Navigating Polycentricism, Lessons for the US and China

International politics for long has oscillated about US-China relations, with other nations being on the backseat adjusting their geopolitical moves anticipating the trajectory these two superpowers will take. The three decades of unipolarity were finally over, with China rising in power only to establish bipolarity at the end to the world’s dismay. The same bipolarity that has characterized the global trends for ages seems to be peripheralizing, with other nations coming to the fore riding on the back of their collusion, helping the world transition to be polycentric with multiple theaters of power, which seems to be dampening the expansionist ambitions of both the superpowers.

A case in point could be India, which slowly and steadily took over the role of being a swing state, now having a much greater say and geopolitical weight to it. The policy of non-alignment, which serves as the underbelly of India’s foreign policy, explains why India hasn’t aligned itself with any big powers and has always sat on the fence. Nation’s presidency at the G20 meet last year bears testimony to the fact that the nation for sure is on the path of being a representative of the global south, which for long has been struggling to put up a strong face in front of the bipolar powers. The task of having a joint communiqué released by the countries divided on the ideological spectrum which in itself was a commendable job, shows India has gained the currency actively factored in by the US.

President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is yet another fresh geopolitical development in the realm, directly translating to Russia cozying up to North Korea with both of them greenlighting a treaty on helping each other militarily in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter in the face of adversities. Both nations are at odds with the US so there’s a possibility now that the US will have to reckon with this factor too while pursuing its foreign policy; the same will have its bearing upon even China for that matter. In the current situation, Russia is largely sanctioned by the West; thus, the development could be seen as an attempt to establish another theater of power with prominent anti-Western agendas.

These are not isolated incidents we’ve seen over the years, the world has been in a state of flux with sudden bursts of change, and groupings and alliances are what underscore the day and age today with every nation putting on a higher pedestal their very own interests with no ambition to be subservient to anyone, unlike earlier times of following in the footsteps of superpowers. Interventional diplomacy has become commonplace but still, the desire to be the leader of the world is held strong by the US seen from the nation’s recent activities, establishing AUKUS, I2U2, knitting Japan and South Korea together, and Indo-Pacific Economic framework to name a few are some initiatives undertaken to make its presence stronger at the global stage in response to which even China too is not shying away from showing that it’s no less. Reports bring to light the area denial capabilities the Chinese government has developed in the South China Sea, making the entire region another geopolitical theater. Its string and pearl policy, BRI, and debt diplomacy are some of the major plans the Chinese government relies on being the middle kingdom.

Power, as it seems, is highly segregated and is constantly changing hands, moving around in concentric circles. There are numerous groupings and institutions that have emerged to call into question this conventional norm of being mute spectators on the global stage, letting the same be defined by the US and China. It is high time that these two take note of this fact. The US, as is apparent, is no longer the only player in international dynamics determining the rules-based world order; how much ever it tries, the once-held position is difficult to arrive at, thus learning to sustain itself in the present of today and the future of tomorrow is what’s expedient. China too will have to rejig its approach as the multiplicity of actors is determining power dynamics, thus the same old desire, just like the US, China will have to give up on. 

This theaterization of power warrants each nation to respect and value each other, keeping this aligned with their own interests; otherwise, survival in this polycentric world with multiple actors is tough, as crises and contestations would be difficult to avoid destabilizing the entire international political spectrum, thus learning to get along with all is the way to go.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India, via Wikimedia Commons]

Harsh Kadara is a recent graduate in economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, with interests in the field of international relations, economic diplomacy and policy making. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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