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Sat. January 28, 2023
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Shifts in Global Power: From West to China
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The only constant in the universe is change. Political scientists and historians venture that the evolution of power in a cyclical manner leads to changing order at the national, intra-national, and international levels. History has witnessed a reshuffle of power between states and regions; fragmenting few and empowering others. Such demoting and promoting patterns not only influence inter-state relations but international power structure. The international strategic-political climate beheld uni-polarity, bi-polarity, and multi-polarity over different periods. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a uni-polar world with the United States as the dominant player. But recent trends have started reshaping this power structure due to the emergence of new power centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Yet geo-strategically, this change is led by Asian nations.

In addition to the power reshuffle, the 21st century is witnessing power diffusion from state to non-state actors. History flows in its course. Asia has been advanced and the richest region for centuries in terms of culture, religion, resources, economy, and technology. However, in the past three centuries, it laid back while the west progressed at an incredible rate. Asia had half of the world's population and half of the world's products in the 17th century. In the 18th century, despite having more than half of the world's population, it owned only 20% of material products. Recent indicators suggest Asia is catching up with proportional growth with half of the world population and products at some point in this century.  The rapid growth of the middle class, swift economic growth, daunting ecological constraints, and demographic changes in countries like Pakistan, India, and China would have gradual yet long-term implications for the region. Modernization and gradual reformation have enabled Asians to compete and even challenge the West in socio-cultural, political, economic, and military affairs.

The declining power of the US has been a hot topic since 2007. A major power player in the Asian region is China, which is emerging as a united, assertive, and strong yet peaceful nation in the world. The dawn of the 21st century observed China's growth in technology, the economy, and the military. Over the last three decades, the size of the Chinese economy has doubled every eight years as it became the manufacturing hub for most of the products used following economies of scale. It flaunts the world's largest banking assets, and leadership in digital innovation, e-commerce, and tech. 

China is expanding its soft power over the years through its diplomacy. It is the largest trading partner of nearly all Asian countries. In 2013, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (One Belt One Road, BRI) as a massive infrastructure strategy to enhance regional connectivity and economic integration through roads, buildings, railways, trade, and investment not only with its neighbors but trading partners in Africa and Europe as well. Funded by the Chinese Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and specific funds, BRI is a huge infrastructure project that would not only facilitate trade but decrease the dependence of participating economies on Europe and the United States. With 140 trading partners in BRI from Asia, Europe, Oceania, and Africa, China is positioning itself as the leader of the new world order and a champion of globalization.  Yet it can pose a risk for China when economies of lending contracts face a crisis.

Apart from an economic perspective, China is enhancing its global stand by pushing its allies and partners in United Nations Security Council and United Nations General Assembly. This stand is accompanied by a media strategy to shape the image of China and Chinese values in people throughout the world. Military, political, and economic reforms aimed at realizing vast potential have encouraged China to take leadership in regional and international domains.

The Chinese leadership has aligned soft power with hard power.  An example of this is the opening of Chinese military bases globally in Djibouti in 2017 and Equatorial Guinea in 2021. Currently, it has the largest standing Army with an estimated 2 million active soldiers. The second largest naval fleet in the Pacific region is flexed by China. Through its soft and hard power, China is trying to create major influence in the Indo-Pacific region.  All these advancements can lead to a transition in global power dynamics. Since 2013, the Chinese leadership has exhibited remarkable diplomatic potential to manage relations with its neighbors (e.g., Japan, Russia, Pakistan, and India).

Despite its huge growth potential China is not the only major player in Asia. Russia's advancements in Ukraine manifest its assertive nature in the global arena. Though China and Russia are not formal allies, they have a shared desire to challenge US hegemony and curb its power. Last century notarized two liberal international orders; Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. But the rising power of China and the assertive nature of Russia are leading to power fragmentation. This power fragmentation can hatch new opportunities and challenges for regional countries like Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Bangladesh. It is proposed for these countries maintain a balanced approach in their foreign policy because inclining towards a single side could pose serious threats and a loss of opportunities. 

Mishal Ashraf is a student of Government and Public Policy at National Defence University Pakistan. 

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