On its 20th anniversary, the fall of the Berlin Wall stands out as the most momentous event in post-World War II history. By triggering the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it helped transform global geopolitics. It also set in motion developments that helped significantly raise Asia’s profile in international relations, with the two demographic titans—China and India—benefiting in important but different ways.
Globally, some nations lost out, but many others gained. The events arising from the Berlin Wall’s fall transformed Europe’s political and military landscape. But no continent benefited more than Asia, as has been epitomized by its dramatic economic rise—the speed and scale of which has no parallel in world history.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
At a time when tectonic global power shifts are challenging strategic stability, Asia has become the world’s main creditor and economic locomotive. With the world’s fastest growing markets, fastest rising military expenditures and most volatile hot spots, a resurgent Asia today holds the key to the future global order. The Asian economic renaissance has been accompanied by a growing international recognition of Asia’s soft power, as symbolized by its arts, fashion and cuisine. Even so, Asia faces complex security, energy and developmental challenges in this era of globalization and greater interstate competition.
An important post-1989 development was the shift from the primacy of military power to a greater role for economic power in shaping international geopolitics. That helped promote not only an economic boom in Asia, but also led to an eastward movement of global power and influence, with Asia emerging as an important player on the world stage.
Global power shifts, as symbolized by Asia’s ascent, are now being spurred not by military triumphs or geopolitical realignments but by a factor unique to our contemporary world—rapid economic growth. Rapid economic growth also was witnessed during the Industrial Revolution and in the post-World War II period. But in the post-Cold War period, rapid economic growth by itself has contributed to qualitatively altering global power equations. So, economic power is now playing a unique role in instigating contemporary power shifts, even as the United Nations Security Council’s permanent-membership structure continues to undergird the importance of military power.
Another defining event in 1989 was the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. But for the end of the Cold War, the West would not have let China off the hook over those killings.
The Cold War’s end, however, facilitated the West’s pragmatic approach to shun trade sanctions and help integrate China with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade. Had the US and its allies pursued the opposite approach centred on punitive sanctions, like they are still doing against Cuba and Myanmar, the result would have been a less-prosperous, less-open and a potentially destabilizing China.
China’s phenomenal economic success—illustrated by its emergence with the world’s biggest trade surplus, largest foreign currency reserves and highest steel production—thus owes a lot to the West’s decision not to sustain trade sanctions after Tiananmen Square. Without the expansion in US-China trade and financial relations, China’s growth would have been much harder. Today, having vaulted past Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter, China is set to displace Japan as the world’s No. 2 economy. Yet, for the foreseeable future, Japan—with its nearly $5 trillion economy, impressive high-technology skills, Asia’s largest navy and a per capita income more than 10 times that of China—is likely to stay a strong nation.
India’s rise as a new economic giant also is linked to the post-1989 events. India was so much into barter trade with the Soviet Union and its communist allies in Eastern Europe that when the Eastern bloc began to unravel, India had to start paying for imports in harsh cash. That rapidly depleted its modest foreign exchange reserves, triggering a severe balance of payments crisis in 1991. The financial crisis, in turn, compelled India to embark on radical economic reforms, which laid the foundation for India’s economic rise.
More broadly, the emblematic defeat of Marxism in 1989 allowed Asian countries, including China and India, to overtly pursue capitalist policies. Although China’s economic modernization programme already had begun under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party, after 1989, was able to publicly subordinate ideology to wealth creation. That example, in turn, had a constructive influence on surviving communist parties in Asia and beyond.
Geopolitically, too, post-1989 gains extended far beyond the West. China and India were both beneficiaries. For China, the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse came as a great strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way to rapidly increase strategic space globally. Russia’s decline in the 1990s became China’s gain.
For India, the end of the Cold War also triggered a foreign policy crisis by eliminating the country’s most reliable partner, the Soviet Union. But as in the economic realm, that crisis had a positive outcome: It led to a revamped foreign policy.
The crisis compelled India to overcome its didactically quixotic traditions and inject greater realism and pragmatism into its foreign policy—a process still on. After the Cold War, India began pursuing mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with all key players in Asia and the wider world, including European powers and Japan. The new Indo-US “global strategic partnership”—a defining feature of this decade—was made possible by the post-1989 shifts in Indian policy thinking.
As India has moved from Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality, it is becoming multi-aligned, while tilting more towards the West. But it intends to preserve the core element of non-alignment—strategic autonomy. A multi-aligned India pursuing omni-directional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players, clearly, is better positioned to advance its interests in the changed world.
In that light, it is hardly a surprise that Russia remains India’s “tried and tested friend”—a relationship whose value for both sides is being reinforced by the China factor. In contrast, the escalating India-China rivalry and tensions over the Himalayan territorial disputes run counter to the US interest to build closer ties with both sides and not to overtly side with New Delhi. It is not an accident that Washington, locked in deepening symbiosis with Beijing, is today quietly charting a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal dispute.
To be sure, not all developments after 1989 were positive. For instance, the phenomenon of failing states, which has affected Asian security the most, is a direct consequence of the end of the Cold War. While the Cold War raged, weak states were propped up by one bloc or the other. But with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the US got out of that game.
That is the reason why, suddenly, dysfunctional or failing states emerged in the 1990s—a phenomenon that has since contributed to making such nations a threat to regional and international security because they are home to transnational pirates (Somalia) or transnational terrorists (Pakistan and Afghanistan), or they defy global norms (such as North Korea and Iran). Asia has suffered more casualties from the post-Cold War rise of international terrorism than any other region.
Between 1988 and 1990, as the Cold War was winding down, pro-democracy protests broke out in several parts of the world—from China and Myanmar to Eastern Europe. The protests helped spread political freedoms in Eastern Europe and inspired popular movements elsewhere that overturned dictatorships in countries as disparate as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Chile. After the Soviet disintegration, even Russia emerged as a credible candidate for democratic reform.
Although the overthrow of a number of totalitarian or autocratic regimes did shift the global balance of power in favour of democratic forces, not all the pro-democracy movements were successful. Indeed, the subsequent “colour revolutions” only instilled greater caution among the surviving authoritarian regimes, prompting them to set up measures to counter foreign-inspired democratization initiatives.
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of democracy has unmistakably stalled. Aside from the feared retreat of democracy in Russia, China—now the world’s oldest and largest autocracy—is demonstrating that when authoritarianism is deeply entrenched, a marketplace of goods and services can stymie the marketplace of political ideas. A new model, authoritarian capitalism—now well established in Asian countries as different as Singapore, Malaysia and Kazakhstan—has emerged as the leading challenger to the international spread of democratic values.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org