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Address by Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan at the third Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture (January 23, 2023)

January 23, 2023

Good evening, everybody. Let me begin by thanking the Ministry of External Affairs of India for inviting me to deliver the 3rd Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture. In particular, I must express my gratitude to Foreign Minister Jaishankar not only for inviting me but for that too kind introduction, to Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, High Commissioner Kumaran who is not here, of course, but he had a role in this, and Dr. Sumit Seth and his team, that was responsible for organizing this event.

I'm not sure what I have done to deserve the invitation, but I will do my best to live up to the honour. I can only hope that you do not conclude that inviting me was an act of reckless folly after you listen to me. And I enjoin you to remember although you have been kind enough to call me Ambassador, my official title now is actually pensioner. Now the thought that it was folly to invite me may well have already occurred to some of you at least because I chose to speak about "The Future of Global Uncertainty”. And this may strike some of you as at least paradoxical if not downright nonsensical. How can one speak about the future of uncertainties? And it would indeed be a fool's errand to try unless the parameters of uncertainty can be defined. But if the parameters of uncertainty can be defined, are they really uncertainties? Well, I confess to a penchant for paradox, but the apparent contradiction will be more comprehensible if we bear in mind, the distinction made by the Former US Secretary of Defense, the late Donald Rumsfeld, the distinction he made between known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. My emphasis will be on geopolitics, and let me state my conclusion upfront. Taking a broad view while the world has indeed become more uncertain, what we are confronted with are primarily known unknowns.

Looking around the world today, I cannot but conclude that we have seen this movie before. The cast of characters and locations may have changed. But whether we look at the war in Ukraine or US-China strategic rivalry, or aggressive Chinese behaviour in the East and South China Seas and Himalayas, or the consequent stresses on globalization, and the risks of a world recession, these are not new plots. They are new variants of old plots within established patterns of state behaviour. Some of you may remember that a few years ago, there was a slew of articles and statements, including some by practitioners who ought to have known better, riffing on some variation of the theme of the return of great power competition. ‘Return’ - when did they ever go away? Competition is an inherent characteristic of relations among sovereign states, never entirely absent at some level of intensity in all the international relationships. And tragically, sometimes, competition becomes conflict. And for most of the 20th century, international order was contested, at times very violently during the First and Second World Wars, and after nuclear weapons made conflict between principles too dangerous, through proxies during the 40 or so years of the Cold War. But after the Cold War ended, this fundamental reality of international relations was masked for time by the overwhelming dominance of the US and its allies. American dominance made it seem as if only one conception of international order was left standing, and even emboldened some to claim that history itself had ended. Now, in that extreme form, the delusion did not last very long. But a pale version still lingers on in the idea that certain values are or ought to be universal, or to say certain interpretations of certain values are or ought to be universal. But the idea does not bear close examination but can do immense damage.

One of the most foolish statements I have ever heard, was Former Secretary of State John Kerry criticizing the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea as 19th century behaviour in the 21st century. Now there are many good reasons to criticize the annexation of Crimea, but this particular criticism was singularly foolish because it assumes that your adversary should share your values. Why should it? If a country shares your values, it would not be your adversary. The conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine that led to the annexation of Crimea, and the present war rose precisely because of differences of values or interests which comes to the same thing, because values are interests. Every country has its own values, which are still interests to them, even if you find them abhorrent, and you will have to deal with them, whether by diplomacy or deterrence. The West and Europe in particular, confuse posture for policy and feeling virtuous for action. Nothing really effective was done about Crimea until it was too late to stop the current war. And it's worth reminding ourselves that when we talk about a rules based order, it is a mistake to believe that just because we may use the same words, or the same phrase, we all necessarily always mean the same thing. There will inevitably be different interpretations of the rules, or different emphasis on different rules according to our different interests and this is true even among the closest of allies, partners and friends, let alone rivals or competitors.

A parallel illusion was idea that as China reformed and open up economically, its political system would, if not exactly converge with Western democracies, at least move in a relatively more open direction. And there were some tentative steps in that direction at the local level, towards the end of the Hu Jintao administration, which in retrospect, some may have over interpreted out of wishful thinking. We owe President Xi Jinping a vote of thanks for making it clear to all except the terminally naive, that the purpose of reform in a Leninist system is always and only to strengthen and entrench the power of the vanguard party. Similarly, the US and Europe ought to thank Mr. Putin for inadvertently rescuing and revitalizing the idea of the West. And by the West with a capital ‘W’, I mean, the global West, which includes not just US, Canada and Europe, but also among others, Japan, Australia and South Korea, and from time to time on particular issues, other countries as well. After the cold war, the idea of the West had loosened considerably, and looked to be in some danger of evaporating entirely. And the idea of the West was innervated, precisely because of the fantasy that everybody would, whether they liked it or not, and whether they are aware of it or not, in some sense, eventually become part of the West. But if everybody is destined to become the West, what is the West? After the Cold War, even the US couldn't always agree and sometimes publicly and loudly disagreed. Now that period, the period when American dominance masked the central reality of competing interests, and strategic rivalry, and fuelled such delusions, was historically abnormal and short. Only the 20 or so years between 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union began to unravel, and China was still reeling from the Tiananmen crisis to approximately 2008 or 2009, when the global financial crisis led to widespread disillusionment, including in America itself, with US led globalization. And it was during this period that the very dominance of US power began to become self-subverting. Dominance led to hubris, hubris led US into debilitating adventures in the Middle East that were justified, at least in part by reference to the promotion of values claimed to be universal. And war in the Middle East distracted the US at a crucial time, as China recovered from Tiananmen and began its period of spectacular growth that has led to relative changes in the global distribution of power.

Now, these changes are only relative and not absolute, but will eventually lead to a more symmetrical strategic balance between the US and China. But that short and historically abnormal period is now over. We are therefore now returning to a more historically normal period, where competition and rivalry between major powers is the primary structural reality of international relations where international order is going to be contested, and the possibility of war between major powers again looms over international relations. I stress the possibility of war between major powers. War in other forms of state sponsored violence has been a constant reality for many in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the Global South. The Ukraine war is unique only because it is occurring in the heart of Europe, or to put things very bluntly because white people are killing each other for a change. And because nuclear weapons states and permanent members of the UN Security Council are engaged - Russia directly and the US, UK and France at a step removed. These are familiar uncertainties. But I am not arguing that nothing has changed. I will use the rest of this lecture to analyse what I think has changed and what the implications of these changes may portend for future international order.

Now dangerous as it undoubtedly is, and egregious as Russia's violation of some of the most fundamental principles of international conduct has been, the war in Ukraine has pitted a reenergized West against the Russia is actually a second order issue in global geopolitics. Ukraine has become an unwitting proxy in the larger and more strategically important contests between the US and China. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said that the US wants to use the war in Ukraine to weaken Russia so that they cannot carry out another invasion. Left unsaid but I think clear enough is that this is meant as an object lesson for China. What Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin have in common, the foundation of their partnership without limits, is their contempt for the West, which they regard as at least effete if not in irreversible and absolute decline. I do not know if the unexpectedly swift, cohesive and resolute Western response to the war in Ukraine has really changed Mr. Xi's view of the West. But China's partnership with Russia has certainly placed Beijing in a very awkward position. It is an additional serious complication at a time when China is already facing many complicated other internal and external issues. Now, nobody is ever going to shun China or refuse to deal with China. But as long as Beijing cannot bring itself to directly criticize the Russian invasion, it will be very difficult to say the least for China to substantively improve relations with Europe in order to temper or balance its strategic competition with the US. And Beijing making anodyne statements about the need for negotiations and expressing concerns about the nuclear risk are not going to make a real difference in this respect. Nor will cultivating relations with the global south make a real difference. But China cannot risk a break with Russia, because it has no other partner anywhere in the world of comparable strategic weight that shares its distrust of the American led international order.

Now, at the same time, Moscow cannot be happy with Beijing's tepid support that has highlighted the limits to their so called No Limits partnership. But Russia too, has no other partner other than China, of any strategic weight, anywhere prepared to stand on its side against the West. India or Vietnam or Indonesia or any country that has in its own interests, taken a nuanced position on Ukraine are not going to do so because acting in your own interests is not the same thing as siding with Russia. Similarly, taking a strong stance against the invasion in your own interests, as Singapore has done, for example, is not the same thing as siding with the West. This seems to be a simple proposition, but it's one that I find some countries find great difficulty in understanding, why I'm not sure. Now unless the war takes a decisive turn in Russia's favour, which does not to me seem very likely, Russia and China are trapped in an unenviable geopolitical position. And it follows that there is no strong incentive for the US to seek any quick or permanent negotiated settlement. And there are those in Europe that may have such an interest in quick and permanent negotiated settlement, the fact is they are incapable of dealing with Russia without the US, and they are not willing to set the pace on this particular issue. So the most probable scenario is a prolonged war that will eventually taper off into a frozen conflict. So we'll have to live with these consequences for the foreseeable future.

Now, I don't think I need to convince this audience, this particular audience, that the Western characterization of the Ukraine war and more generally of US-China competition, as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism is simplistic and ill advised. But the now common trope that describes US-China competition as, "A new Cold War”, is to my mind an even more misleading framework because it evokes a superficially plausible, but in fact, intellectually lazy, and inappropriate, historical analogy that fundamentally misrepresents the nature of that competition. And this can be dangerous as we seek to position ourselves; this misunderstanding, misrepresentation can be dangerous, as we seek to position ourselves in the evolving geopolitical environment. What's the difference between US-China competition and the so called New Cold War, or the cold war analogy? Well, during the Cold War, the US and the former Soviet Union led two separate systems connected with each other only at their margins and minimally. The choices facing the rest of us then including those of us like India, and Singapore, who are members of the Non-aligned movement, were essentially binary, although we sometimes pretended otherwise, when our interests dictated that we do so. Although the prospect of mutual destruction instilled prudence and eventually tempered their rivalry, the essential aim of US-Soviet competition was for one system to displace the other. As Khrushchev famously told a group of Western ambassadors in 1956: "we will bury you”. But it has been a very long time, since anyone could seriously hope or fear that communism will replace capitalism. Whatever their differences, and they are great, the US and China are both vital, irreplaceable parts of a single global system, intimately enmeshed with each other, and the rest of us by a web of supply chains of a scope, of a density and of a complexity that is historically unprecedented. That web was established and spread globally during the short post Cold War period of unchallenged American dominance, I referred to earlier. But it is now an established fact in its own right that has outlived the dominance. This web and its consequences are what we call globalization, or interdependence.

Now there have been earlier periods of interdependence between rival major powers, but nothing like this complex web of supply chains has ever existed before. And this is what distinguishes 21st century interdependence from earlier periods of interdependence. Neither the US nor China are comfortable with this situation, because their interdependence also exposes their mutual vulnerabilities. And both have tried to temper their vulnerabilities, Americans and the allies by trying to enhance the resilience of key sectors of their economies, by diversification, to reduce the dependence on China of their most important supply chains, and China by trying to become more self-reliant in key technologies, and placing more emphasis on domestic household consumption to drive their growth. Now I doubt either will succeed at least not succeed entirely. Both strategies, diversification and self-reliance, are easier said than done. And in any case, even if they work, will take a long time to have a significant effect. Now don't misunderstand me, partial bifurcation of the system has already occurred and there will be further bifurcation, particularly in areas of technology with security implications, such as semiconductors, the internet and big data. But I doubt the system will ever divide across all sectors into two separate systems as existed during the US-Soviet Cold War. The cost of the two principals and to other countries will be simply just too high. Whatever their concerns about Chinese behaviour, even the closest American ally is never going to cut itself off from China. And few, if any Western companies are ever going, in fact, any company ever going to entirely forswear the Chinese market, most will probably pursue a China plus strategy to spread risks. But that's a different matter. On its part, whatever successes China may have in its R&D efforts, and we should not underestimate China, for the foreseeable future, Beijing has no real alternative to the global West for the critical enabling technologies, it needs to put the results of its R&D to practical use.

Domestic household consumption relies on confidence, and much better social safety nets to free household spending. And it will take some time to restore confidence after China's response to the pandemic, the so called zero COVID approach, and more importantly its chaotic exit from a zero COVID approach. And it will take even more time to establish adequate social security nets in a country of China's size and uneven development. The Chinese slogan of dual circulation, dual referring to an external component acknowledges China's inability to separate itself from the world. So like it or not, the US and China must accept the risks and vulnerabilities of remaining connected to each other. The US and China will compete and do so robustly, but compete within the single system of which they are both vital parts. And the dynamics of competition within a system are fundamentally different from competition between systems as existed during the US-Soviet Cold War. Competition within a single system is about achieving a position that will enable you to benefit from interdependence while mitigating your own vulnerabilities and exploiting your rivals’ vulnerabilities. Competition within a system is about using interdependence as a tool of competition, and certainly not about one system displacing the other. And there is no better example of these complicated and complex dynamics than high end semiconductors, which are the most serious Chinese vulnerability in enabling technologies. All the most critical nodes in the semiconductor supply chain are held by the US, its allies and its friends. But China is about 40% of the global semiconductor market. And you cannot completely cut off your own companies and those of your friends and allies from 40% of the market without doing them serious damage. And this impels a policy of fine discriminations rather than a heavy handed approach, using a scalpel, not an axe. And in fact, as of August 2020, and I don't think the situation has materially changed since then. Most applications for exemptions to bans on exports of technology to China has been approved.

And so the choices facing the two principals, and third parties like India and Singapore are complex and no longer binary choices. This is important because complexity broadens our ability to exercise agency. It broadens our ability to find new options, provided we have the will to recognize the opportunities and the agility and courage to seize them. And this is important because although China and the USA say they do not want to make third countries choose between them, in fact, they do want us to choose. And China in particular devotes a great deal of resources on influence operations intended to impose false binary choices on us. And that is why I said at the beginning that while it is important not to be complacent about the uncertainties, we should also recognize that they are not unprecedented. We have survived and prospered amidst previous periods of uncertainty and the first prerequisite of doing so again, is psychological poise and keeping a sense of perspective. No sovereign state is without agency, never without agency. And this may be obvious in the case of a continental size country like India, which has never doubted that its future is in its own hands. But it also holds true for a tiny city state like my own. Otherwise, I would not be standing here talking to you, because a sovereign Singapore would not exist. The circumstances of our independence and the regional and international environment we faced after having had independence thrust upon us in 1965, were far more perilous than anything that confronts us now. And yet, here I am.

When deciding how to exercise our agency to protect and advance our interests in the midst of US-China strategic rivalry, we have to acknowledge that there are serious questions about both countries about both the US and China. And let me take them in turn. The biggest concerns about the US center on its domestic politics. I don't have either the time or the inclination to go into detail about US domestic politics. I don't have the inclination, because it will be rather impolite of me to repay your hospitality by unduly depressing you. So I won't go into the details of contemporary American politics. Let me just say that all democracies are to some extent dysfunctional by design, because an over concentration of power is distrusted, and therefore is restrained at the cost of efficiency. The Americans politely call this feature of democratic political systems, checks and balances. Still, one can be forgiven for feeling that American politics are often more dysfunctional than absolutely necessary. But even this has to be put in perspective. Now consider this, a vain, egocentric, to the point of being narcissistic, fear mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States and wins. Sounds familiar? Well, I am not describing Donald Trump. I am describing the basic premise of a 1935 novel entitled "It can't happen here” by the great American writer Sinclair Lewis, who based his plot on the political career of a real life Louisiana politician, Huey Long and Huey Long might well have had become President, had he not been assassinated in 1935, the year Lewis's novel was published. Now, I don't profess to know what will happen in 2024. But even if Mr. Trump is defeated, or changes his mind about running again, that will not be the last time we will experience a Trump like political phenomenon in the United States. My point in bringing Lewis’s almost 90-year-old novel to your attention is that Trump and all he represents did not suddenly appear out of thin air, and will not suddenly vanish into the ether. He represents an established strain of American political culture that periodically surfaces a characteristic that the American political scientist, Richard Hofstadter, called ‘the paranoid style’ in American politics. We should not ignore these admittedly serious shortcomings of the American system. But we should also not forget that despite its politics, America is still here as a major power, and that those who are overly focused on its periodically self-destructive, and almost always ill-disciplined political process, to the extent of underestimating the United States, often did not live to regret it.

The fundamental sources of American strength, American creativity and American resilience have never depended totally on what happens in Washington DC. More fundamentally, they reside in its great universities, in its great corporations and on Wall Street, and on the main streets of its 50 states. American politics is not unimportant, but in my view, at least is a second order factor. Politics has never prevented America from eventually doing the right thing, or at least doing what is in its interests after as Winston Churchill once reportedly quipped, after having tried all the alternative first. And on the key issues of China and the war in Ukraine, there is I think, a basic political consensus, there will surely be many political quarrels to come on these issues, quarrels within the US, between the US and the EU, and within the EU, and within NATO. Democracies are by nature quarrelsome, but there will be primarily quarrels over means not the ends of policy. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by American domestic politics, or overreact to them. There is only one America and we have to work with it, and work with it in a new context. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US no longer faces any existential external threat of the kind posed by the Soviet Union. Putin’s Russia is dangerous, but for economic and demographic reasons its long term trajectory is downwards, was already downwards, accelerated by Mr. Putin's disastrous miscalculation in Ukraine. China is a formidable rival. But competition within a system cannot by definition be existential because the survival of the system is not at stake. China is the principal beneficiary of the existing system, and has no strong incentive to kick over the table and change it in any fundamental way because its own economy rests on that foundation. Beijing may want to shift America to the periphery of the system and take its place at the center. But that is not an existential threat. Even if it had the capability to do so which I doubt, China cannot displace America from the system without risking undermining it entirely. And that is not in China's interests. And except an existential threat, there is no longer any reason for Americans to bear any burden or pay any price to uphold international order. The essential priorities of every post cold war American administration have been domestic with the George W. Bush administration as an exception forced by 9/11. Since then, every President has tried to rectify Bush's mistakes by disengaging from its Middle Eastern entanglements with limited success until Mr. Biden finally cut the Gordian knot in 2021.

Now, that ruthless move and the domestic focus of all post cold war administrations have often been misrepresented as America retreating from the world. But I think it's more accurately understood as America redefining the terms of its engagement with the world. And again, this is not entirely new. Half a century ago, the US corrected the mistake it had made in Vietnam by withdrawing from direct intervention to maintaining stability in East Asia by assuming the role of an offshore balancer. It has been remarkably consistent in that role ever since. An analogous shift to an offshore balancer role is now occurring in the Middle East after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I think sooner or later it will occur in Europe too, delayed but not diverted by the war in Ukraine. An offshore balancer is not in retreat, but demands more of its allies, partners and friends to maintain balance. With Obama, it took the form of an emphasis on multilateralism and multilateralism is a form of burden sharing. Trump made unilateral and crudely transactional demands. Mr. Biden is consultative, but he does not consult allies, partners and friends merely for the pleasure of their company. He is consulting us to ascertain what we are prepared to do for America's strategic concerns. We shouldn't forget that. And for those that meet his expectations, Mr. Biden has gone further than any of his predecessors in providing them with the tools to help the US further common strategic aims. And that's the meaning of AUKUS for example. In this sense, Biden's consultative approach is a more polite form of Trump’s crude transactionalism. If you do not meet expectations, Mr. Biden will probably still be polite, but you should not expect to be taken too seriously. And the shift to a more transactional whether polite or otherwise American foreign policy is, I think permanent. This is a fact that ASEAN, the Gulf states and even some European allies of America are only beginning to understand.

Now China, the most crucial questions about China center around what lessons if any Mr. Xi Jinping has taken from his experience of America over the last eight years. We saw a transition in the White House but no change of approach towards China, and a major blunder by its most important partner that resulted in the war in Ukraine that, as I said, put China in an awkward position. I stress the personal - Xi Jinping - rather than a collective China. Because the consequence, the most important consequence of the first decade of Mr. Xi's rule, the use of the anti-corruption campaign to crush all organized opposition is to concentrate power around himself and abolishing term limits for the top position. The most important consequence of all that has been reintroduce a single point of failure into the Chinese system. Authoritarian systems are able to set goals and pursue them relentlessly over the long term. But this is a strength only if the goal was correct in the first place. In China, the two ends of the political spectrum in this respect are set by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Mao's ideologically driven, great leap forward and Cultural Revolution were unmitigated disasters. Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic decision to reform and open up, saved the Chinese Communist Party. In no other system, could a leader take a cold hard look at his life's work, decide it was all gone wrong and make 180 degree turn without significant opposition. But it took millions of deaths and the need to avert an existential threat to the party to change course. It too often takes catastrophes to force policy changes in authoritarian systems. So where is Mr. Xi situated on this spectrum? The optimistic among us can point to the reversal of zero COVID, botched though it was it was nevertheless the right thing to do, can point to the easing of controls on big tech companies, can point to efforts to revive the property sector and an effort to nuanced support for Russia and improve at least the atmosphere or relations with the US as Mr. Xi reverting to Deng Xiaoping’s style pragmatism. And this is not an assessment that can be entirely dismissed. However, my inclination is to be more sceptical. It will be prudent to reserve judgment rather than prematurely conclude that Mr. Xi has definitely shifted his approach.

These may all be well be tactical adjustments to mitigate mounting internal and external problems, rather than a strategic change of direction. The spontaneous country wide protests against the zero COVID approach, which brought together workers and students, a combination that surely had a very ominous resonance in modern Chinese history for the party and were directed against a policy that Mr. Xi had claimed as a personal achievement could not be ignored, particularly in the context of long term demographics, present slow growth and high youth unemployment. The lack of preparation for the shift away from zero COVID clearly suggests an emergency response rather than a deliberate rethink. There is no going back to zero COVID even if they wanted to, which I don't think they want to, but there's no going back. But the same cannot be said of the other examples I mentioned, which also smack to me at least of emergency responses. It was not wrong to try to dampen an over leveraged and overvalued property sector, that may indirectly account for a quarter or more of China's GDP, posing a very serious systemic risks. But what was the response - reverting to all macro-economic stimulus tools to try and boost growth only further postpones rather than resolve the problem and could also magnify its scope.

Big tech? Well, big tech had already been cut down to size and the relaxation is occurring within new parameters. I don't think Mr. Xi would hesitate to act again, if another Jack Ma like character with ideas beyond what the party considers his station in life should be foolish enough to take to higher profile. Certainly nothing occurred at the 20th Party Congress last October, only a month or so before these shifts that suggest any strategic rethinking of the direction set in the first decade of Mr. Xi’s rule. Those 10 years have made it clear that Mr. Xi is a true Leninist, and that his solution to almost every issue has been to insist on strengthening the role of the party and its ideology, which is now well synonymous with Xi Jinping thought codified in four thick volumes with no doubt more tomes to come. And this has been true even of the most fundamental issues facing China.

At the 18th Party Congress in 2012 in which Mr. Xi became top leader, the Chinese Communist Party itself acknowledged that the growth model, that had brought spectacular results in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s was not sustainable over the long run. That was an admission by the party itself. The next year in November 2013 had his third plenum, the Chinese Communist Party announced the outlines of a new growth model that promised and I quote "a decisive role for the market in the allocation of resources”. The timings of both the acknowledgement and the announcements suggests that they were probably based primarily on earlier work by the Jiang Zemin team than Xi who was then probably more preoccupied with consolidating his power than the economy per se. At any rate, very little of that 2013 plan has been implemented according to some academic estimates, no more than perhaps 20%. Mr. Xi's emphasis has clearly been on the state sector and party control rather than the market. China is not about to collapse and probably will improvise its way forward. But for three decades, growth has been the key pillar of the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy. And at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Mr. Xi himself redefined China's "principal contradiction” - a Marxist term, to acknowledge the Chinese People's growing expectations for a better life, but that Mr. Xi has so far been half hearted about making the market adjustments that the party itself had deemed necessary to sustain growth and unique growth to meet rising expectations seems to me to be a strong indicator of where his true priorities may lie. His slogan of common prosperity are clear indications that the party does not approve of what it has dubbed ‘disorderly expansion of capital’, point in the same direction.

In 2021, Mr. Xi enjoined party cadre is to make China and I quote, again, ‘more credible, more lovable and respectable abroad’. This suggests that he knows that his foreign policy has not exactly been a stellar success. The so called wolf warriors seem to have been leashed and muzzled at least for now, but the real issue goes beyond overzealous diplomats. More than any of his predecessors, Xi has tried and used the ethno-nationalist historical narrative of humiliation, rejuvenation, and attaining the China dream to justify the party's monopoly of power and his personal ascendancy over the party. With no other credible legitimating narratives, the party cannot significantly modify or temper this narrative, nor is there any indication that Mr. Xi thinks it necessary to do so. And this essentially revanchist narrative, this narrative of humiliation, rejuvenation and attaining the China dream, under the party's leadership is revanchist and it instils Chinese foreign policy with a strong sense of entitlement. And this in turn leads to aggressive and uncompromising behaviour. After all, if I am only as they claim trying to reclaim what was taken from me when I was weak, and that was not just territory, but more fundamentally, the deference, I believe, is due to a civilization that has always considered itself superior to all others. If I believe this, why should I compromise? Why should I not strongly assert myself to regain my view? Not to do so makes me look weak in the eyes of my own people and risks undermining their support. And for the party, this is the primary consideration. To a Leninist state, diplomacy is only a tactical expedient or a secondary consideration. The revanchist historical narrative, which the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party justifies its rule centers on Taiwan, the China dream cannot be achieved without reunification. Mr. Xi has said so himself several times. But this does not mean the war between the US and China is inevitable.

True, Taiwan is the most dangerous potential flashpoint and Beijing will never forswear the option of reunification by force. But despite China's fierce rhetoric, and contrary to some rather alarmist assessments that suggests war is imminent, I do not think Beijing is really eager to go to war over Taiwan unless its hand is forced. China still lacks the capability and the experience to launch an amphibious operation of the scale that will be necessary. Of course, China will eventually acquire the capability but a war of reunification will still be an immense gamble. If China starts a war over Taiwan, it must win and it must win quickly. Mr. Putin can survive, I think probably will survive a botched war against Ukraine. But no Chinese leader will survive a failed war against Taiwan, and even the roots of the Chinese Communist Party's rule will be seriously shaken if a war over Taiwan fails. In any case, China is very unlikely to launch a war until its nuclear modernization program has given it the ability to deter a direct American response as Russia has in Ukraine. At present, the biggest risks over Taiwan is not a war by design, but an accident getting out of hand or Taiwanese domestic politics taking a turn that forces China's hand. Both these risks have risen. Still, we should not forget that Beijing has non-kinetic options to deal with Taiwan. And I think those are its preferred options.

Let me now conclude, with a few observations on the implications of my analysis for the future of international relations. If I have not been entirely talking entire nonsense, we are all confronted with two inescapable realities. First, no country can avoid engaging with both the US and China. And dealing with both simultaneously is a necessary condition for dealing effectively with either. Without the US, there can be no balance to China anywhere. And without engagement with China, the US may well take us for granted. The latter possibility may be less in the case of a big country like India, but it is not non-existent. Second, I know of no country that is without concerns about some aspect or another, of both America and Chinese behaviour. The concerns are not the same, nor are they held with the same equal intensity and they are not always articulated. Indeed, they are often publicly denied. But they exist even in the closest of American allies, and in States deeply dependent on China. Dealing with major powers with whom we cannot avoid working but do not entirely trust requires strategic autonomy. And even the closest of American allies I should say, are moving in that direction. This does not mean that alliances or less formal arrangements, like the Quad will break up, but they will become looser over time, as countries who want to preserve the widest possible range of options for themselves, including for those who can, the nuclear option. Few, if any countries will commit to aligning themselves across the entire gamut or the entire range of issues with any single major power. And this will encourage the natural multipolarity of a diverse world and certainly our region is a naturally multipolar region. Multipolarity will not, however, be symmetrical. The US and China will remain at the center of the international order. And it is also unlikely that the international system that will evolve around the central axis will have as clear a definition as the bipolar Cold War structure, the international order will become more fluid.

Complex interdependence is making it increasingly difficult to neatly classify relationships as friend or foe. Ambiguity is an intrinsic characteristic or relationships where interdependence creates ties, deep ties, but the very extent of those ties expose those vulnerabilities. Globalization is under stress but the more apocalyptic predictions about its future demise lack credibility. The politics, domestic, international or globalization, have become more difficult for almost everybody. But the technologies that drive globalization and interdependence cannot be unlearned. They have their own dynamic that may be slowed but not stopped. Still, international relationships will become more complicated as countries grapple with political and economic considerations that pull them in different directions. What I believe is emerging is an order of dynamic multipolarity. Shifting combinations of regional middle powers and smaller countries will continually arrange and rearrange themselves in variegated and overlapping patterns along the central axis of US China relations, sometimes tilting in one direction, sometimes tilting the other way, and sometimes going their own way, ignoring both the US and China as their interest in different domains and circumstances dictate. In other words, an order of variable geometry and constant motion rather than static structures. We will have to learn to think of concepts like ‘order’ and its corollary ‘balance’, ‘equilibrium’ and even ‘stability’ in dynamic rather than static terms. To successfully navigate this emerging system will require a fundamental shift or mind-set and approach that not every country will find comfortable. I believe that India and Singapore may find it relatively easier than most, because what is required is largely already our diplomatic modus operandi. But we will still have to ensure that our institutions and perhaps even more importantly, our politics, remains agile and courageous enough to continually adapt to this fluid emerging order without losing sight of our fundamental interests. Ladies and gentlemen, I spoken for far, far too long. I thank you for listening to me so patiently and I will now be very happy to take your questions. Thank you.

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