The American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn introduced the all- important concept of 'paradigm shift' in his influential tome 'The Structure of Scientific Revolution' which he wrote in 1962. He argued that all scientific work is conducted within a prevailing intellectual or mental framework, in other words, a 'paradigm'. But this dominant paradigm alters or shifts when new phenomena or evidence present themselves, with which the old framework is incompatible. This triggers a 'paradigm shift' in scientific inquiry and the new theory provides a fresh framework for human activity. Kuhn actually sought to confine the use of 'paradigm shift', which soon entered the lexicon of many languages, to the natural sciences. But social scientists began to see great value in the concept in enabling the understanding of profound changes in the socio-political behaviour- patterns of human beings and societal entities, including of States, due to their exposure to new stimulii.
Following World War 11, the winning allies, spearheaded by the United states, sought to create an international system, putting in place the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions as watchdogs of the emerging new order. But before a consensual new order actually emerged, the global ideological divide between the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union (USSR) and the capitalist camp led by the US entered into a vicious cold war. While at the central level of the US and the USSR, a war was avoided, there were numerous proxy -wars around the globe to determine spheres of influence of the two lead-players. Inspired by the diplomat George F Kennan the US took to a policy of 'containment' of the Soviet Union, which was a compromise between 'détente' and 'roll -back'. Henry Kissinger brought it to fruition by delinking China from the Soviet Union, facilitating the ultimate implosion that ended the USSR from within. The US was now the sole superpower, brooking no opposition as the 'offensive-realist' scholar John Mearscheimer would have us believe, and sought to dominate each region of the globe, creating the dominant paradigm of US preponderance.
The regions included South-East Asia and the Far east. There were at least four elements to the US superpower hegemony. The first was strategic security. Even during the cold war, the US had bound together the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan (East Pakistan was geographically seen as being linked to South East Asia) in their defence pact called the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). There were also close security links with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. There were US bases spread throughout the region. The US Navy was forward -deployed to protect US installations including in Diego Garcia Guam and Hawaii, among others. Eventually the Pacific Fleet was renamed Indo-Pacific fleet, and the Indo-Pacific region (rather than Asia pacific region), a nomenclature which gave non-formal recentallies like India some comfort, though the narrative lacked substantive new content.
The second was economic. A free trade, free-economic, 'flat world' (in Thomas Friedman's term) was considered good for the region, the world, and America. Indeed, the countries of the region, first Japan, thereafter the Asian tigers and the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) took advantage of the facilities to produce an economic miracle that became the envy of the rest of the world. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew saw the American power as 'benign', unlike the previous imperialists like Britain, and wisely shepherded his own country from third world to first world status, without upsetting any key protagonist.
Third was shared 'western ideals' such as 'democracy' and 'pluralism which showed these countries as distinct from the Communist models of the Soviet Union , China and North Korea, albeit tempered with so-called 'Asian values' and a modicum of discipline inspired by Confucianism . This tied in nicely with the Protestant ethos- helping create empathetic supporters in the West. Even Vietnam, having discomfited America militarily, saw value in the US led global system.
In the last couple of decades, a combination of factors, including superpower hubris, drove the US into several entanglements that wore out and exhausted the Americans. These created a sense of yearning among them for isolationist predilections and a desire to withdraw into 'Fortress America'. It brought into power as their President, Donald Trump, a person vision and a narrow nativist, who threw strategic notions to the winds. He aimed to make America great again by putting its perceived national self -interest first. Serious rifts with allies in Europe and elsewhere, even in Asia, ensued. Simultaneously, China by using the very institutions the US had helped create, was rising economically and militarily. Initially, driven by more idealistic globalization values the US supported the process. But then sensing a rising peer which could queer the pitch for US 'unipolarism', the populist Trump turned against China. He accused China of playing the global trading system to the detriment of the US, spreading the Covid-19 coronavirus, and aggressively pushing its political agenda in the rest of the world. With four months ago before the elections, and his prospects dimming for reasons domestic and foreign, Trump decided to stand up to China. China had on-going differences with some countries in the region, particularly with regard to the South China Sea claims. The US seized the opportunity to wade in.
A tough US verbal action came last week, on the fourth anniversary of an arbitral ruling of a tribunal constituted under the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in a case brought before it by the Philippines. The tribunal had held that China's historic claims to resources in almost the entire south china Sea were invalid. In that recent statement the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that China's claims were "completely unlawful'. He added: "We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and reject any push to impose 'might makes right' in the South china Sea and the wider region". In addition, two aircraft carriers were also sent out by the US to near where China was conducting naval exercises near the Paracel islands. The idea obviously was to rally the regional countries into some kind of a grouping aimed against China.
The problem was that by now there had been a shift in the dominant paradigm that the US under the leadership of Trump was a benign force, continuing to support rule of law and oppose the principle that 'might makes right'. The leaders of this Asian region, whose sagacity had led their countries to a high level of prosperity, were not entirely persuaded. Pompeo's remarks had credibility gaps, having been made close to elections where the Trump administration's prospects were flailing. While the official positions of the South east Asian leaders were fully in line with Pompeo's statement, they were understandably chary of rocking the vote as a favour to the current US Administration, which had been portrayed as utterly dysfunctional and chaotic by a former insider, John Bolton. Moreover, China had forcefully rejected the remarks urging the US, which itself was not a member of UNCLOS, to "stop its attempts to disrupt and sabotage regional peace and stability".
A paradigm-shift had occurred in the perception of the South East Asian countries and their leaders of the motivation behind the posture adopted by the current US Administration. They were not able to discern signs of a genuine and strategic leadership role on the part of America in this. While the South East Asian leaders agreed with the contents of the Pompeo statement, indeed only last month in an ASEAN Summit they had themselves reaffirmed that position , they were aware that Washington was not just providing a 'public good' but seeking their cooperation to ratchet up the issue with Beijing in line with Trump's current bilateral posture vis-a-vis. Also, Trump might change this posture at any time of his choosing, as he had done on many similar occasions before, say, after the polls, should he win. Should he lose, the posture would surely be reviewed by his opponents in that extremely divisive American milieu.
At this time the regional countries did not perceive it in their interest to pick a fight with China. The response of the region to the American urgings therefore erred more on the side of restraint than in on any effusive show of support. Harry Roque , spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines , the country which actually had taken China to the tribunal in the first place , said, demurely : "This is not the sum-total of our (China-Philippines) relations...We will just have to agree to disagree". Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said there had been no Chinese naval vessels in the Malaysian waters over the last 100 days. The point is there was no great enthusiasm among them for giving battle to China right now, though they were not particularly averse to a bit of pressure on China.
Just over two decades ago a British analyst Martin Jacques wrote a book called "When China Rules the World". In his broad view, for over 200 years, modernization was synonymous with westernization. China's continuing rise is challenging that notion. China is not western, and it will never be so. Unlike the western 'Nation- State' it is a unique entity, more aptly described as a 'Civilization-State'. Its growing influence is not likely to follow the western linear model of military power-projection. What it will seek to demonstrate through mega-projects ( like the 'Road and Belt Initiative', which came after the first edition of Jacques' book, to which there have been add-ons) is a culture of economic prosperity through global mutual interdependence, which would be, to cite an oft-quoted Chinese expression, 'win-win' for all. China is closer to the developing world in its experience and likely to find more sympathetic resonance there. In the contemporary world then there will be a 'contested modernity' that China will proffer, vis-a -vis the western model. Today, twenty years later, Jacques' ideas find even greater resonance than it did then, because the alternative model is seen to have given the developing world greater prosperity than decades of western aid! Africa is a case in point. Of course, there is criticism of the Chinese thrust, calling it a 'debt-trap'. But so had there been of the western aid -regimes, if one recalls the Latin American writers 'Structural Dependencia School', or the Franco-American activist Susan George's "How the Other half Dies", or the German Birgitta Erler's "Todlische Hilfe" (Deadly Aid)!
I am tempted to conclude this essay, and I will indeed yield to my temptation, by asking a question rather than offering a conclusion myself. Is it possible that there may be a time when in international relations there will cease to be any single dominant paradigm, but instead there will be a set of multiple co-existing paradigms. Already the US unipolarity is ending and with it the notion, and the fact, of western domination. China's rise reflects a new kind of emerging power, of one that does not see itself as a model for others , one that is not evangelical , unlike the west in its era of global domination, and one that does not even wish to export its own ideology, 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. Perhaps Europe will emerge as another focal point, increasingly disenchanted with American hubris and the poor quality of its leadership. A new type of global social contract may require to be crafted to accommodate the new norms and mores of multiple paradigms. The challenge for the global leadership will be to fashion it in a way so as to bring stability and prosperity to the comity of nations, and reduce the potentials of outright totallydisastrous conflict.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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