Waiting Game: Shadows of the past loom on 2017

The traditional multilateral architecture of Asia is under strain.

There is no doubt 2016 has been a momentous, tempestuous, eventful year. In the past few weeks, this writer has read pieces comparing its import to 1498 (the year Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India and opened up the riches of the East to western Europe), to 1848 (Europe’s “Year of Revolutions”), to the period immediately before World War I, to the period immediately before World War II. At a conference in September, it was mildly amusing but also telling to have two speakers — unconnected and uncoordinated — make World War I analogies. The first was a European, who described the situation in his continent as fraught and resembling the international order and great power equation just prior to World War I. The second was an Asian, who described the situation in his continent as fraught and resembling the international order and great power equation just prior to World War I.

Obviously the fact that we are living through the centenary of the Great War (1914-18) has evoked multiple reference points. In 2017, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a spectacular success and then a spectacular failure, all in the course of less than a century: the revolution itself had been devoured and the Soviet Union had gone by 1990.
Nevertheless, the new salience of Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for Big Politics will draw even more 1917 analogies in the coming year. Indeed, if one peruses political debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a whole host of issues and concerns seem to have come back with the vengeance of a revenant: the Eastern Question, the Nationalities/Nationalism Question, the Turkish Question, the Russian Question; or closer home, the perennial Afghan Question.

At the turn of the previous century, the cracking of the Concert of Europe caused two world wars after an era of post-Napoleonic calm. The turbulence leading up to the second of those wars was intensified by an economic crisis. What do these precedents mean to us, if they mean anything at all? No exact comparisons are possible but a study of the past would offer clues as to the timelines of history and the pace at which events move and seemingly axiomatic truths can be disrupted. The Concert of Europe eventually ended because a new and non-status quoist power — Germany — wanted its place at the high table. Traditional powers were unwilling to cede space and a conflict resulted. Additionally, the rising tides of nationalism and populism and turbulence at Europe’s Islamic doorstep led to the fraying of the concert. It is possible to find aspects of all these challenges today in the troubled European Union project.

Europe is divided on several counts. There is nationalism and nostalgia, couched in the economic certainties of an earlier age. Brexit was one manifestation of this and British politicians, even those who know better and realise trade currents cannot be wished away, find themselves paralysed into not telling the public what it doesn’t want to hear. Similar urges are being seen in France — which sees a presidential election in 2017 in which the pendulum is certain to swing right — and Italy, perhaps even Germany, where fears are perceived not from a liberal economy but liberal migration. Yet, more than Europe itself, the evocation of the dying years of the Concert of Europe is perhaps apposite in Asia. Here too, in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, there is non-status quoist power — China — headed by a “core leader”: Asia’s would-be Kaiser, Xi Jinping. The traditional multilateral architecture of the region, underpinned by American capacity, is under strain. The United States has a taste for taking on China but it remains unclear, despite Donald Trump’s election and rhetoric, if it has the stomach.

Mr Trump has promised a muscular, militarist foreign policy and approach to China. He has offered to befriend Russia, number three as it were, in an alliance to take on number two. He has spoken loosely — though one suspects not without design — of an arms race in Asia and of a wave of weaponisation, even hinting at the N word. The re-militarisation of Japan and enhancing capacities of South Korea and India are probably on his horizon, as is the scramble for Asean — a bloc now split between the two superpowers. Yet, while all this may make for excitement and action in the short run, a fundamental contradiction remains. American investment in the security of the Indo-Pacific region was linked to its trade and economic interests. If Mr Trump, as President, walks away from trade with Asia, what is the US motivation for a longer-term military role in maritime Asia?

In 2016, it was questions such as these that threw the international order into a tizzy. They will haunt it as January 2017 begins its journey, with the inauguration of the new American President. So many other imponderables will play themselves out in the coming year — the beginning of the formal British departure from the EU; the unwillingness of China to give India space and its attempt to hem in Narendra Modi; the crumbling of old certitudes in Southeast Asia; the prospect of the US reversing a policy that, since the Iraq war of 2003, had served to strengthen Shia regimes in West Asia and once more banking on Saudi Arabia to take on Iran; the ability of a new general in Pakistan to yet again leverage his nation’s geography; the ability of Russia to punch politically — but in the ultimate reckoning, punch above its economic weight. In a sense, many of these phenomena go back to the financial crisis of 2008, the biggest shock to the global economic system since the 1929. Nine years after 1929, a nervous, pessimistic and Hobbesian world was plunged into war. Well, 2017 is nine years after 2008. Have a Happy New Year!

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