A book that outlines the new contours of the world, with China and India dictating terms of global governance along with the US
THE INDIA-China-US relationship, often described as the emerging strategic triangle of the early 21st century, has been the subject of considerable comment and inquiry by academics, analysts, policymakers and journalists in recent years, and the book under review is a breezy addition to this growing corpus.
Anja Manuel, who worked briefly at the US State Department (2005-07) on south Asian issues, is now part of a consulting firm that includes former Beltway heavyweights such as Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates and Stephen Hadley. This mix of having been inside the policy loop, albeit as a junior official and now donning the mantle of a consultant, gives the author a distinctive perspective from which to review the ‘brave new world’ of the 21st century.
The choice of the epigraphs is instructive. From Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where the protagonist Miranda outlines a ‘rosy future’, to Aldous Huxley’s more bleak contour of the dystopian Brave New World, the author outlines the inevitable contour of the next few decades: “The axial shift of power from the United States and Europe to China and India is unrelenting.” Manuel further adds that the two Asian giants “will increasingly dictate the terms of global governance. Along with the US and Europe, they will become the new indispensable powers – whether they rise peacefully or not”.
Two exigencies are posited in relation to these three nations—one a worst-case scenario wherein the US and China are pitted in a new Cold War with India moving closer to the US—dystopian for sure, with the possibility of conflict exacerbated by irreversible climate change consequences. The second scenario is more hopeful and is a best-case outcome, with the three nations following what might be called a motherhood and an apple-pie agenda, that is, they engage in a spirit of consensual cooperation and share a collective security vision.
Manuel concedes that “no one can predict with certainty which future will emerge”, but her own advocacy is clear. “Some argue that the international system cannot shift peacefully to accommodate new large powers. I disagree.” Period.
The certitude of the consultant is unambiguous when Manuel asserts: “We have the power to shape this century.” And the rest of the book is a kind of 101 to an American audience—the ‘we’ about the two Asian nations, their tangled past that has a civilisational resonance and the dominant historical narrative that is burnished in the domestic consciousness, as each of them seeks to restore a global profile that existed before the advent of rapacious colonialism.
The book marshals a wide range of facts and figures, and has a bewildering range of vignettes—from the Beijing Olympics to the Indian Republic Day parade; a recall of Xi Jinping as a 14-year-old when the Red Guards humiliated his father contrasted with reference to a young Narendra Modi during the Indira Gandhi Emergency years; gender, education, demography, economic and military indicators… it is a huge canvas that the book covers.
The last section looks at the kind of world the US, China and India are likely to make, even as they pursue their own national interests. Here, Manuel goes back to the late 19th century and the manner in which the number one power of the time, Britain, dealt with the rise of two emerging powers—the US and Germany. The former was accommodated and the foundation for an Anglo-American alliance was laid, while the latter was seen as a rival that finally resulted in the catastrophe of two world wars.
Extrapolating to the current century, the author suggests that much of the commentary in the US perceives China as a potential adversary and argues that “instead of scaring the American people about one country (China) and ignoring another (India), we need to get busy working with both on a new world system that accommodates all three”.
This objective is indeed the Holy Grail of the 21st century—an equitable and sustainable framework of inter-state cooperation—but its desirability and feasibility are inversely proportional. Historical animosities and hatred have been given renewed intensity in the crucible of emotive nationalism, and Manuel shares an instructive 2012 conversation with a Chinese military commander over the Sino-Japanese island dispute. “We are no longer weak. We will risk war with Japan and the United States, but we will get Diaoyu back.”
This is an earnest book, which has a central message—the US, China and India are better off in the long run if they can multiply their aspirations and manage their anxieties in a consensual manner. However, the reality of domestic politics, insular policies and the short-term interest often trump (pun not intended!) the realisation of a tantalisingly rosy future of the brave new world.
Aimed at an American audience, the imminent transition in the White House could make this book a very timely contribution as a policy guide. And in keeping with the thumb rule of such books, the narrative is simple and lucid, often opting for breadth and a vast cast of interlocutors instead of any discernible interrogation of the complex structural factors that shape the behaviour of these three nations.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi