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West Asia Engagement with Chinese Characteristics

Four parameters that are likely to guide China’s engagement in West Asia

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

My previous post Talking about the Asia beyond Pakistan was in light of the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine. Using The Economist’s Grid of Grievances, the post argued that:

if India were to be mapped on this graphic, it would perhaps be the only state that maintains a non-adversarial relationship with every West Asian state.

Apart from India, there is another state which is missing from the mosaic, and one that has been the quickest off the mark in dealing with the transformed power structure of West Asia: China. President Xi’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran, coming immediately after lifting of international sanctions against Iran, have garnered widespread attention in policy circles.

There is a broad consensus that China will be a force to reckon with in the new West Asia but there is little discussion on the direction that China is likely to follow in the process. This post tries to sketch out the parameters of a greater Chinese engagement in West Asia.

First, the Chinese government sees West Asia as an unsaturated market. West Asia in general and Iran in particular have the potential to boost demand for Chinese production. It is no surprise then, that Xi’s arrival was greeted with talks about the ancient Silk Road, reminiscent of a time when the supply chains between China and West Asia were robust.

Second, the Chinese government wants West Asian countries to bandwagon on its side in its efforts to create a new world order that challenges the West. On the geopolitical axis, this means China wants more West Asian participation in institutions like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. On the geoeconomic axis, China will look to get greater West Asian commitment to the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

Third, China will side with the incumbent political leaderships in West Asia. As a geopolitical actor, China has shown less inclination to regime change except in conditions when a state’s internal political situation directly affects China’s security adversely, as seen in Afghanistan. Going ahead, China will continue to engage the ruling dispensations of all important West Asian countries.

Fourth, China will let others do the fighting against IS. Apart from supporting the incumbent leaderships militarily and economically, China will not put any feet on the ground against the IS, as long as the IS threat remains away from its borders.

These four parameters are likely to guide China’s greater engagement in West Asia. While it remains to be seen what aims this engagement will accomplish, China faces the same challenge as India does on the issue of increasing proximity with West Asian countries: thus far, the two countries have maintained fairly good terms of engagement with West Asia by allowing them to settle at a low level equilibrium, with none of the engagements taking the form of a strategic partnership. As these two states tries to scale these local maxima, the geopolitical environment is bound to throw up new challenges and tough choices that can upset the delicate balance they lie in currently.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Three parameters for evaluating global governments

What are the parameters that can help us judge the effectiveness of supra-national political unions?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

For about a decade now, geopolitical analysts have been discussing about the emergence of a new world order. The formation (and mere formulation) of new supra-state constructs such as G-20, BRICS, SCO are an evidence for these expectations that demand a shuffle in the world order.

The call for new international institutions is exacerbated by the ineffectiveness of the dominant international governments of the day — the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB). The fundamental reason for their ineffectiveness is the divergence between the power distribution inside these institutions and the power distribution in the world at large.

Consequently, any new formation that tries to compete with the existing system will have to prove its relative superiority over the existing system. But how does one measure this? Are there any parameters that can help us evaluate the effectiveness of supra-national political unions?

Hans Morgenthau’s classic work on political realism ‘Politics of nations’ offers us some interesting answers to these questions:

With regard to each of the attempts at international governments, three questions must be asked:
1. Where is the authority to govern vested, or who is to govern?
2. By what principle of justice is the government to be guided, or what is the conception of the common good to be realised by the government, and
3. To what extent has the government been able to maintain order and peace.

World Order

Image courtesy: username: wiertz, flickr. Creative commons.

Taking these parameters as a reference point, we can observe the following about today’s world order:

Parameter 1. Authority to govern has traditionally been vested in victors of major wars. For example, victors of World War 1 took the lead in forming the League of Nations. Similarly, the current system with the UN at its apex is a direct outcome of the World War 2. The writ of the UN is effectively the writ of the UN Security Council which has the allied powers as its permanent members. The UN General Assembly on the other hand, by design has very limited role in geopolitics.

However, we are now in a world where nuclear deterrence has made wars of a global scale less likely. This means that any new organisation seeking to challenge the current system must derive its authority from a source other than war invincibility. Given that we have had several global economic depressions, and no world wars, this source of authority can well be the economic prowess of a supra state. Global governments of the new age must possess collective a economic might that can tide over the world’s tougher problems.

Moreover, authority is a function of both, power and legitimacy. While economic power is a result of several other factors, legitimacy can be enhanced by effective response in times of crisis.  For example, the initial promises made by the G-20 group following the 2008 recession made the world take notice of this organisation.

Parameter 2. The system of justice to be realised by an international government is a resultant of the justice systems of the constituent great powers. Previous experiences of international governments show that the system of justice has come to mean two things. One, to maintain the political status quo achieved as a result of the war and two, to deal a debilitating blow to the defeated.

Based on the assumption that the emerging world order will be determined primarily in the economic domain, the corresponding justice system will lay emphasis on areas such as trade and monetary flows, investments in infrastructure and so on. Seen from this perspective, it doesn’t come as a surprise that all international formations are trying to build an economic system of their own. Thus, we have China investing in Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road (OBOR), while the BRICS are attempting a New Development Bank (NDB) of their own.

Parameter 3. While averting major wars, the UN system has been found wanting in countering terrorism and mass atrocity crimes. Norms such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have been applied selectively at best, taking up issues of direct concern to the great powers while ignoring issues which are out of their collective conscience. As a result, we see instances of human rights violations from Balochistan to Yemen, receiving nothing but wholesale ignorance.

In this regard, the new world order will have to perform better on countering terrorism and mass atrocities. Going ahead, maintaining order and peace will not be as much about preventing conventional wars but about responding to asymmetric violence.

Having observed the parameters from the contemporary perspective, one might ask, what should be the ideal size of an effective international government? Clearly, the current number (5) is too small, and having all countries (>200) on board will only slow down the response.

Morgenthau offers a solution for that question as well:

An international organisation cannot be so universal that all members are in it but it should be universal in that all nations likely to disturb the peace are under its jurisdiction.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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