The Big Ideas

'The New Age of Autarky'

Foreign Affairs

Scott Malcomson | Strategic Insight Group and Futuremap
'The New Age of Autarky'
'The New Age of Autarky'
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April 26, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘The United States, China, and India are each now engaged in what seems like a paradoxical enterprise: the quest to increase their global status while also turning inward to become more self-sufficient.’  

‘The most striking geopolitical feature of the past four years has not been bipolarity or multipolarity—or even great-power conflict.’

  • ‘It has been the spectacle of major economies pursuing self-sufficiency and a partial retreat from globalization in order to ensure their security, innovative capacity, domestic stability, and economic prospects.’
  • ‘The United States, China, and India are each now engaged in what seems like a paradoxical enterprise: the quest to increase their global status while also turning inward to become more self-sufficient.’

‘After the Cold War, the conventional wisdom held that a global economic convergence was inevitable—that countries would only grow more economically interdependent.’

  • ‘In hindsight, it is clear this was not the case.’

‘Yet few would have predicted even a few years ago that three of globalization’s leading beneficiaries would turn to variations of autarky—or that a global trend toward self-sufficiency would come to dominate geopolitics.’

‘China, India, and the United States are now the world’s three most populous countries and its largest economies.’

  • ‘Together, they account for about 60 percent of the global economy, a far greater share than they did during the Cold War era.’

‘Yet the United States under President Donald Trump embraced “economic nationalism.” ’

  • ‘China under President Xi Jinping and India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi opted for “self-sufficiency”: zili gengsheng in Mandarin and atmanirbhar in Hindi.’

‘Unlike most major economies, all three countries have increased their GDP per capita over the past decade while reducing their trade exposure, as measured by their trade-to-GDP ratio.’

  • ‘This pattern of differential globalization points to the rise of a new autarky that could prevail among these major economies for the next decade or more.’

‘How long this new era of autarky will last depends in part on the length and intensity of major-power competition.’

  • ‘The “Big Three” governments will likely continue to push for self-sufficiency for as long as there is heightened security competition—which in the case of the United States and China, and of India and China, could be a very long time.’

Focus China. ‘Self-sufficiency has long been a goal in China as well, albeit an often elusive one.’

  • ‘From the late seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, imperial China cultivated the productivity of its domestic market, as well as a controlled but lucrative export sector.’

‘But its internal march of progress ended abruptly with the beginning of the Opium War in 1839, when China entered a “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.’

  • ‘This century ended in 1949 with the Chinese Communist Party’s victory over its nationalist rivals and their foreign supporters, notably the United States.’

‘But as early as 1945, communist leader Mao Zedong stressed the nationalist and sovereign aspect of self-reliance:’

  • ‘ “On what basis should our policy rest? It should rest on our own strength, and that means ‘regeneration through one’s own efforts’ (zili gengsheng).” ’

‘President Xi Jinping revived this idea in 2018, claiming that “unilateralism and trade protectionism have risen, forcing us to travel the road of self-reliance.” ’

  • ‘In this spirit, Xi has championed the development of a high-technology military-industrial base that will prevent a second humiliation of China, this time by the power of U.S. technical innovation.’



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