The Resistible Rise of Asia?

A favorite theme in international debate nowadays is whether Asia’s rise signifies the West’s decline. But the current focus on economic malaise in Europe and the United States is distracting attention from the many serious challenges that call into question Asia’s continued success.

To be sure, today’s ongoing global power shifts are primarily linked to Asia’s phenomenal economic rise, the speed and scale of which have no parallel in world history. With the world’s fastest-growing economies, fastest-rising military expenditures, fiercest resource competition, and most serious hot spots, Asia obviously holds the key to the future global order.

But Asia faces major constraints. It must cope with entrenched territorial and maritime disputes, such as in the South China Sea; harmful historical legacies that weigh down its most important interstate relationships; increasingly fervent nationalism; growing religious extremism; and sharpening competition over water and energy.

Moreover, Asia’s political integration badly lags behind its economic integration, and, to compound matters, it has no security framework. Regional consultation mechanisms remain weak. Differences persist over whether a security architecture or community should extend across Asia, or be confined to an ill-defined “East Asia.”

One central concern is that, unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the twentieth century, which made war there unthinkable today, the wars in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century only accentuated bitter rivalries. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, when both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started, without resolving the underlying Asian disputes.

To take the most significant example, China staged military interventions even when it was poor and internally troubled. A 2010 Pentagon report cites Chinese military preemption in 1950, 1962, 1969, and 1979 in the name of strategic defense. There was also China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, and the 1995 occupation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, amid protests by the Philippines. This history helps to explain why China’s rapidly growing military power raises important concerns in Asia today.

Indeed, not since Japan rose to world-power status during the reign of the Meiji Emperor (1867-1912) has another non-Western power emerged with such potential to shape the global order. But there is an important difference: Japan’s rise was accompanied by the other Asian civilizations’ decline. After all, by the nineteenth century, Europeans had colonized much of Asia, leaving in place no Asian power that could rein in Japan.

Today, China is rising alongside other important Asian countries, including South Korea, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia. Although China now has displaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, Japan will remain a strong power for the foreseeable future. On a per capita basis, Japan remains nine times richer than China, and it possesses Asia’s largest naval fleet and its most advanced high-tech industries.

When Japan emerged as a world power, imperial conquest followed, whereas a rising China’s expansionist impulses are, to some extent, checked by other Asian powers. Militarily, China is in no position to grab the territories that it covets. But its defense spending has grown almost twice as fast as its GDP. And, by picking territorial fights with its neighbors and pursuing a muscular foreign policy, China’s leaders are compelling other Asian states to work more closely with the US and each other.

In fact, China seems to be on the same path that made Japan an aggressive, militaristic state, with tragic consequences for the region – and for Japan. The Meiji Restoration created a powerful military under the slogan “Enrich the country and strengthen the military.” The military eventually became so strong that it could dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the Communist Party is increasingly beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power.

More broadly, Asia’s power dynamics are likely to remain fluid, with new or shifting alliances and strengthened military capabilities continuing to challenge regional stability. For example, as China, India, and Japan maneuver for strategic advantage, they are transforming their mutual relations in a way that portends closer strategic engagement between India and Japan, and sharper competition between them and China.

The future will not belong to Asia merely because it is the world’s largest, most populous, and fastest-developing continent. Size is not necessarily an asset. Historically, small, strategically oriented states have wielded global power.

In fact, with far fewer people, Asia would have a better balance between population size and available natural resources, including water, food, and energy. In China, for example, water scarcity has been officially estimated to cost roughly $28 billion in annual industrial output, even though China, unlike several other Asian economies, including India, South Korea, and Singapore, is not listed by the United Nations as a country facing water stress.

In addition to its growing political and natural-resource challenges, Asia has made the mistake of overemphasizing GDP growth to the exclusion of other indices of development. As a result, Asia is becoming more unequal, corruption is spreading, domestic discontent is rising, and environmental degradation is becoming a serious problem. Worse, while many Asian states have embraced the West’s economic values, they reject its political values.

So make no mistake. Asia’s challenges are graver than those facing Europe, which embodies comprehensive development more than any other part of the world. Despite China’s aura of inevitability, it is far from certain that Asia, with its pressing internal challenges, will be able to spearhead global growth and shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New BattlegroundFull profile

(c) Project Syndicate, May 2012.