The new bipolarity in Asia

The dichotomy in the rule-based global order is becoming increasingly evident with the passage of time. U.S. President Donald Trump, for instance, makes no secret of the fact that he believes in a world governed by self-interest, with little room for shared responsibility, or lofty ideas about the spread of democracy. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping is taking the high road, disdaining the transactional approach favoured by the U.S. President. Instead, he is projecting himself as a firm believer in globalisation and free trade. Today, the former confronts major opposition to his policies within the U.S. The latter’s grip on China is, if anything, stronger than before. It is against this backdrop that there are signs of a new bipolarity taking shape in Asia. It appears freshly sculpted, given the steady rise and rise of China in Asia. It possibly seeks to replace similar attempts by the U.S. previously — such as the pivot to Asia — to counter China and its aggressive designs in the region. Implicitly, though not as yet explicitly, it seeks to create a coalition of all those willing to align with the U.S. against China’s expanding ambitions and its inexorable march towards dominance in Asia.

An important shift

In recent weeks, there has been some activity suggestive of action being taken to achieve this objective. For instance, a reluctant India is being gradually inveigled into a newly minted design of what many perceive as an anti-China coalition, though none of them are willing to project it as such. Talks held recently at the level of officials between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India (the Quadrilateral) are seen as an indication of this. It marks an important shift in India’s attitude, and could be a prologue to what is in store. As China’s expansionist attitudes intensify, more countries in East and Southeast Asia are expected to align with the Quadrilateral group of countries. Vietnam could be one such country, but quite a few other countries in the region could follow suit. The recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings provided a further glimpse of attitudinal changes that are in the making. Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi made use of this occasion to announce that the two countries were prepared to work together for the future of Asia — an euphemism for what many see as keeping a check on China’s aggressive designs in the region. It is, perhaps, for the first time that India has indicated a resolve to align openly with the U.S. to tackle broader issues in the Indo-Pacific region. Its implications go much further than mere deepening of the strategic partnership between the two countries or enhancing their cooperation as major defence partners. The reference that “two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s greatest militaries” is capable of being interpreted in several ways, including that it is aimed at China. What it does signify, unambiguously, is a quantum leap in their special relationship, with both sides committed to deepening their engagement in several directions. Mr. Modi demonstrated willingness on this occasion to go still further, asserting that India will stand by ASEAN in its quest for rules-based regional security architecture. This can again be interpreted as implicit criticism of China’s attitude and stance with regard to disputes in the South China Sea.

Picking up the gauntlet

If China was the target of the U.S., India and other like-minded countries of Asia, the recent 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress signified that China is more than willing to accept the challenge. The Party Congress placed special emphasis on a strong military “capable of winning wars”. The deliberations left little room for any adjustment or compromise to accommodate the concerns of other countries of Asia, or for that matter the U.S. If anything, the deliberations of the Party Congress have further emboldened China to pursue its preferred course of action. Several aspects of the Party Congress deserve to be carefully considered in this context. The Congress reinforced Mr. Xi’s status as the paramount leader, who in turn made no secret of China’s ambitions to restore its global leadership and dominate the region. In his long opening address, he described China as a great power at least 25 times. Every initiative pronounced was attuned to China’s global ambitions. The Party Congress, and Mr. Xi in particular, adopted a hard line on many of the issues that have been bones of contention with countries in the region and beyond. A major preoccupation of the Party Congress was to build global combat capabilities to safeguard China’s overseas interests. It mentioned that the Chinese Military had been reorganised and that more changes were promised in the next five years aiming to make China’s military “world class” in every way. The message emanating from the Party Congress is loud and clear. China is in no mood to compromise, and any attempt to contain or check China would be effectively met. The reality also is that apart from its massive military build-up, China is positioned most advantageously as far as economic aspects are concerned. It is today the most important trading partner for over 90 countries. It is a major lender across the world. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has caught the imagination of the world, including that of Europe. While the economic benefits of the BRI are still in dispute, most countries of Asia and Europe, including many of India’s neighbours, do not seem to have a problem with the BRI.

Too many imponderables

Sustaining bipolarity and having one set of Asian nations ranged against China is, however, not going to be easy in the prevailing circumstances. There exist far too many imponderables at present. Latent concerns about Chinese expansionism have not prevented several Asian nations from endorsing and backing the BRI. Most Asian nations also show no inclination or desire to blame China for siding with Pakistan, which continues to shelter high-ranking global terrorists, including Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar. China, for its part, has embarked on a charm offensive to win the support of Asian nations through lavish aid offers and other financial inducements. Even Mr. Trump, during his recent visit to China, seemed to have softened his criticism of China, after China produced some attractive mega deals. All this only exposes the vulnerabilities of bipolarity in the extant situation today. In Asia, India, Japan and, to an extent, Vietnam appear willing to endorse the U.S. initiative to build up opposition to China’s designs. India has become increasingly vocal in this regard. It has lately taken up issues well beyond South Asia, such as North Korea and China’s actions in the South China Sea. This was again manifest during the recent ASEAN deliberations. Currently, India is emerging as one of the countries in the region firmly committed to freedom of navigation and over-flight, and for unimpeded commerce based on the principles of international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This puts it in direct confrontation with China, as also in opposing China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. The Quadrilateral idea, which has since begun to take shape with India’s implicit acceptance of the concept, is likely to further irk China. China has consistently opposed the idea viewing it as an example of anti-China consolidation. For the present, China has been circumspect in its opposition to the move, limiting itself to questioning its rationale and whether it is directed at a third party with the potential to disturb regional peace and stability. This may not, however, last for much longer. As the outlines of a new bipolarity in Asia become clearer, and with the formal setting up of the Quadrilateral, China is certain to regard all this as an attempt to encircle it. This will pave the way for a new round of turmoil. China is almost certain to take effective steps to break this so-called encirclement, and use both force and inducements to win more and more Asian countries to its side. The consequences of this could be quite significant for peace and stability in the Asian region.


1) Dichotomy

Meaning: A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.

Example: “a rigid dichotomy between science and mysticism”

Synonyms: Division, Separation

Antonyms: Integration, Union

2) The passage of time

Meaning: The process of time going past.

Example: Memories fade with the passage of time.

3) Lofty

Meaning: Of imposing height; haughty and aloof.

Example: The elegant square was shaded by lofty palms”

Synonyms: High, Giant

Antonyms: Modest, Low

4) Disdaining

Meaning: Consider to be unworthy of one’s consideration.

Example: “he disdained his patients as an inferior rabble”

Synonyms: Scorn, Deride

5) Confronts

Meaning: (of a problem or difficulty) present itself to (someone) so that action must be taken.

Example: “the new government was confronted with many profound difficulties”

Synonyms: Trouble, Bother

6) Backdrop

Meaning: The general situation in which particular events happen.

Example: Their love affair began against a backdrop of war.

7) Sculpted

Meaning: Create or represent (something) by carving, casting, or other shaping techniques.

Example: “sculpting human figures from ivory”

Synonyms: Carve, Sculpture

8) Pivot

Meaning: A person or thing that plays a central part in a situation or enterprise.

Example: “the pivot of community life was the chapel”

Synonyms: Centre, Focal point

9) Inexorable

Meaning: (of a person) impossible to persuade; unrelenting.

Example: “the doctors were inexorable, and there was nothing to be done”

Synonyms: Inflexible, Unyielding

10) Reluctant

Meaning: Unwilling and hesitant; disinclined.

Example: “today, many ordinary people are still reluctant to talk about politics”

Synonyms: Unwilling, Resistant

Antonyms: Willing, Eager

11) Inveigled

Meaning: Persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery.

Example: “he inveigled her back to his room”

Synonyms: Persuade, Convince

12) Prologue

Meaning: A separate introductory section of a literary, dramatic, or musical work.

Example: “the suppressed prologue to Women in Love”

Synonyms: Introduction, Preamble

Antonyms: Epilogue

13) Expansionist

Meaning: A follower or advocate of a policy of territorial or economic expansion.

Example: “he was an aggressive expansionist”

14) Intensify

Meaning: Become or make more intense.

Example: “the dispute began to intensify”

Synonyms: Escalate, Increase

Antonyms: Lessen, Abate

15) Follow suit

Meaning: To do the same thing as someone else.

Example: When one airline reduces its prices, the rest soon follow suit.

16) Glimpse

Meaning: See or perceive briefly or partially.

Example: “he glimpsed a figure standing in the shade”

Synonyms: See briefly, Note

17) Attitudinal

Meaning: Relating to attitudes.

Example: “unless there are certain attitudinal changes, women will continue to get a raw deal”

18) Euphemism

Meaning: A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

Example: “the jargon has given us ‘downsizing’ as a euphemism for cuts”

Synonyms: Substitute, Politeness

Antonyms: Dysphemism

19) Implications

Meaning: The action or state of being involved in something.

Example: “our implication in the problems”

Synonyms: Involvement, Connection

20) Mere

Meaning: Used to emphasize how small or insignificant someone or something is.

Example: “questions that cannot be answered by mere mortals”

Synonyms: Meagre, trivial

21) Enhancing

Meaning: Intensify, increase, or further improve the quality, value, or extent of.

Example: “his refusal does nothing to enhance his reputation”

Synonyms: Increase, Intensify

Antonyms: Diminish, Mar

22) Interpreted

Meaning: Explain the meaning of (information or actions).

Example: “the evidence is difficult to interpret”

Synonyms: Explain, Clarify

23) Unambiguously

Meaning: In a manner that is not open to more than one interpretation.

Example: “she answered questions clearly and unambiguously”

4) Quantum leap

Meaning: A sudden large increase or advance.

Example: “there has been a quantum leap in the quality of wines marketed in the UK”

25) Like-minded

Meaning: Having similar tastes or opinions.

Example: “a radio ham with like-minded friends all over the world”

Synonyms: Same opinion or idea

6) Deliberations

Meaning: Long and careful consideration or discussion.

Example: “after much deliberation we arrived at a compromise”

Synonyms: Thought, Thinking

27) Paramount

Meaning: More important than anything else; supreme.

Example: “the interests of the child are of paramount importance”

Synonyms: Uppermost, Supreme

28) Attuned to

Meaning: Especially able to understand or deal with.

Example: People in New York seem attuned to fashion.

Synonyms: Deal with, Understand

29) Bones of contention

Meaning: A subject or issue over which there is continuing disagreement.

Example: “the examination system has long been a serious bone of contention”

30) Emanating from

Meaning: To come out of or be produced by something or someone.

Example: Angry voices emanated from the room.

31) Imponderables

Meaning: A factor that is difficult or impossible to estimate or assess.

Example: “there are too many imponderables for an overall prediction”

Synonyms: Difficult, Impossible

32) Expansionism

Meaning: The policy of territorial or economic expansion.

Example: “the need to oppose German expansionism”

33) Inclination

Meaning: AN interest in or liking for (something).

Example: “my inborn inclination for things with moving parts”

Synonyms: Liking, Penchant

Antonyms: Dislike

34) Embarked on

Meaning: To start something new or important.

Example: We’re embarking upon a new project later this year.

Synonyms: Start, Begin

35) Charm offensive

Meaning: A campaign of flattery, friendliness, and cajolement designed to achieve the support or agreement of others.

Example: “he launched a charm offensive against MPs who didn’t support the government”

Synonyms: Friendliness, kindliness

36) Lavish

Meaning: Sumptuously rich, elaborate, or luxurious; (of a person) very generous or extravagant.

Example: “a lavish banquet”

Synonyms: Luxurious, Generous

Antonyms: Frugal, Meagre

37) Inducements

Meaning: A thing that persuades or leads someone to do something.

Example: “companies were prepared to build only in return for massive inducements”

Synonyms: Incentive, Attraction

Antonyms: Deterrent

38) Unimpeded

Meaning: Not obstructed or hindered.

Example: “an unimpeded view across the headland”

Synonyms: Unrestricted, Unconstrained

Antonyms: Impeded

39) Irk

Meaning: Irritate; annoy.

Example: “it irks her to think of the runaround she received”

Synonyms: Irritate, Annoy

Antonyms: Please

40) Pave the way

Meaning: If something paves the way for/to something else, it makes the other thing possible.

Example: Scientists hope that data from the probe will pave the way for a more detailed exploration of Mars.