' or 'Ugly American' syndrome of the Cold War look tame by comparison.
Three features about it demand attention. First, many of the BRI projects have been elicited by non-democratic leaders, or democratic leaders straying from democratic precepts, like Malaysia's Najib Razak or Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif. The domestic consequences include weakening democracy, itself a pillar of the Atlantic order that dominated 20th century international relations, promoting corruption in project implementation (Malaysia's MD1 scandal, for instance), and enhancing China's type of authoritarian governance as an alternative to the democratic order under construction. Whichever way we look at this equation, any Chinese ascendancy directly threatens democracy, so much so that the rise of Chinese power since the 1990s has been positively correlated with the decline of democratic practices and respect (though China is not the only causal factor, since Islamic terrorism, among other forces, also chipped in).
Second, by falling into a debt-trap, as many BRI benefiting countries already have, borrowers may have to end up leasing real-estate, in the guise of production processing zones, to China, in effect clipping their own sovereign rights in many ways. Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka illustrate this either happening or waiting to happen to them. The blueprint of another imperial network may be in the offing, to weaken, even eliminate, the Atlantic Order and all it stands for: World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) network by seductively shifting borrowers to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) China founded multilaterally; the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but pegging trade relations bilaterally under BRI imperatives; and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), through Chinese naval bases dispersed the world over.
Finally, given the increasingly fluid international system currently what with technological changes ripping institutionalised practices, any Chinese edifices to emerge may also be on too shifting sands to survive. This predicts a far more unpredictable remainder of the 21st century. One ramification of growing global power symmetry is the resort to more illegitimate tactics, further destabilising that system by poisoning age-old and acceptable rules, principles, decisions, and processes.
How might countries prepare for such uncertainties? At least three strategies spring out almost automatically, as if from thin air. First, LDCs (less developed countries) particularly would have to distribute borrowings so as not to overweigh the BRI network against other networks, like the World Bank. Depressed western economies, including World Bank institutions, can be energised by such a distribution, even if it is to hedge against future twists. Second, LDC bloc countries could build their own low-wage industries: China cannot forever monopolise many of these, especially the RMG (ready-made garments) sector; therefore, either that would induce China to search for offshore alternatives itself, or these LDC low-waged products might even out-compete China's in the international market. Market prices cannot remain as static as dictatorial regimes tend to be, leading to the third strategy: since enough capital has been spent on political/military capabilities by many countries already, over-fulfilling actual needs, it may help even dictators to soften up expenditures in these sectors. Diverting that money towards economic sustainability and/or self-sufficiency, no matter how mercantilist that step could be, may just bail the enacting country from becoming too indebted to China. Standing up and being counted may ultimately matter more against what could become a long, long season of global indebtedness. Is any country exemplifying these? Yes, former dictator Mahathir Mohamad's Malaysia.
If all above calculations hold (and, frankly, not all are expected to), fastening our seat-belts for the rough ride ahead, targeting economic self-sufficiency, and stashing cash in the kitty might be the safest and sanest assets in our portfolio.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.