Over the next decade and a half, India holds out hope for a continued rule-based multilateral world.
As the balance of power shifts from the “Global West” to the “Global South” i.e. from United States to China, the global governance institutions underpinning the international system based on principles of multilateralism, seem to be under severe stress. However, as the era of US dominance gradually recedes, China is not ready to pick up the mantle just yet. It is this transitory phase that presents a unique opportunity for India that will determine whether the world stays multilateral or succumbs to the hegemonic world vision of China.
US Looks Inward, China Outward
Throughout history, great powers have declined and fallen. The United States of America has enjoyed a remarkably long period of dominance. This has been mainly because the global governance framework in the post war world was underpinned by US economic might, guaranteed by US military prowess, propagated by the Bretton Woods institutions and legitimised by ideals like democracy, liberalism and a world order based on rules internalised by nations across the world.
As China seeks to re-shape this global order to its advantage, many observers feel that this process is bound to lead to a major shift in the balance of power – to America’s disadvantage. China—while accepting the current global governance institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Bank etc.—seeks to transform the underlying character and leadership structure of these institutions to suit its hegemonic designs.
The process has been accelerated with US turning inwards under Trump and China looking increasing outwards under Xi, with the Belt and road initiative (BRI) being its flagship project.
However, despite the success of China in making inroads into South East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe through the BRI project, it is also true that China lacks the necessary economic, military and particularly discourse power to truly take on the mantle of global leadership from the US, just yet.
China’s Preparations to Lead the Global Order
China over the past four decades has worked steadily to increase its economic heft and the results are for everyone to see with China having overtaken the US economy in PPP terms in 2014, and all set to overtake in nominal terms by early 2030’s at the current growth levels. Ever since Xi took over in 2013, as part of his “China Dream”, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been lavished with money and arms.
China’s military spending rose by 83% in real terms between 2009 and 2018, by far the largest growth spurt in any big country. Xi’s vision involves fully modernising the PLA by 2035 and making it the world’s best by 2050.
Hence, the clock is already ticking with China well on its way to be in a dominant position as far as hard power is concerned (consisting of military and economic might) in the next decade or so.
However, in order to truly replace the current Global order centered around multipolarity, it needs to substantially invest in its soft power i.e. discourse power. In his remarks at the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping articulated the objective of building China into "a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence", which comprises of the troika of economic power, military power and discourse power.