Asia in the 21st Century

Asia in the 21st Century

Mini Teaser: Great changes are under way and when the dust settles, the Asia we knew will have ceased to exist.

by Author(s): Rajan MenonS. Enders Wimbush

After decades of Cold War-induced predictability, Asia today is rapidly transforming into something new and unrecognizable. The very term "Asia" has lost its clarity. As a consequence of a revolution in communications and the frenetic pace of globalization, parts of Asia that have traditionally been distinguished by their geography--East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia--tend increasingly to blur and merge. Developments in one region shape the strategies of distant states in another with unprecedented rapidity. This new "Asia" really sweeps from the Pacific to Russia's western border and from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean.

The region's breadth is equaled only by its volatility. Russia, the long-dominant Eurasian power, is in decline, and its very territorial integrity is in question. In contrast to much of the last century, Russia's weakness--rather than its strength--will have a determining influence on Asia. Along its vast periphery new coalitions are forming and new competitions are taking shape. China and India, for example, both view themselves as emerging powers destined to shape the region's future. And Japan--for half a century the most dynamic presence in Asia, the key American outpost there and the principal prism through which the United States assesses its interests throughout the region--has languished in the doldrums for the better part of a decade. Today it faces significant challenges and the prospect of a possible American retreat from the Pacific Rim.

As the hierarchy among Asian states has changed, so too have the political orders within them. Many are plagued by political turmoil, ethnic and religious strife, and economic collapse. Some may even disintegrate or disappear: Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan seem poised for reconfiguration, if not extinction. From some of these upheavals, new states and confederations with distinctly new interests and strategic alignments will surely emerge.

Compounding these familiar sources of instability are threats of an unfamiliar kind. In Asia today, the very meaning of national economic policy is becoming unclear. Forces beyond the control of individual states have prompted capital to flee, currencies to plummet, and prices to soar. The costs of staying competitive in an unforgiving global marketplace are reforms that invariably worsen the lot of already impoverished citizenries. Social unrest looms as an ever present danger as budgets are slashed and subsidies eliminated; those who rule appear rudderless while those who are ruled grow ever more resentful. Some regimes will survive the storm, while others will watch as their already tenuous legitimacy crumbles around them.

In addition, the fragile consensus in Asia against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is beginning to disintegrate. States such as China and Russia have sought to improve their strategic leverage by transferring nuclear and missile technology to allies. Within a decade, accurate, long-range missile systems will be available to most of the region's players, as will a variety of other weapons that may dramatically alter the current balance of power.

Power Transitions and New Alignments

The key determinant of the Asian balance of power in the next century will be China. If it remains stable and maintains the impressive rate of economic growth it has achieved since 1978, China's influence on the Asian order will rapidly increase. In a way that is characteristic of rising powers--democratic or authoritarian--it will seek to refashion the received order, one that was forged when it was weak, and to dominate its neighbors in the process. China's long economic tentacles already extend into Southeast Asia, Central Asia and, increasingly, the Russian Far East. An unstable or weak China could--some would say is likely to--pursue similar objectives, but in a different, more dangerous manner. Such a China would be more inclined to project military force beyond its borders to achieve the same results more quickly, if only to prop up the failing communist regime's legitimacy.

China's power will in turn likely expand in equal or greater proportion to the decline in the power of the United States. Here we should note that a unified Korea is a virtual certainty; the only questions remaining are how and when. Whatever the modality of Korean unification--a benign and peaceful one analogous to Germany's, or a violent affair with war, internal disorder and massive outpourings of refugees that shake surrounding countries--once it does happen, the continued presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula will likely be deemed unnecessary. China, which will undoubtedly participate in managing reunification, will almost certainly make the phased withdrawal of American troops a condition for its cooperation. The departure of U.S. forces from the peninsula may in turn generate pressure for an American military withdrawal from Japan as well. The Japanese would not wish to be the sole remaining platform for American troops and materiel in Northeast Asia, and the misgivings of Japanese citizens over U.S. bases on their soil would only be strengthened by the demise of the Pyongyang regime.

Even apart from the fate of Korea, political support for the U.S.-Japan alliance appears likely to erode in both countries unless a persuasive new rationale can be created for it. The incantation that Japan is the key bilateral partner of the United States is a bromide that will not prevent the weakening of an alliance that is bereft of a compelling mission, and in which the truly dangerous responsibilities are unevenly distributed. Absent such a new rationale, the Asian balance of power could well be recast by a radical change in Japanese defense policy. Japan already has the world's third-largest defense budget, and "Self-Defense Force" is a euphemism for what is, in fact, a small but state-of-the-art military machine.

Though Japanese military power has for the past half a century been maintained at a level far below that of which it is financially and technologically capable, the continuation of this moderation should not be taken for granted; certain features of the Northeast Asian balance of power underpin it, and Japanese defense strategists have already begun to anticipate changes that will reduce Japan's security and increase its vulnerability--with such taboo topics as military forces capable of significant power projection and even nuclear weapons now part of the discussion. The American view that Japan is frozen in a posture of military restraint is, in any case, ahistorical. The country's history since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 is characterized by dramatic and rapid shifts in both its domestic politics and foreign policy, usually set in motion, although not determined, by events beyond Japan's borders.

While a rearmed and more assertive Japan is a distinct possibility, Japan's aging population will be increasingly strained to meet the financial demands of both social entitlements and military expansion. A population that is projected to be approximately half of its current size within a century is unlikely to wish to hasten its demise by engaging in war with powers possessing highly lethal weaponry. Hence, the pressure of what the Japanese call their "strategic demography" may impel Japan to accommodate itself to, or enter into an alliance with, a powerful and assertive China.

Japan is also likely to seek other defense alignments that could alter dramatically the Asian strategic equation. It could make common cause with Russia because each is a flanking power for the other against China. If Korea unifies and tacks toward an increasingly powerful China, and the United States disengages from the Pacific, Japan could seek such allies in several directions. It might arm Taiwan, including with nuclear weapons. Or it might pursue a looser strategic alignment with India, again in order to flank China, but also to bolster the security of the sea lanes and straits that constitute Japan's energy lifeline. Japan could well pursue all three of these options simultaneously.

India is less certain about its geopolitical ambitions, and the reach of its military forces is limited. But India is stirring, and its strategic thinkers are looking beyond nearly half a century of introspection and self-reliance at a variety of new challenges and opportunities--in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia--that will afford their country geopolitical prominence. India's economic prospects have brightened as well. Its economy has grown at the annual rate of 6.5 percent since 1992, while the population growth rate, now at 1.8 percent per year, has been slowing.

Much has been written about the possibility that India--which, with its unwieldy size and heterogeneity, conjures up memories of the old Habsburg Empire--could come unglued. Yet the country has in fact proven remarkably stable. Its politics has remained democratic (if imperfectly so), with national elections now established as the means for acquiring and transferring power. The political system has weathered the assassination of its founding father and two prime ministers. The army has stayed out of power (a miraculous achievement considering the prevailing pattern in the Third World). Upheavals have been contained, whether they involve ethno-religious violence in Kashmir or the Punjab, or between Muslims and Hindus elsewhere, or between opponents and proponents of making Hindi the national language. Ironically, what many perceive to be the Achilles' heel of India may in fact be its major strength: its size and chaotic character. Because of its relatively decentralized political order and its breathtaking ethnic and linguistic diversity, India's crises are localized and seldom spread through the system. It is difficult for people living in, say, Kerala in the deep south to get exercised by what happens in the Punjab or Kashmir.

Though a remarkably durable polity, India, unlike China, has yet to remove the many impediments that have prevented it from realizing its economic potential. But it clearly has some of the prerequisites for breaking into the ranks of the great powers. It has a vast pool of scientists and engineers; a thriving high-tech industry; and an advanced and promising missile program complemented by advances in the design of its nuclear warheads. Still, poverty, illiteracy and an entrenched bureaucracy continue to weigh India down. And for all of its pretension, India's foreign policy seems often to be little more than a Pakistan policy.

Change in the subcontinent will not come easily, but there are encouraging signs. While no national consensus has been achieved, much of India's elite now dismisses the Nehruvian emphasis on self-reliance and self-sufficiency, no doubt because it has become painfully evident that India can achieve neither. In particular, the demise of the Soviet Union, and with it the Soviet-Indian strategic alignment, has left India strategically anchored. India cannot tackle challenges such as those in the Gulf, Central Asia, the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia alone, for it has neither the military reach nor the economic resources to do so. Most Indian strategists do not take Moscow's current offer of an India-Russia-China alliance seriously, seeing it as exactly what it is: a failing Russia's desperate attempt to be more than it can be.

By contrast, an India-Japan alignment would make strategic sense for both countries. Such an alliance would require China to spread its military forces as widely as possible, and would secure the oil routes from the Persian Gulf to Northeast Asia. Taiwan, too, might become a party to such a coalition, if it were to decide to resist unification and opt for independence. Other states wary of China's new-found assertiveness, including Vietnam and Russia, might be attracted as well. But the principal partners--the bookends--will be India and Japan.

If the growing power of India and China shapes the emerging Asian order, Russia will be central to that order because of its declining power. Once a superpower, Russia now faces a situation in which not a single index of power is moving in a favorable direction. During the Cold War, the overriding preoccupation of the West and its allies was whether the Soviet Union would expand beyond its borders. Today, Russians worry that others, and particularly China, will expand into Russia. The two countries share a 2,666-mile border, and the low density of population on the Russian side stands in marked contrast to the masses of Chinese on the other. Moreover, the economic contrast between the shopworn Russian Far East and the rapidly developing Chinese northeast makes for an imbalance of power as well as population.

Russia's decline is welcomed by some states in Asia. Experience has taught them that there is an inverse relationship between Russian power and their own security. Yet the progressive weakening and disunity of Russia will have some pernicious consequences. The strength of Russian organized crime and the scope of its transnational operations will expand. The danger of nuclear accidents and environmental pollution (such as the dumping of nuclear waste into the oceans) will increase. Weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies will be more available to those with money to spend. Refugees fleeing violence or economic hardship will strain the capacity and, even more quickly, the hospitality of neighboring countries. Disease will overwhelm Russia's already failing public health system, and epidemics such as aids are all but inevitable. Having ceased to be Asia's superpower, Russia is fast becoming its sick man.

There are now four nuclear powers in this part of the world: Russia, China, India and Pakistan. The first two are rivals and potential adversaries, their current talk of a strategic partnership notwithstanding; the latter two have fought three wars since becoming independent. In the summer of 1999, having recently tested their nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan embarked on yet another round of fighting in Kashmir, casting doubt on the common assumption that nuclear weapons make even stubborn enemies retreat from the brink of war.

Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, Iran and Japan are also candidates to acquire nuclear weapons. Even Turkey, which has Asian ambitions, will be hard pressed not to acquire nuclear weapons once Iran or Iraq does so. The motives and events that might induce these states to obtain nuclear arms vary considerably. For Taiwan--particularly if it continues down the path of independence--it will be the cold reality of a friendless world in which, when push comes to shove, few if any can be counted on to counterbalance Chinese power. For North Korea, the motive may be the calculation that nuclear weapons provide the only leverage to blackmail rich states. For Iran, the inducement will be that, as the examples of India and Pakistan demonstrate, nuclear weapons confer lasting respect and only temporary condemnation. For Japan, the nuclear option will be attractive if any of three conditions come to pass. The first is a belief among Japanese leaders that, for one reason or another, the United States is no longer a reliable protector. The second is the rise of an increasingly powerful and assertive China. The third is the advent of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.

In the twenty-first century, chemical and biological weapons will also become part of the region's arsenals. The hope that these weapons will never be used because they are inhumane is naive and unrealistic. They lack the lethality of nuclear bombs when measured by the number of immediate fatalities a single weapon can cause, but they are inexpensive, easy to manufacture, and will be fairly simple to deliver on target by widely available means.

Energy, too, will be a key concern for Asian states, as Asia will become the world's largest energy consumer within the first two decades of the twenty-first century. China, which became a net importer of energy in 1993, will dominate Asian demand. Its onshore production is declining, and the search for offshore oil has proved to be expensive and disappointing. Nor has the energy bonanza anticipated from the Tarim River Basin in Xinjiang been realized. Thus, China has moved with determination into Central Asia, the Bay of Bengal, Iraq and much of the rest of the energy-producing world in search of oil and gas. To reduce its dependence on sea lanes, China plans to build and link a long, expensive pipeline from Kazakhstan to the centers of consumption in eastern China.

All of these options, if successfully exploited, will ease China's energy problems, but the overwhelming share of its oil will still come from the Middle East. This dependence will cause China to expand its naval power to protect the sea lanes that connect it to that region through Southeast Asian waters. China's commitment to building a powerful navy will accelerate if Indonesia continues to be wrecked by disorder. Japan, which is entirely dependent on imported oil--and India, which also draws heavily on the Gulf--would then expand their own naval power. Japan may have to do so not only because of what China does, but because there may no longer be a stable, united Indonesia guarding the shipping routes that convey Japan's oil supplies. The stage is then set for rivalries in which the anticipation of hostilities proves more decisive than malign motives and unfriendly acts.

The competition for energy is also likely to extend to oil-rich Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. If Central Asia turns out to be an unstable region, China will forge alliances and possibly establish military bases there to protect investments, pipelines and friendly governments. Russia will have few means with which to resist such moves. But Russia will not be the only state unhappy with a Chinese sphere of influence in Central Asia: India sees the region as a promising market, a source of energy, as well as an area in which Pakistan's influence and the threat of militant Islamic movements pose serious threats. India regards Central Asia as its "extended strategic neighborhood." And it would be profoundly disturbed by an enhanced Chinese presence there. For those Central Asians seeking to contain an increasingly assertive Chinese policy in their region that is met by only meager Russian resistance, India may offer an increasingly attractive counterbalance.

Sources of Internal Upheaval

While a balance of power may be established in Asia over time, the continent will continue to experience civil unrest created by separatist and irredentist nationalism, ethnic strife, and mass movements with the capacity to overwhelm fragile political institutions. Asia is rife with such disorders. Russia's troubles in the Caucasus and Central Asia have been well documented. Afghanistan continues to be torn by the latest variant of the civil war that has plagued it since 1978. Pakistan's calculation that it will gain from a friendly and dependent Afghanistan (as distinct from the unfriendly and pro-Indian governments that have held power in Kabul since 1945) may be misplaced. Should the Taliban consolidate its power there, it could reactivate irredentist claims against Pakistan's northwest frontier province, which is separated from Afghanistan by a nineteenth-century demarcation, the legality of which has been challenged by successive Afghan governments. Tajikistan has disappeared as a functioning state and is now an arena for drug smugglers, private armies and assassins, with the Russian army providing what passes for order. Separatist sentiments are running strong in Xinjiang, Tibet, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Burma and Indonesia, and they will alter the shape and size of states throughout Asia.

The Chinese province of Xinjiang provides a glimpse of what may be in store for much of the region. The Chinese leadership has finally acknowledged what outsiders have long known, namely, that Uighur nationalism, rebellion and violence persist in Xinjiang. Protests and bombings have increased since the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of predominantly Turkic countries in Central Asia that share borders with Xinjiang. The Chinese determination to expand communications and commerce with Central Asia will only further inflame Uighur passions. The traffic of weapons, political literature and insurgents has prompted the Chinese to increase surveillance in Xinjiang and, intermittently, to close its border with Pakistan.

Nationalist rebellions could, of course, be quelled by violence, and the danger of losing public support would be much smaller than if the government's guns were turned against ethnic Chinese protestors. Yet even if it could be accomplished in short order, repression of ethnic minorities would hardly be compatible with China's desire to attract foreign investment. Under Deng Xiaoping China opted to pursue economic development and national power by engaging the global economy and leaving behind the days of autarchy, Red Guards and millenarianism. Thus far it has stayed the course. But to succeed, it must maintain the confidence of investors, assistance from international financial organizations, and good relations with the world's leading economic powers. Accordingly, as China's integration with the world's economy proceeds, its leadership will find that its choices for dealing with domestic unrest have narrowed.

Globalization--the rapidity and multiplicity of ways in which "here" is hostage to "there"--is commonly portrayed as a stern disciplinarian, a foe of particularism, inefficiency and waste. It punishes unwise economic policies and forces states that seek advancement in the global marketplace to get their economic houses in order. It promotes aspirations, values and fashions that transcend borders and cultures. But globalization has another side. Under its sway states are subject to swift and sharp economic downturns that can reduce the legitimacy of governments. Individuals are exposed to new ideas from abroad that call into question outlooks and interpretations propagated by their governments. The disparities in wealth and power between "us" and "them" are transmitted immediately, vividly and viscerally. The freedom and ferocity with which governments--at least those that want to participate in the global economy--can resort to repression is reduced dramatically. This increases the freedom to maneuver and the publicity available to disgruntled national minorities. States in which ethnic minorities are geographically concentrated, and politically and culturally disenfranchised, find that coercion is more costly because it is more easily observed and publicized by the outside world.

Globalization can promote integration among states. But it can also foster conflict and disintegration within them by exposing the limitations and ineptitude of governments, by generating traditionalist backlashes against alien values that present themselves as universal, and by creating huge disparities of wealth and power among nationalities, regions and classes. These effects will prove especially burdensome for the states that have risen from the detritus of the Soviet Union, as well as for the many other states of Asia--including China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia--that share such traits. Identity based on myth, language, religion and culture may not be strong enough to hold these states together, or, if they do remain territorially intact, to provide them with adequate political stability. China, which has a more cohesive populace, may be better suited to weather the shocks of globalization. But the Chinese leadership will learn that not all effects of globalization are benign. As levels of investment, access to information through email and the Internet, and travel and residence abroad increase, the tension between China's economy, society and polity will surely grow.

Implications for American Policy

This portrait of the emerging Asia is at least as plausible as, and perhaps more so than, that of the Asia that most American policymakers seem to see unfolding incrementally, on the basis of linear projections of today's observable trends. Admittedly, the intellectual enterprise of extracting lessons from the past to predict the future is by its very nature an imprecise one, but it takes little to imagine that the new Asia of the early twenty-first century will not follow projected or preferred paths. Events there will cascade and generate many second and third-order consequences. Key states and groups will acquire new capabilities and pursue new objectives through new strategies. "Wild card" occurences--such as natural catastrophes or accidents--will yield rapid and unexpected consequences. In the face of all this, alliances that have served America well for half a century in Asia may slowly disintegrate. Maintaining political commitments to, and a military presence in, Asia will become much more difficult once the requisite network of bases is no longer available. New centers of power--China, Japan and India--will emerge, and they and the United States will participate in a new balance of power contest with alignments that bear little resemblance to those of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Yet in the United States one cannot detect any inclination to develop new strategic partners in Asia. Few U.S. policymakers seem to appreciate that new strategic partners are likely to be found among former adversaries--India, Iran or Vietnam, for example. Instead they are quick to embrace short-term measures for short-term gains--sanctions against India or Iran, for example--that will make it harder to find and develop such partners.

Then, too, a growing number of states and groups in the new Asia will soon have access to weapons of mass destruction, despite U.S. efforts to prevent their spread. In such a world, it does not make sense to remain blindly committed to the aim of non-proliferation, when in fact the selective spread of these weapons to states whose interests converge with those of the United States might advance our aims. Preaching non-proliferation to the Indians, whose determination to establish a nuclear deterrent is logical and understandable, simply verges on the comical--especially when the preacher is standing on a mountain of his own nuclear weapons. America's refusal to adjust to the reality--in its rhetoric and its policy--of a nuclear India will simply breed anti-American sentiment in that country, and prevent the necessary shift from an outdated adversarial relationship.

Those Asian states that look to the United States for reassurance are clearly less assured today than they were during the Cold War, unipolarity notwithstanding. American military interventions in the Clinton years--in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo--characterized as they have been by a gap between threats and action, unseemly exits, and the application of force from beyond the horizon and well above the clouds, have done little to dispel these doubts. Asian states that have traditionally relied upon the United States discern little evidence that Washington understands its own interests in Asia, let alone theirs. And they wonder whether the American public will continue paying in blood and treasure for the protection of distant (and now prosperous) allies.

How can the United States contribute to stability and security in Asia? Military power will continue to be important in the new balance of power contest. A more fluid presence and a greater reliance on sea power and impermanent basing rights will be required. But non-traditional threats less easily dealt with through deterrence or the application of force will become even more pronounced. These include transnational criminal and drug networks, nuclear and other environmental accidents, the fragmentation of states, the increasing salience of groups with significant military resources, the movement of peoples across state boundaries because of economic crises and civil unrest, and the dislocations created by globalization. With new uncertainties generated by new rivalries and new threats, and with the relative decline in American power, the cooperation needed to draw states together to address such common problems will prove even more difficult than it is now. To maintain the balance of power, the United States will have to use methods other than the ones that worked so well during the Cold War.

If the Asia of the twenty-first century bears a significant resemblance to that described here, the United States will find itself in an environment qualitatively different from that of the final years of the twentieth century. But who among key policymakers--or among foreign policy advisers in the presidential campaigns--thinks this way? Discussions of what Asia might look like and how it might challenge U.S. interests invariably suggest that the future will bear a strong resemblance to the past; the conventional wisdom rules. Few are willing to consider that Asia could present threats that are truly different. The first and most important challenge that the emerging Asia poses, then, is to prevailing thinking.

Essay Types: Essay