Buddha vs Confucius

The year 2011 marks two decades since the end of the Cold War and a decade since 9/11 Twin Tower attack and the UN Millennium Summit’s developmental goals. The Chinese Communist Party also turns 90. F. Fukuyama’s pronouncement that the Soviet Union’s disintegration ended history and was the triumph of Western values was

erroneous as seeds of future contestation were already sown. The twin contemporary challenges are: radical Islam and China’s rise. The first was armed and financed by the United States, in league with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan and the latter unshackled by the Mao-Nixon rapprochement in 1972.
On terror there was some success against Al Qaeda in Iraq, due to convergence of interests between the Sunni tribes and Iran. This allowed orderly US withdrawal from a war that candidate Obama called one of choice and not necessity. In the latter category comes Afghanistan where, despite troop surge reviewed two weeks ago, a Pakistan reluctant to act against those it views as its present or future assets i.e. Taliban, Haqqanis and associates, is delaying action hoping that a fatigued US quits. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has replanted in Yemen, Somalia etc. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s pronouncements in New Delhi on terror were carefully wrapped in the UN Security Council mumbo-jumbo. Half-a-billion US dollars of grants and deals worth $14 billion announced in Pakistan would weaken US leverage, entrench Chinese interests and embolden Pakistan.
The real challenge is China’s rise with its gross domestic product (GDP) projected to overtake the US’ in the next 10-15 years. In any calculation till 2050, India is placed third. The US has calculated that engagement alone is not working, containment is impractical and, thus, there is need to hedge. Admiral M. Mullen, commenting on Chinese military capacity building in June 2010, said that “I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned”. It was thus not a coincidence that US President Barack Obama’s India visit was clubbed with that to three other Asian democracies — Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.
The current international economic, trading and security order is the one devised after the World War II when the US had emerged as the hegemon, replacing Great Britain by about 1918. The transfer was orderly as it was between powers sharing values, culture and a language. At the Tehran Summit in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stayed with Stalin, to the consternation of Winston Churchill. It signalled to Soviets the new pecking order. Recent Chinese assertiveness has raised questions about their future behaviour.
Chinese conduct so far has been paradoxical. They have subscribed to the letter of various trade and non-proliferation regimes, though breaching often their spirit. They reject neo-liberal ideas, the latest demonstration being their massive protest over the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. Despite World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership, they subsidise exports and maintain an undervalued currency. On Iran and North Korea they dilute UN Security Council sanctions and then merrily engage both. They render similar help to Sudan and Zimbabwe, unmindful of genocide or rigged elections. Whether this tendency to defend outliers and sit amongst the rule makers will be accentuated with its rise or moderated is moot.
This jostling between the entrenched and the rising powers will determine the global debate on a panoply of issues, which inter alia are: climate change; reform of global institutions like the UN or International Monetary Fund; effectiveness and evolution of new structures like the Group of Twenty; consensus on the right to protect against genocide, promotion of human rights etc; counter terrorism, human trafficking and piracy; nuclear disarmament and global zero; protection of global commons like the oceans, cyber and outer space; ensuring equitable access to minerals, metals and water etc.
As economic power is redistributed, the world will become polycentric with greater balance between Americas, Europe and Asia, and concomitantly new inter-dependence. The inequalities of the mid-19th to 20th century will start paling. Trading, political and security structures must adapt or be marginalised. Rising powers will want rapid adjustment of structures; status quo powers shall resist.
The face-off is between Western neo-liberalism and the emerging Confucian-Socialist Chinese model preferring stability to individual rights and economic success to democracy. The land of Buddha, Mahavira and the Upanishads as indeed Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and B.R Ambedkar, must shape this debate. The solution lies neither in US senator John McCain’s league of democracies proposal which will create new divisions, nor can it be in accepting the cynical Chinese model. In a multi-polar world the new narrative can come from the swing powers — EU and India, combining the wisdom of the East and the West. Tang dynasty Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang in the seventh century, visiting Nalanda when told not to return to his barbaric homeland, as Buddha had chosen not to be born there, replied that Buddha would not forget those not yet enlightened. Historically, rising powers when confronting the entrenched powers have caused conflict. Can Buddha trump Confucius and wisdom prevail? The next decade shall tell.

The author is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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