5 takeaways from the discussion
1. The US will face the greatest uncertainty in the November Presidential elections
2. A potential win by a Republican candidate poses great risk from a geopolitical point of view.
3. Democracies will again bring nationalist forces to power like it did a 100 years ago.
4. Those who predict the end of China’s growth story have got it wrong. The days of 8-9% growth may be over, but it will do very well if it can do 4-5% growth in the next decade.
5. 2024 is going to be a year of wars without winners.
Watch the full recording above or read a 12-minute summary below.
- Kishore Mahbubani: Seasoned diplomat, Distinguished Fellow at Asia Research Institute, NUS & Author of The Asian 21st Century
- Yasheng Huang: Leading China scholar, Professor at MIT Sloan & Author of The Rise & Fall of the EAST
- Sundeep Waslekar: Expert on Global Futures, President, Strategic Foresight Group & Author of A World Without War
- Dhruva Jaishankar: Executive Director, ORF America, foreign affairs analyst & columnist
- Anchored by Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Head of India practice at Eurasia Group & former foreign affairs editor at HT
Significance of elections in more than half the democratic world
Mahbubani: The US will face the greatest uncertainty
- The biggest irony of the 2024 US Presidential election is that the standard bearer of democracy, the US, will this year face the greatest uncertainty. The likelihood of Donald Trump refusing to accept the results is very high. That’s an ironic reversal of how the world used to be in the past.
Waslekar: Democracies will again bring nationalist forces to power like it did a 100 years ago
- South Asian election results are predictable. In Bangladesh and in India, the current government will return; in Pakistan people will vote for the military dispensation.
- The election season began worldwide in Serbia and New Zealand just at the end of last year. Even in New Zealand, the government of Christopher Luxon who is a nationalist leader, was elected after a long of centrist and left of centre parties being in power. He announced he wants to join the AUKUS and put curbs on the minorities, the Maories.
- The elections, especially for European Parliament, will see the rise of the forces that believe in nation-first, and try to assuage the threat from minorities and external forces.
- The decade of the 20s will resemble the decade of the 1920s — when Mussolini and Hitler became popular. So, democracies will again bring nationalist forces to power like it did a 100 years ago,
Huang: I worry about a potential win by Trump or a Republican candidate from a geopolitical point of view
- I worry about the US elections the most. I don’t worry about the loss of Donald Trump or any other Republican candidate. He will contest election outcomes but the American system is strong enough to deal with that challenge and this time he doesn't have the benefit of being inside the White House to deny the election results. Fundamentally, if he loses and he contests it, it won’t matter.
- I worry about a potential win by Trump or a Republican candidate from a geopolitical point of view. The Sino-US relations are finally settling down—the two sides have figured out each other. If there's a new administration we will start the whole thing again. The Republican party as an institution is extremely hawkish on China.
- The Democratic Party is forced to acknowledge they have to work with China on health, climate change and a whole host of areas. The Republican Party doesn't even acknowledge climate science. A Republican administration will unilaterally acknowledge the independence of Taiwan — that’s a huge risk.
- The Taiwanese election elected a leader that China finds problematic; and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) received a cautionary note from the Biden administration to be careful about the rhetoric. The combination of the hawkishness of a Republican administration and the pro-independence sentiment of the DPP is a huge risk factor.
Jaishankar: A Trump win could bring a 180 turnaround in policy
- A number of steps taken by the Biden administration and baked into the US legislation will have a long lasting effect — CHIPS and Science Act, Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) etc — which essentially contributed to US industrial policy.
- The macro indicators are positive, but they haven't translated to public sentiment and there has been a steady decline in Biden’s numbers.
- A Trump win could bring a 180 turnaround in policy on climate change, immigration and multilateralism, especially relations with US allies.
Other elections worth keeping an eye on:
- South Africa
- Pakistan — for what it could mean for the internal dynamics with the army.
China: Economic challenges facing Xi Jinping’s China
Mahbubani: Those who predict the end of China’s growth story should go back and read what they wrote 20-30 years ago.
- The conventional wisdom is that China’s economic growth story is over and is headed for years of slowdown.
- The Economist has been predicting this in 1990, 1996, 1998… you’ve heard all this before. In that same period China’s GNP went from $360 bln in 1990 to almost $18 tln in 2022 — an increase of 50X.
- So people who predict the end of China’s growth story should go back and read what they wrote 20-30 years ago.
- I do agree that the days of 8-9% growth for China are over. When you reach a certain degree of economic maturity, growth will slow down. China will do very well if it can do 4-5% growth in the next decade.
- It is true that business sentiment in China is bad and business people are reluctant to invest and consumers are not spending—China is in a bad patch. But there are many measures China can take to boost economic growth. Having watched what they have done, they will find pragmatic solutions.
Huang: Who is going to reverse Xi [his policies] today? He has to do it himself.
- It is important to distinguish between making a prediction on the economy and the economic policy.
- China continued to grow because they changed the policy.
- The Chinese economy was slipping into a recessionary phase because the post Tiananmen leadership adopted very conservative policies. Deng Xiaoping intervened personally to put reforms back on the political agenda.
- What is the likely economic policy direction of Xi Jinping? The uncertainty this time is more than last time. Who is going to reverse Xi today? He has to do it himself.
- If the crackdown on private sector, the outflows of FDI are now being reversed, if consumer and business confidence is now restored, we will see a continuation of economic growth.
- The issue is whether those policies are going to be reversed.
- I am hopeful because of a moderation of foreign policy (China is beginning to repair its relationship with the US and West), which is usually followed by some moderation of domestic policy. The issue is that it’s difficult for Xi to explicitly reverse the policies he has put in place.
- Growing at even 3-4% at the size of the Chinese economy is not a disaster.
China and India
Waslekar: While there are tensions on the borders there are also efforts being made to stabilise
- This whole story of the Chinese economy shrinking or not, there are snags in Chinese economic growth and investments are being diverted to India. But I don't know what the numbers are—how much is being diverted?
- While there are tensions on the borders there are also efforts being made to stabilise—there have been several rounds of military commander talks—efforts are being made to prevent conflicts from escalating
Jaishankar: China is now facing resistance from other major economies with the exception of Russia.
- The way it looks from the US, it is a series of policies over the last 5-10 years that have triggered negative responses in very diverse communities in the US. It’s not one issue; a number of issues have accumulated over time from concerns over human rights, more militaristic approach in the East China Sea, Taiwan, South China Sea…
- The business community was hoping that after Zero Covid there would be return to normal engagement with China. That sentiment has cooled.
- A variation of that is also taking place in Europe. With the EU initiating countermeasures against dumping in the electric vehicle market.
- What does this mean for China’s integration with the global economy? It is now facing resistance from other major economies with the exception of Russia.
US-China tech rivalry
Chaudhuri: Is there a recognition that certain technologies now have far reaching importance—AI, quantum computing, semiconductor chips—and for geopolitical reasons a cluster of countries (like QUAD) cannot allow themselves to be dependent on China?
Mahbubani: The biggest elephant in the room — the biggest geopolitical fact of our time — is that there is wide and deep consensus in the US that it has about 10 years to stop China from becoming No 1.
- That’s why there is remarkable bipartisan consensus to stop China. From that flows a lot of consequences. That’s why the restriction on export of chips.
- Will the US succeed in stopping China’s technological development? My educated guess is that it will fail.
- The Chinese have remarkable capabilities to catch up.
- In the cold war, the US succeeded so handsomely against the USSR because they got a majority of the countries in the developed and the developing world joining the US in the campaign to isolate the USSR.
- This time, the QUAD never says it is an anti-China alliance. And after the US went around saying cut off your links with China, about 140-150 countries have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. That’s the big picture we have to focus on.
Huang: The deterioration of relationship is not just with the US; it is with Japan, with South Korea, with Taiwan
- It is very dangerous for the US to describe the US policy as containing China. It assigns the cause for the deterioration of the relationship with China to the US. China is also responsible.
- In China there has been substantial deterioration of economic and social freedom that we have taken for granted.
- The Zero Covid controls in 2022 basically froze the business activities. The Covid management cast a deep shadow on the credibility and trust—their willingness to share information with the rest of the world.
- Look at what happened to China in the 1990s. China and Taiwan reached the famous 1992 Consensus to work out their differences. China began to adopt a negotiation approach with other Southeast Asian countries on South China Sea; began to liberalise FDI controls, and began to work to join the WTO. The famous statement by Deng Xiaoping — “Hide your strength, bide your time.” — there was a material change in Chinese foreign policy. Deng Xiaopeng clearly recognised that for the economy to continue to grow, it required a hospitable geopolitical international environment.
- Deng Xiaoping said something profound: “put aside the dispute and leave it to the next generation to resolve” — that’s the best way to deal with the Taiwan issue rather than forcing the issue on the table.
- Is China going to repeat this restoration of relationship with India? Also the deterioration of relationship is not just with the US; it is with Japan, with South Korea, with Taiwan… If the whole thing is engineered by the US, then the deterioration would be with the US alone.
- The factor is deeper and is dictated by domestic policy and a leader who believes in certain things—that political controls are more important.There will come a time when those priorities will have to be rethought.
Mahbubani: In foreign policy, domestic policies don’t matter.
- When did the US first fall in love with China? Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971 and it had just come out of the cultural revolution and that Mao was a repressive ruler didn’t matter.
- Even if China today was ruled by Mahatma Gandhi, and was in danger of overtaking the US, it’s very logical for the US to try to stop China’s development regardless of what happens inside China.
- During Mao’s era, the US’ considerations were fundamentally different. It was using China to balance against the Soviet Union.
- The whole engagement policy after Tiananmen was premised on changes within China.
- The pivot away from sanctioning was premised on domestic changes within China.
The Global South
Chaudhuri: The relative decline of the US, the rise of a large number of developing economies that are ploughing a reasonably independent furrow —
Waslekar: You have Asian countries on one side, and African and Latin American countries — with two different types of policy orientation.
- Global South is just another name for the Group of 77 — this was a bunch of very poor countries looking for aid and concessions in trade. The Global South has India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, Senegal, which are vibrant, regional growth centres. But Global South is not an organised entity.
- Most countries in Africa and Latin America are neutral in any potential US-China or US-Russia conflict. They are demonstrating this neutrality with Ukraine
- India, Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia are in a different box. They can be neutral in a US-Russia conflict, but they cannot be neutral in a potential US-China conflict. India is already a part of QUAD. Indonesia, Malaysia etc have a complicated relationship with both the US and China.
Jaishankar: In practical terms is there a common agenda? It is not geopolitical.
- These countries have shared post-colonial legacy; all have belated development. The combination of these two factors is that they are underrepresented in international institutions.
- In practical terms is there a common agenda? It is not geopolitical. But there are issues of common concerns. Like basic supply chain security for fundamental needs — energy, health, food. Covid, the Ukraine war and now the Israel-Gaza war have prevented these countries from their needs being met.
- The second is institutional reforms—despite lip service paid to Bretton Woods institutions and UN institutions, there hasn't been sufficient progress to reform. So they are now contemplating new geometries and new kinds of institutions.
- Especially on climate certain divides were baked into the Kyoto protocol and the UNFCCC process which created differentiated responsibilities for developed and developing economies, that developed economies are not living up to their commitments on those issues
- These are the common issues animating the Global South
- There is a belated realisation in the US and Europe that they have paid inadequate attention to the Global South. That has led to a shift in attention.
- Some of the limitations of what Russia and China can offer to the Global South is becoming more apparent. Example, in the BRI, over 36 countries’ heads of states went to the forum pre-Covid, but only 23 went afterwards. In parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Argentina, the Philippines, you’ve seen rapid turnarounds in their relations with China; And you've seen Maldives and Saudi Arabia building bridges with China.
Mahbubani: Some of the big global shifts include the US-China geopolitical contest and the end of the era of Western domination of world history—and it is accelerating.
- One of the big imbalances is that 12% of the world's population that lives in the West is overrepresented in the global institutions. And the 88% are underrepresented. Now power is shifting in real terms to the Global South.
- Economic weight of G7 and the BRICS in PPP: in 1990s G7 had about 50% of global GNP and BRICS had about 10%. Today BRICS is larger than G7 in PPP.
- In 2000 Japan was the second largest economy. It was 8 times the size of the 10 ASEAN economies combined. By last year it was just 1.4X bigger and by 2030 ASEAN will be bigger than Japan
- Between 2010 and 2020, the $3 tln ASEAN economies added more to global economic growth than did the $17 tln EU economies.
- Now Global South is asking for more space politically too.
- When the West imposed sanctions on Russia, 85% of the world’s population did not impose sanctions on Russia. That’s the clearest signal that the West is going in one direction and the Global South in another. What the Global South does will drive world history in the next decade.
Huang: Let’s not forget the Global North… and there’s a de-globalisation happening now which will hurt both the South and the North
- The US has roughly 25% of global GDP share. The loss of the Global North in terms of GDP share is from Japan and Europe now is not growing very fast. The EU as an entity was bigger than the US, but the US is now bigger than the EU. So let’s not write off the US. Technologies, AI, life science, stock market… the wealth creation machine of the US economy is breathtaking.
- The rise of the Global South is a significant development. Much of the rise of GDP is driven from one country — China. India is beginning to add to the power of the Global South but it is highly ambiguous in its relationship with China. I don't foresee an alliance between the two for policy and politics.
- The economy of the Global South is fundamentally more about production rather than consumption. Global North too is dominating the final consumption of Global GDP — Chinese and Hong Kong companies want to go to the US. And now they even want to come to the US to produce.
- There’s a de-globalisation happening now. It’s also about the rising protectionist sentiment in the US. The de-globalisation is driven by geopolitical tension, by protectionist sentiment that Biden’s foreign policy ought to serve the American people.
- Globalisation is the best thing that happened to the Global South, linking the production capability of the Global South to the consumption capability of the Global North. Once you cut off that link, I worry that in the next 20-30 years both the Global South and the Global North are going to pay in terms of economic growth.
The complex conflicts across the world
Waslekar: 2024 is going to be a year of wars without winners.
- As a result, there will be instability in Yemen, Ethiopia, DRC — in all these wars, there will be no wars; in Ukraine - Russia war, both will lose; in Israel - Hamas, both will lose.
- A military victory might secure territorial control of Gaza but they’ve already lost the strategic objective of an alliance with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain — that won't be possible any more.
- And there will be new wars. Serbia’s new president Aleksandar Vucic does not want to accept a peaceful relationship with Croatia and Bosnia. There might be a spark in the Balkans.
Jaishankar: I note 5 broad trends
- In the run-up to the US presidential elections in November, we will see the US consolidating its more productive partnerships — as a hedge against what happens in November — with the QUAD, Israel, NATO, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan — military, technological and economic cooperation,
- China will make gains in Latin America and in the Middle East, where the Gulf Arab states will use their relationship with China as leverage against the US
- ASEAN will become increasingly irrelevant. Politically there has not been unity on many issues especially in the South China Sea.
- We’ll continue to see tensions with Iran and many of its neighbours. This is a continuation of the longer term spillover effect of the Gaza war.
- China’s relative withdrawal from some of the soft economy globally — example the number of students and scientists in foreign institutions.
- A contest for leadership in Africa.
- North Korea has been suspiciously quiet for the last few months.
Mahbubani: ASEAN is still the sunrise organisation.
- Wars are the result of geopolitical incompetence and peace is the result of geopolitical competence.
- The war in Ukraine could have been avoided if NATO hadn’t expanded to the borders of Ukraine. The Israel-Palestine war could have been avoided if the West had made a bigger effort for the two state solution in the Middle East.
- In contrast, what people haven't realised is that from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia, which has many flashpoints, the guns have been silent for over 40 years. No major wars. That is the result of ASEAN’s leadership in building all kinds of institutions and processes that gets the countries in the region to talk to each other. Which club attracts all the big powers to sit down and talk? That's the annual ASEAN meetings.
Huang: The biggest risk factor in 2024-25 is a Republican administration in the White House.
- It will perpetuate Putin’s resolve in Ukraine because Republicans have made it clear they will not support Ukraine indefinitely. It will also embolden the retaliatory approach by Israel against Gaza. Republicans are going to encourage a scorching earth method employed by Netanyahu.
- An escalation of tensions with China
- The Republican argument for not supporting Ukraine is directly based on their view that China is Enemy No#1 and we shouldn’t divert our resources to support a country that does not matter.
- A Republican administration is more likely to withdraw the US from the rest of the world — from NATO — and that will introduce a whole bunch of instabilities across the world.
Jaishankar: Space is emerging as an area of friendly competition. We are entering a second space race.
- There are lot of dual use applications — for military and civilian purposes
- Very few countries have launch capabilities, though a dizzying array of countries now have a space programme
- Space actually has very limited real estate because of the science of orbits. There will be a growing contest in the satellite space.
- China has become a preeminent space power; the US has now 2 parallel programmes—one public and one private (SpaceX); India has carved a niche for itself as a low-cost, very competitive space launch provider.
- We saw the first conflict in space when Israel shot down the Houthi missile which was technically in space.
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