Print Edition - 2017-01-30  |  Oped

Proletarianism to globalism

  • Modi has done on the subcontinent what Trump has done at the global level: vacate the leadership position for China
- ACHYUT WAGLE, Kathmandu
Regardless of whether China becomes a true global leader or remains a mere mercantilist state, Nepal cannot escape the aftershocks of possible geopolitical manoeuvring due to its geographical proximity

Jan 30, 2017-

The world wrote a different script for its future at the very beginning of 2017. On January 17, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that he aimed to lead the world as a defender and promoter of free trade, a globalised economy and fairer share of development. About the same time in London, British Prime Minister Theresa May asserted that the UK would soon ‘pull out’ from the European Union to ‘reach out’ to the world. Three days later, billionaire Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. He emphatically reiterated his ‘America first’ agenda, essentially meaning to withdraw from ‘expensive and unnecessary US engagements in the world’ to refocus on job creation, industrialisation and infrastructure development in his ‘own’ country.

These declarations reflect a clear reversal of roles on the world stage. China is now vowing to take the globalism agenda forward while the US has chosen narrow nationalism over globalism. Evidently, the imminent agenda of new US president is to scrap the Paris agreement on climate change, scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, build a wall along the US-Mexican border, penalise China for ‘unfair’ trade deals, stop funding US military operations overseas and control immigration. These plans are expected to drastically offset the existing global order and create a leadership vacuum in several global initiatives. And China, the world’s second largest economy, is vying to fill this vacuum.

Asian century

The Asian century is a plausible expectation given the fact that India is poised to become the third largest economy after the US and China. However, the size of the Indian economy is still effectively one-third and one-eighth of the Chinese and US economies respectively. In that sense, this century is more likely to be a Chinese than an Asian century. It is natural for China to harbour global leadership dreams as the US backs out. Europe is yet to come out of recession and Brexit could add insult to injury. Japan’s economy now largely depends on Trump’s trade policy. 

Closer to home, India has the ambition and ability to counterbalance China. As the most trusted partner of the US, a huge market and the world’s largest functional democracy, India can not only counterbalance China but also become a formidable global force. Unfortunately, Indian policymakers do not seem to realise these strengths. At least, it is not reflected in their foreign policy matrix. India does not realise that China’s strength lies in its mercantilist crusade to gain market access for its goods. India exports low-value raw materials like iron ore to China and imports high-value petrochemicals, electronic goods, finished steel and machinery. 

India’s trade deficit with China will cross $70 billion this year. The Chinese market’s tentacles are now irreversibly entrenched into Indian daily life. Worse, the media and intelligentsia in Delhi are asking the wrong question: Will China risk a $70-billion annual trade surplus by pushing bilateral relations into the doldrums (ostensibly by aligning with Pakistan)? Instead they should ask: How can India substitute its imports to reduce this supply dependence on consumables? In addition, India often has reservations about its several neighbours including Nepal for their perceived closeness to China. India is annoyed by the fact that China is encroaching upon South Asia which is traditionally seen as a region of Indian influence. 

After the rise of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India two years ago, he had a unique opportunity to extend liberal and democratic values, particularly in South Asia. This would have helped to serve his objective of containing the growing influence of communist China. He started on the right note by visiting Nepal and Bhutan first after being sworn in, but lost momentum after that. On the contrary, many erstwhile ‘friends’ of India were forcibly pushed into China’s arms for what can be called a lack of rational engagement.

India’s failure to effectively engage the neighbours and make democracy and liberal values cardinal to foreign policy operation, and its propensity for whining instead of acting to correct its course have only given more space to China even in regional geopolitics. In fact, Modi has done on the subcontinent exactly what Trump has done at the global level—vacate the leadership position for Xi Jinping.

China’s scope

Nevertheless, an overnight jump from pure mercantilism to true globalism is surely not going to be easy. Global or regional leadership in the 21st century is not only about economic or military might. The socio-political value system, plurality of thought, freedom of expression through mass or social media and replicable political or economic models constitute a large part of this leadership. Global interactions and interfaces are equally important where language is a major factor. If China strives to sell a philosophy that closed-door communism or guided, intellectual, economic and individual freedoms are new universal, emulative value systems, we have to upend our long-held beliefs and practices. If China limits itself to the economic domain, not impinging upon the global political order, it will effectively remain a mercantilist and not a globalist leader.

It is also important to note China’s urgency to change the entire narrative of global engagement. Until a year ago, it was hesitant to sign the Paris climate agreement. Now it has vowed to not only defend but expand and execute it. Despite Trump’s provocation, it has called to avoid a trade war. Every country in Africa, South America, Europe and Asia is keen to attract Chinese investment, which Xi announced would total $750 billion in the next five years. In British Prime Minister May’s ‘reach out to the world’ scheme, China certainly figures prominently.

Lastly, regardless of whether China becomes a true global leader or remains a mere mercantilist state, Nepal cannot escape the aftershocks of possible geopolitical manoeuvring due to its geographical proximity. For Nepal, Washington, DC may be 12,000 km away, but Kathmandu is right at the middle of the New Delhi-Beijing diagonal. Nepal’s political balance also mirrors the hinge between the ideologies of proletarianism and globalism.

 

Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst

Published: 30-01-2017 08:23

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