Uncertain Asia in a risky worldTrade wars, the war in Syria, data exploitation and diplomatic tensions have resulted in the emergence of new geo-strategic faultines
Anglo-Russian charges and counter-charges on the nerve gas attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil led to expulsions and counter-expulsions of Russian and Western diplomats in numbers not seen since the Cold War. The British brought the issue to the UN Security Council where the Russians warned that the british “are playing with fire and will be sorry”, bringing back memories of the “evil empire” rhetoric at the height of the Cold War. The alleged nerve gas attack by the Syrian Regime, bolstered by Russia and Iran, against rebels supported by the West led to a joint US, UK and France missile attack on chemical weapons-related facilities in Syria.
In the backdrop of American fury manifest in President Trump’s “America first” policies, Russian President Putin’s display of weapons with “unlimited range and capability” and Chinese President XI Jinping’s instructions to his military to be ready for war, has the world seen the end of this episode of great power tension? Or are these only signals of the world moving closer to a catastrophe?
Stephen M Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University starts his article “How to start a war in 5 easy steps” in the Foreign Policy magazine dated April 2, 2018 with a question: “Is the United States on the road to War?” This is not the first intellectual discourse on the possibility of a global war as the world approaches the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. American tycoon and social activist George Soros, Richard Haas, President of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group are among the serious intellectuals warning of the danger of war, even a nuclear one. Why is the alarm bell ringing louder?
Politicians’ memories may be short but human actions are recorded in the dynamic template of time on the diverse canvas of space. This year marks the 100th year since the ending of World War I, which many believe made the second one inevitable. Together, they were the biggest manmade disasters in human history in terms of loss of life and property; not just where the wars started from but engulfing the whole world before they ended. Asia experienced the devastating effects of a nuclear bomb and division of the Korean Peninsula. South Asia also suffered, and many Nepalis lost their lives.
Since then, humanity has made great progress in science and technology, health and wealth, and in the ability to talk, travel, work as well as live across borders. But many paradoxes, such growing automation and artificial intelligence to massive unemployment; crypto-currencies to regulators’ nightmare; poverty amidst plenty; better access to means of communication but growing discord within and across societies exist. The last is reflected in the on-going investigation of Russian involvement in American elections and recent revelation of the misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica.
A simmering trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies and most powerful nations, one of which has a long border with Nepal, could escalate into a trade war. Many feel that the Cold War is back, if it was ever gone. Others worry about the trade and cold wars escalating into a full blown war, even a nuclear one. Amidst all these, the United Nations—created to resolve inter-state conflicts and lead the world in collective security, prosperity—and the WTO (to resolve trade disputes) stand helpless, their careerist leadership unable to convince powerful member states to harmonise individual national interests into win-win global good.
Europe was starting to lead in changing the behaviour of the state system, arguably the highest and most powerful political entity created by the human mind to govern itself. But ultra-nationalism, bureaucratisation, unemployment, migration and terrorism are increasing pressure on the European project. Despite suggestions by most the objective advocates of British national interest to the contrary, did Brexit happen for the proclaimed assertion of national sovereignty? Or did the balance tilt in its favour under the weight of the deepening global geo-strategic faultline? Recent diplomatic expulsions started by the UK followed by others and recent European facilitation of NATO troop movement could further divide Europe.
Asia in focus
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) showcases the economic rise of China. Meanwhile, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held last year reflected its ideological assertiveness. With economic success, China’s political power and its role outside its borders are growing. Empowered as ‘core’ leader and now without a presidential term limit, Xi Jinping’s leadership skills will be tested in dealing with many domestic issues as well as managing the “competition” with the US, complexities in North Korea and South China Sea, relations with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and partnership with Russia and Pakistan.
South Asia’s future hangs in the balance, with violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and difficulties in Bangladesh, Maldives and post-conflict Sri Lanka. How Narendra Modi maintains his hold on power in New Delhi will determine the future political course in the world’s largest practicing democracy. Politically stable, economically and militarily strong and diplomatically confident India will be crucial for South Asia within the current uncertain Asia and risky world. Ability to fulfil the aspirations of the people in the soon-to-be most populous country and third largest economy, along with its relations with China and the US could profoundly affect India and its neighbourhood in the coming days.
Growing ideological-strategic divide
Open “call to arms” to defend western liberalism/capitalism clearly reflects the deepening global ideological faultline created by the resurgence of China under communism, substantiating my prediction made long ago of “Nepal and the central Himalayas emerging as one of the epicentres of the global paradigm flux”. Constitutionally and politically “socialism oriented”, Nepal under communist rule is not just sandwiched between a rising India under parliamentary democracy and the Chinese economic miracle under the Communist Party but, with Pakistan’s proximity, is the most nuclear-locked country in the world.
In these critical times of far reaching regional and international developments protecting and promoting the interests of Nepal and Nepalis pose both challenges and opportunities to those dealing with Nepal’s foreign and national security policies and conduct of defence-diplomacy. Bringing the national “house in order” by effectively managing the domestic political-economy and society without getting caught in the global ideological and strategic divide will be the biggest test of politically empowered Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s government.
Simkhada is a former permanent representative of Nepal to the UN