The emergence of China and India as key international players will make a shift in the international system towards multipolarity, believes Xiang Lanxin, Professor of the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. In an interview with valdaiclub.com on the margins of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok he outlined his vision of the world to come.
“The main transformation that the rise of China and India will probably trigger is a historic reversal of the geopolitical logic, originally proposed by Sir Halford Mackinder in the 19th century,” Xiang said. “He regarded Eurasia as a ‘heartland,’ or the center of the world, so who controls it, controls the entire world. Now the periphery of that Eurasian landscape, which means China and India, is beginning to affect what is happening in the center. That would be quite a big challenge.”
Russia has long welcomed the rise of India and China hoping that it would help its vision of a multipolar world become more feasible. In the 1990s, there were even proposals for a Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi triangle to counterbalance the US hegemony, something Xiang believes is irrelevant today.
“From the diplomatic point of view, Russians liked the idea of alignment with China and India, especially during [Foreign Minister Evgeny] Primakov’s time,” he said. “If we had the Beijing-New Delhi-Moscow triangle, Russia would obviously be in the advantageous position. Triangular relations mean that you have a country that can manage the triangle, which, according to Primakov, was Russia. But this approach is obsolete.”
When Primakov first voiced the idea of “triangle,” the relations between China and India were dominated by border disputes and India’s concern about China’s support of its adversary Pakistan. That has changed. According to Xiang, today the two countries have a regular top-level mechanism of discussing anything related to border crises, and neither side is interested in triggering another confrontation. In addition, unlike in the Cold War era, China now has good relations with both India and Pakistan – and the three states, alongside Russia, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Meanwhile, Russia and China have reached an unprecedented level of trust in their relations, and this really marks a sea change, Xiang said. “The great role of Russia in [Eurasia] is due to the historic rapprochement between China and Russia, which we have not seen since Catherine the Great. The two countries, which did not like each other for centuries, somehow managed to found real solid common ground for the purpose of changing or transforming the existing international system dominated by Western countries.”
The United States is obviously worried by this state of affairs in Eurasia with its hegemony increasingly challenged. Its partial response is the Indo-Pacific strategy, launched by the Trump administration. According to Xiang, the strategy, albeit not yet clearly defined, is focused on the so-called “freedom of navigation” issue with America trying to stop China in terms of maritime expansion, as they see it in Washington.
This is something the Pentagon is interested in, because China’s expansion to the Indian Ocean would be a major strategic blow to the United States. Unlike in the Obama days, now the White House has a more coherent view of that, the scholar said.
But what is being really done to implement this strategy? Last month, the United States pledged to invest 180 million dollars in the region, which is less than a single Chinese project announced two weeks ago, Xiang said. “The US could not pursue this strategy unless they will invest real money. Americans’ secret hope would be to stimulate private sector to invest more in the region,” he added.
The United States will be able to maintain its military domination in the region, Xiang believes: “Nobody in Asia-Pacific, except for Russia, would be able to challenge it. I think that Chinese, even militarily speaking, cannot challenge American military positions.” However, the question is whether the United States will attempt to dominate it in other ways. According to Xiang, such attempts will rather be futile. “I do not think the US has any capacity of dominating Asia-Pacific, if it cannot force major players in the region either surrender or follow the US rules of the game.” That will not work with China and India and even Japan realizes that it cannot blindly follow Americans. “I do not think anyone could dominate Asia-Pacific,” Xiang said.“Therefore, we would not see single-country hegemony anymore. The other potential change is the approach to global governance: there should no longer be one or few countries dominating the international diplomacy. There should be a multilateral approach. In other words, no country could set the rules for everybody, the rules shall be discussed by all the players,” he concluded.