Asia’s century one of turbulent transition and volatility

Author: S. Mahmud Ali, LSE

International security literature has developed a new sub-genre focusing on the upcoming ‘Asian Century’.

Explanations of precisely what this term might mean still vary widely, but the changing power relations between the US and its presumed peer rival, China, lie at the core of the discussion. Anxiety is rooted in fears of what a truly powerful China could demand of the system as it asserts its interests and its capacity for action. If China becomes as powerful as hegemonic actors such as the US and Britain were in the past, the familiar Euro–Atlantic systemic core will eventually become unrecognisable.

It is not yet known what shape the new system will take; much will depend on a series of questions: will the US seek to extend its systemic primacy, or accommodate China and other rising powers and adapt accordingly? Will US allies continue to forge a deterrent or defensive ‘ring of steel’ along China’s periphery, thereby reinforcing the pre-eminence of the military as the strategic instrument of choice, or will they pursue shared benefits through flexibility and compromise?

A range of unprecedented shifts are causing the heirarchy of power in global politics to change. Actors who are comfortable with the status quo and anxious about what is about to unfold are responding by pulling together in tacit coalitions centred on the US. Beijing watches with anxiety as its neighbours across South, East and Southeast Asia — especially Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, India, Singapore and Vietnam — build up their military capabilities and boost their security links with the US and with each other. Even Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei appear to be moving in this direction. Competition, mutual distrust and territorial disputes are fomenting what can perhaps be described as the coalescence of a new Cold War across Asia. But how do the different sides compare?

Much has been made of America’s relative decline, spurred by profligate deficit financing and revenue-spending imbalances; sustained borrowing at home and abroad; and a decade of dramatic expansion in military expenditure in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. These factors have depleted America’s economic substance, weakened its global stature and lowered its national morale. Although it will eventually recover from its present predicaments, and in per-capita terms stay far ahead of putative rivals, America’s faith in the efficacy of its military preponderance may have been modified by its Iraqi and Afghan encounters. And its ‘hard power’ has been the key tool of US systemic primacy.

China’s recent experience, on the other hand, has been very different — even if stability remains precarious and state consolidation is still incomplete. The US was the first source of existential threat to the communist republic but, when Beijing sought to secure its autonomy from the Soviet bloc, the US and China became tacit allies. As part of this arrangement the US transferred hardware, technology and skills to China. But the success of Sino–US collaboration in eviscerating the Soviet Union proved ironic. The USSR’s demise pitted a renascent China as a theoretical peer rival of America’s new  hegemonic power. Since the mid 1990s, the national security establishments of China and the US have identified each other as serious potential threats — and taken appropriate countermeasures. China’s ‘area control’ strategy (also known as anti-access/area-denial) and America’s Air-Sea Battle response are two cases in point. This strategic dialectic is at the core of the evolving volatility defining the Asian Century.

Short of a concerted US-led containment strategy, there are few practical ways of preventing China from acquiring greater economic resources and concomitant scientific, technological and military muscle. But the geo-economic and strategic landscape is being transformed by the presence of emerging powers — most notably China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa. So, while the much-prophesied multipolar era may still be far away, the days of unipolarity are likely over, and the diffusion of global power has reduced the ability of any hegemon to reshape the world in its own image. Collegial collaboration à la G20 may thus be the only way forward.

Still, US leaders talk about the need for collaboration while insisting on maintaining primacy. Chinese rhetoric has not helped much either. A mix of defensive insecurity, righteous indignation and emollient reassurances has confused rather than enlightened Beijing’s interlocutors.

A disparate mix of arrangements such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting-plus, ASEAN+3, the East Asia Summit, China-Japan-South Korea summits and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could help ease Asia’s insecurity complexes, aiding the emergence of a security architecture with mechanisms for conflict prevention and management. China appears to be at the heart of these frameworks, but, again, its promotion of reassuring phraseology such as ‘peaceful development’ and a ‘defensive defence strategy’ has not allayed concerns among those who see China as a revisionist power.

A ‘China versus the rest’ paradigm is now crystallising across the Asia Pacific, threatening the region with polarisation reminiscent of the Cold War era. Tensions over the Korean Peninsula; maritime and territorial disputes between China and Japan; Beijing’s widely resisted ‘national integration’ of Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan; its disputed claims in the South China Sea; and an unsettled land boundary with India offer numerous triggers for possible conflict. Pacific rhetoric notwithstanding, both China and its critics are gearing up for such a contingency. But in this interlinked, interdependent milieu, muscular pursuits of ‘the national interest’, as identified by nationalist elites, are not just out of place; they are potentially hazardous. Zero-sum rivalries born of centuries of Westphalian traditions no longer comport with myriad challenges that ignore political boundaries.

Against this backdrop, it appears the Asian Century will be shaped by answers to questions raised by the complex transitional volatility afflicting the region and the courses chosen by its key actors. The world awaits these answers with bated breath.

S. Mahmud Ali is an associate at the East Asia International Affairs Programme, London School of Economics and Political Science.

This post is part of the series on the Asian Century which feeds into the Australian government White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.

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