Current Affairs

The World Order: an unbalanced Triad

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    18th Dec, 2020


With COVID-19, the most common phrase in geopolitics is the “new world order”. This phrase is used to describe periods of history with dramatic change in balance of power between nation-states.

The world is undergoing a momentous political, economic and social transformation and this is leading to major shifts in inter-state relations. The centre of gravity of the global economy is shifting from the trans-Atlantic to the trans-Pacific and in its wake existing security arrangements and alignments among states are also undergoing a change. The emergence of China as a front ranking power is one aspect of this transition, but Asia is now home to a cluster of major powers deploying significant economic and military capabilities. The trend towards multipolarity in Asia appears to be irreversible but this diffusion of power requires an appropriate economic and security architecture. What role can emerging powers like India play in shaping the Asian order? This is one challenge. 

We are in the midst of a major turmoil among the world powers. On one hand, States shaping the global order today are less Western, have fewer common interests, and are more diverse. On the other, the older order dominated by USA is still strong and fighting hard to keep itself at the top of global hierarchy of power.

This struggle in the global hierarchy of power often results in competition and conflicts. This plays out in both established international institutions such as the World Bank, emerging strategic spaces such as the Indo-Pacific, and new institutional ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative.

The world is facing a future with competition and rivalry between the great powers. The three major players involved in this struggle are:

  • USA
  • China
  • Russia (erstwhile USSR)

They form the so called “Triad”. The power distribution in this triad, however, is unbalanced. US is more powerful compared to China and Russia. This can be proven by the fact that Russia and China have been reactive powers to the US.

The US prioritizes the ‘America First’ policy, China is a rising power and Russia challenges the American position in the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Why the United States is the ‘only’ Superpower?

The Economic power of US:

  • Technologically forward: It is the strongest capitalist country in the world not just militarily but technologically. Given its unmatched military research and development and university research structures, it is ahead in most hi-tech frontier areas.
  • Strong currency: The US dollar will remain the most important international currency whatever advances the Yuan or Euro may make.
  • Talent pool: It is regularly nurtured by the immigration of the young and talented.
  • Safe and favourable living conditions: It is the safest capitalist country in the world. Where do most people want to park at least some of their money to ensure its enduring safety? Would it be in China or Russia or in Wall Street & the US?

The political system:

  • Strong and transparent polity: USA is a politically unified country with no internal political or territorial challenges of any kind contrasting with Russia (Crimea and Chechnya) or China (Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan).
  • Diffused socio-political struggles: Moreover, the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China are much more vulnerable to internal socio-political struggles. E.g. Hong Kong protests in China, anti-Putin protests in Russia.
  • Whereas in the US, it’s more democratic and federal structure creates multiple nodes of authority which diffuse socio-political struggles.

The Cultural influence:

  • Strong influence: USA is perhaps the most influential in the modern forms of mass culture—music, dance, films, TV shows, sports, internet freedom and social media platforms (Zoom, Facebook, WhatsApp are all headquartered in the US).
  • This shapes the values and aspirations of people all over the world.
  • Future promise of modernity: Chinese, Russian, Indian, European exceptionalism belongs to the past. American exceptionalism expresses a future “promise of modernity.” This makes its special character both unique and imitable.

All of these factors give the US a cultural and emotional magnetism of sorts which other countries aspire.

Where does Russia stand in the dynamics?

  • Capacity to disrupt global order: Although China presents the greatest threat to the US-led rules-based order, Russia retains the capacity to disrupt the global order.
  • Russia’s influence in Europe is still strong.
  • It is also raising stakes in the middle east by supporting Syria and Iran.
  • Finally, NATO is facing weakened military readiness, as the Alliance has halted military exercises due to Covid. Russia could take advantage of this situation and use a military adventure during this time of crisis to create some distraction for its citizens.
  • However, Russia is facing several challenges:
  • Pressurized economy: The economy is under pressure due to declining living standards and a weakened currency.
  • External pressure: US continues to exert political and military pressure on its western flank, having extended NATO into Eastern Europe, the Baltic Republics and into the Balkans.
  • Moreover, USA is deepening its ties with Ukraine and making inroads to Central Asia.
  • Because of these weaknesses of Russia, US-China dynamics becomes the major focal point in the triad.

The dynamics between the eagle and dragon

The main aspect of this triad is the so called “New Cold War” between USA and China.

What is the New Cold war?

  • US-China relations have been rocky since 2018 when the two sides started a tariff war and the US began to restrict the export of semiconductors to China. And then came Covid-19 and as the situation in the US deteriorated, rhetoric against China began to rise.
  • Later UN Secretary General Mr. Guterres used the term “New Cold War” to explain the dangers of this rivalry.
  • To get better understanding of this New Cold War we must understand the Old Cold War first.

The Old Cold War?

  • It was ideological in nature which manifested itself into economic and geopolitical tensions across the globe.
  • The world was divided into two blocs: Capitalist and Communist.
  • The bipolar bloc confrontation also included various nationalist rivalries within the Communist bloc—Asia (Sino–Soviet), Indochina (China–Vietnam–Kampuchea), Balkans (Moscow–Belgrade).
  • US was also engaged in several proxy wars against national freedom movements of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in the Third World. The other side of these proxy wars got support from the USSR & China.
  • US also supported the dictatorial regimes fighting against progressive or socialist-led struggles internally. E.g. Iran.
  • US starteda military alliance named the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to contain USSR’s expansion in the Eastern Europe.
  • There was no serious capitalist rival of US. It ensured thatthe old powers—like British, French, Spanish or Portuguese—were subordinate to its own global ambitions.
  • Thus, the old Cold War was a systemic rivalry between two incompatible ideological blocs. Their different views on socio-economic production system manifested into conflicts in the geopolitical realm.

The Ideological difference

  • The political and economic systems of the capitalist USA and communist USSR were incompatible.
  • In a capitalist state, the economy is largely free from state control, while the government is democratically elected and freedom of speech is also present.
  • In contrast, a communist state is administered from the centre, with control of the economy and society strictly in the hands of the Communist Party-led government.
  • Both sides wanted countries to conform to their adopted ideologies for their own gains.

How new cold war is different from the original cold war?

  • While the ‘new Cold War’ is a useful term to understand the emerging rivalry, one thing needs to be cleared that it’s not a repeat of the past.
  • It is not an ideological contest. Economically speaking both US and China are capitalist nations. China hosts a great number of American industries, it owns a substantial portion of its debt, and in turn, the US hosts hundreds of thousands of Chinese students.
  • Neither is there any military alliances (like NATO & Warsaw Pact) stacked against each other on a global scale.
  • In terms of military power, however, the US is way ahead of China which does not have the kind of alliance system the US has. China does have substantial military capability, one which is growing, but it is essentially one that has application on its borders only.
  • Yet, the American military contest with China will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.

In this changing world order, US-China-Russia rivalry will have much wider implications rather than remaining confined to their bilateral realms. From Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea to the global economic and political effects of new technologies, the global order may be at a tipping point.

Assessing the Impacts of new world order

Indo-Pacific region (IPR)

IPR is going to be the key battle ground in this century just like the Europe was the key battle ground in the 20th century. The three countries are establishing a stronger military presence in the IPR.

  • US approach: The US remains the prime mover of the ongoing arms race with both Russia and China.
    • The US has reinforced its military presence in the “first island chain” stretching from South Korea through Japan down to Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines.
    • It has positioned armed missiles in the region that can devastate the coastal regions of China which are also its primary industrial centres.
    • The US pursues all of these effortsthrough NATO and its Asia–Pacific security arrangements of various kinds. Examples being the US–South Korea and US–Japan tie-up, Obama’s Pivot to Asia and more recently the Quad, whose principal three nodes for the US are India, Japan and Australia.
  • China’s approach: China is accruing more and more economic and military strength to better balance the US and perhaps even outwit it through the BRI creating mutually beneficial trade, production and investment ties with European countries.
    • But this approach does nothing to weaken the US presence in East Asia and the Pacific nor does it lessen South East Asian concerns about a rising China.
    • Its South East Asian neighbours do not fear land invasions nor military attacks from China because their economies are more deeply tied into China than with the West or US. But because of the unevenness of size and power between China and themselves they are ready to have the nearby presence of the US to serve as a counterweight.
  • Russia’s approach: Its interests in the region are based on the Russian Far East’s proximity to China, Japan, and the two Koreas; its political history with these countries; and its perception of these East Asian countries as ‘gateways’ to greater economic and political ties with Southeast Asia.
    • Because of these reasons India and the Indian Ocean are necessary to Moscow’s pivot to the east.
    • Russia, however, has also repeatedly pointed out that the concept of the IPRis flawed as it erodes ASEAN’s centrality in favour of extra-regional actors engaged in great power competition. This results in Russia getting cosy with China.

Global institutions

Global institutions play an important role in the rules-based order by providing organized forums for states to assemble on matters of global concern and to enforce the order’s rules. The global institutions are in serious disarray:

  • Destruction of multilateral agreements: President Donald Trump's America First foreign policy resulted in destruction of several multilateral agreements from the Paris Climate accord to the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Funding means taking more powers: China on the other hand is positioning itself as the new supporter of the United Nations.But growing Chinese influence comes at a price, and if Beijing is devoting more money to fund UN agencies like the World Health Organization then it will want more say as a result.
  • Countering countries through economic expansion: China is also pursuing its effort to economically counter the US and widen its sphere of economic &political influence through its Belt Road Initiative (BRI), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asia Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB).
    • Russia is cooperating with China in all of the above endeavours.

Therefore, the institutions governing the global order are weakening by the day, crippled under the weight of their internal contradictions and growing conflicts within the triad.

Other major impacts

  • Militarisation and nuclearisation of outer space.
  • Competition over resources leading ecological destruction.
  • Persistent mass poverty and the rising inequality.
  • Steady corrosion of democratic forms of governance.
  • The likelihood of a nuclear breakout, particularly in Asia.
  • Emergence of populism and the rise of parochial economic nationalism.

Opportunity for India

  • For a country like India that aims to be a rule shaper of this world this century is an inflection point.
  • This is a moment of great opportunity and risk for India. One of the important features of the current situation is a desire of the world to break some key technology links with China.
  • Corporations and businesses are looking for alternatives amid rising protests against China. By virtue of its size and political design, India is a great alternative.
  • However, India needs to constantly upgrade its human resource and business environment to attract those corporations and businesses.

What makes India to become a leading role in the new order?

India might have a lot going for it:

  • a consumption-driven economy with a large domestic market
  • relatively faster growth
  • young demographics
  • abundant labour supply at reasonable cost
  • proximity to rest of Asia

However, it needs much more than that to become a serious investment destination.

Challenges for India

  • Strong competition: Attracting investments in manufacturing could be one of the pillars on which India’s recovery from fiscal 2022 could be scripted. But this is not an opportunity without competition. Peers like Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Philippines are already there, perhaps doing better than India.
  • US being unreliable partner: While US is keen to see India play a vital role in the Indo-Pacific region, Washington is not a bit concerned about addressing India’s security threats emanating from Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, the continued insecurity in Afghanistan and the conflict between the US and Iran, among other issues. 
  • China’s threat: China is a powerful and belligerent neighbour with whom India shares a massive land border. Moreover, China’s economic and growing maritime power makes it a player in South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. Therefore, in this ‘New Cold War, India is a frontline state and all the dangers associated with it. E.g. the recent LAC violence.
  • Balancing the relations: US on one hand and Russia on the other.
  • Russia-China alliance: The challenge for India is becoming even more critical as Russia is shifting its loyalties to China.
  • As Russia is re-evaluating its foreign policy priorities through the prism of its growing bitterness with the West, Indian defence and strategic ties with Russia is coming under a cloud.

Multipolar approach which involves building coalitions with ‘middle powers’ like Japan, Australia and the EU should be the way ahead. At the same time, platforms like the RIC and BRICS should be used to diffuse tensions and build partnerships with both China and Russia.

What further measures are required?

  • Stable governance: For peace and stability, the world is in desperate need of stable and able global governance.
  • Security regimes: The world also needs confidence building measures (CBMs), arms control, security treaties, trading regimes and overall more cooperation than conflicts. This was the very first lesson of the old Cold War.
  • Flexibility: The triad needs to show some flexibility:
    • For the US this would mean agreeing to normalise relations with North Korea and having a peace treaty with it without demanding that this be preceded by full denuclearisation of North Korea.
    • China on its part should accept ASEAN’s long-standing offer to move towards a code of conduct to govern maritime behaviour in the South China Sea. If this happens, it would ease the way towards other steps, such as joint agreements to mine the resources of the seas but within limits respecting the need for ecological sustainability.
    • For Russia this would mean developing more cooperative attitude in the Arctic region and less meddling in the European politics.
  • Reforming global institutions: Along with above steps, there is a need to reform global institutions like United Nations and the World Bank. Their functioning needs to reflect the realities of today’s world i.e. give more voice to African and Asian nations. Such reforms would make the global institutions more robust and hence better deal with fallout of new rivalries like the triad.


The world is in an entirely new era, where the old rules and blocs that governed the world order have gone. The challenge now is to come up with a new world order with new rules of the game. The unbalanced triad shows that the new world order may not be governed by multilateral regimes. There may be plurilateral alliances aimed at providing both security and economic benefits to the world. COVID has showed us that there is a need to build in redundancy into the system so that it doesn’t come apart the way it nearly did in March this year.


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