NEW DELHI — A qualitative reordering of power in Asia is challenging strategic stability and reshaping major equations. A new Great Game is under way, centered on building new alliances, ensuring power equilibrium, gaining greater market access and securing a larger share of energy and mineral resources.
From the recent U.S.-India-Japan-Singapore-Australia war games in the Bay of Bengal to the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the ongoing developments are a reminder of that high-stakes game. With the center of gravity in international relations clearly moving toward the Asia-Pacific, this Great Game could indeed determine the future world order.
Shifts in international power are occurring not because of battlefield victories or military alignments, but because of a factor unique to the modern world — rapid economic growth. Such shifts are most conspicuous in Asia, the world”s largest continent and home to more than half the world’s population.
As underlined by the ascent of China and India, the emergence of other economic tigers and the comeback of Japan — still the world”s second-largest economic powerhouse after the United States — Asia is bouncing back from a relatively short period of decline in history. From making up 60 percent of global production in 1820, Asia”s share plummeted to barely 20 percent by 1945. Seeking to regain its economic pre-eminence, Asia now accounts for two-fifths of the world”s GDP.
Asia now boasts the world”s fastest-growing economies, but it also has the world”s fastest-rising military expenditures and the most-dangerous hot spots. With security institutions nonexistent in Asia and other mechanisms weak, strategic stability has emerged as a key concern.
In fact, Asia faces five distinct challenges, which are at once an invitation to great-power competition and a test of the region”s ability to play a leadership role in keeping with its rising international importance.
The first challenge is how to get rid of the baggage of history, which weighs down all major interstate relationships. Unassuaged historical grievances amplify mistrust and create congenial conditions for the virus of xenophobia to spread in the homogenized societies of East Asia. Sustained efforts are necessary to overcome the harmful historical legacies and the negative stereotyping of a rival state.
A second challenge is to cage the demons of nationalism that have been let loose. Fervent nationalism — the single biggest threat to an Asian renaissance — is being exploited for political resurgence, as by Japan, or as a substitute to an increasingly ineffectual ideology, like in China, or simply to fashion greater national assertiveness.
With Asia yet to define a common identity, a third challenge is to develop shared norms and values, without which no community can be built. Given the divergent political systems in Asia, creating common norms is a daunting task.
A fourth challenge is to improve regional geopolitics by fostering greater interdependence. The good news is that in a market-driven world not constrained by political problems, intra-Asian trade is booming. The bad news is the sharpening Asian competition over energy resources, driven in part by mercantilist attempts to lock up supplies. Without better political relations and institutionalized cooperation, soaring trade alone won”t guarantee stability. For example, China is India”s fastest-growing trade partner, but that has not stopped Beijing from publicly hardening its stance on Himalayan territorial disputes.
The main driver of the new Great Game, however, is the fifth challenge — how to banish the threat of hegemony by any single power (as Europe has done) so that greater political understanding and trust can be built in Asia. With China”s emergence as a global player transforming Asian geopolitics like no other development since Japan rose to world-power status following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the shadow of hegemony looms so large that unless it is dispersed, an Asian community or even a rules-based regional order is unlikely to emerge.
This challenge pits two competing visions. On one side is the fairy tale Middle Kingdom, China, whose foreign policy seeks to make real the legend that drives its official history — China”s centrality in the world. China believes that without gaining pre-eminence in Asia, it cannot realize its larger ambition to be a “world power second to none.”
On the other side is America”s interest in an Asian balance of power. It wants to ensure that China rises peacefully, without becoming an overt threat to U.S. interests. And by deepening Japanese security dependency, it wishes to prevent Japan”s rise as an independent military power.
Add to this complex picture a resurgent Russia”s resolve to use oil and arms exports to carve out greater strategic space for itself. While Beijing and Moscow have fashioned the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to try and keep the U.S. out of oil-rich Central Asia, America is seeking to mold Asian geopolitics through new allies and military tie-ups. One key priority of the United States is to bring within its fold India, an important swing state with which American forces have conducted 50 military exercises in recent years.
China”s rout in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war, which opened the way to Western imperialistic intervention in its affairs, was rooted in the Ching dynasty”s failure to grasp Japan”s dramatic rise. Today, major powers do not wish to make a similar mistake over China”s rapid rise.
All important players are maneuvering for geopolitical advantage through new initiatives and partnerships. With Asia becoming more divided in the face of conflicting strategic cultures, a constellation of democracies tied together through interlinked strategic partnerships could emerge to help advance political cooperation and stability through a community of values.
The new quadrilateral initiative involving Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., despite its teething problems, symbolizes the likely geopolitical lineup in the Asia-Pacific.
c The writer, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins).