Centennial Conference of the Institute of Oriental Studies Russian Academy of Sciences Moscow – 30 October 2018. Speech by Dr. Masuma Hasan: I wish to begin by paying a tribute to the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences on the 200th anniversary of its founding – to its resilience, the remarkable academic assets it has developed over two centuries, its proud history and the excellence and dignity of its scholars. It is an honour for me to have been invited to this great event. On this occasion, I want to acknowledge the scholarship of Professor Yuri Gankovsky who headed the Centre for the Study of the Near and Middle East and also recognise the work of the present head of the Centre, Professor Vyacheslav Belokrenitsky, and his colleagues. Turning now to our subject, “The East in World Politics – the New Power”, as we have seen in recent years, the new power in the East is the tilt towards Asia.
In terms of sheer numbers, two-thirds of the world’s population or more than 5 billion people will reside in Asia by 2050 but population is declining in North America and Europe. Some analysts believe that Asia might produce half the world’s GDP by 2050 with an expansion of human capital and production. It is dominated by the strategic interests of two great powers, China and Russia, and the pitch for regional and global status by India. Today, if the East is seen as a new power in world politics, it is undoubtedly mainly due to China’s phenomenal rise and its economic and global aspirations but also because of Russia’s assertive role in global politics and “turn East” policy. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is reflected in its six economic corridors along two routes: the New Silk Road Economic Belt running west through Russia and Central Asia and the 21st Century Maritime Road to reach Europe through South Asia and South-west Asia. One of these corridors, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar in Pakistan and has been described as a game changer for Pakistan’s economy.
Coupled with that is the sheer size of China’s population, its production surplus and the human resources available to it. And the String of Pearls network of Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean Region to keep its energy routes open and protect its energy interests, providing military bases, commercial facilities and connectivity. It is an amazing project and China is courted by the West as a strategic partner. China has complemented its global infrastructure outreach by establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, now with 77 countries, which has been joined by most of the important countries of the West against US pressure.
Russia, which straddles two continents, also looks towards the East. It enjoys extensive economic cooperation with China and they have joint positions on many global issues. Like China, it has engaged in creating alternatives to western financial institutions, for instance the New Development Bank which focuses on lending to infrastructure projects, initially to secure the five Brics nations. Russia’s new foreign policy concept, announced in December 2017, speaks of a strategic and civilisational turn to the East. The Eurasian Economic Union, started in 2014, is an ambitious regional integration initiative. The region is an energy power-house. It produces 21 per cent of the world’s gas, 14.6 per cent of its oil and gas condensate and 9 per cent of electricity energy.
The other country, inhabited by more than one billion people is India which western countries reach out to as a strategic partner in view of its growing economy and technological achievements.
What comes to mind, strengthening this pillar, are Asia’s regional alliances. Asean, established to promote economic growth, social progress and cultural development, through its many institutions, such as its dialogue partners, Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit spreads over a large part of Asia. (It has non-Asian members also). More specifically, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which has been described as the “alliance of the East,” one of the world’s strongest alliances set up in this century (2001) to consolidate multi-disciplinary cooperation in maintaining and strengthening peace, security and stability in the region and counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations, and cooperation on a host of social issues. It is really a Eurasian alliance, the largest regional alliance in the world, covering nearly half of the world’s population. It has dialogue partners and observer states and many states waiting for membership and it is a major partner of Asean.
Paradoxically, the new power in the East is accompanied by the decline in political and security institutional arrangements in the West, the identity crisis in the European Union, the wave of populism, the Eurozone crisis and Brexit.
We can ask the question: How does the new power in the East stand with reference to the West in world politics? The entire East does not present a unified pole of power, at least for the present. Asia is home to many long-standing disputes: Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan which are issues with which my country is grappling, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the disputes in the South China Sea.
It is said that there is no alliance like Nato or the EU to bind Asian nations together. China and India are competitors for power although they reach out to each other. If China has its OBOR policy, Narendra Mody has his Act Asia policy. Indian analysts point out, however, that India will be encircled by China’s String of Pearls network and they are apprehensive of Chinese naval bases in the Indian Ocean, one reason why India opposes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Also, for the foreseeable future, in as much as military superiority is important, the West will retain superiority because of its sheer scientific and technological advancement. All the major exporters of weapons are based in the West: the US, Russia, France, Germany, the UK and Israel which can be considered politically part of the West. According to SIPRI, between 2013-17, the US sold weapons to 98 countries and President Trump has struck this deal with Saudi Arabia for the sale of 110 billion dollars worth of weapons which he has described as the largest sale of weapons in the history of the world. The largest US client is Saudi Arabia. In fact, India and Saudi Arabia are the largest importers of weapons in the world, hence their dependence on the West. Also, in nuclear terms, the balance of power will remain with the West where the US and Russia host the largest number of nuclear warheads.
The 21st century has been called the Asian century. The power relations between the East and West are a part of the agenda of this meeting. In the aspirational words of the SCO Charter, I hope that they can jointly search for solutions to the problems arising in the 21st century.