Asia Emerges As Center of Gravity in the International System
Sunday, October 26, 2014
Asia is one region of the world where conflicts among major powers remain plausible and may even be probable.
As Henry Kissinger and others have observed, Asia is emerging as the center of gravity in the international system. The rapid economic growth that began with Japan during the 1960s spread to South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore in the 1970s; China in the 1980s; and India in the 1990s. As has become indisputable, throughout history, prosperity brings power in its train.
Today, Asian nations account for an increasing share of global military resources and overall economic output. Even though defense budgets and force levels have declined in Europe and North America, Asia’s have expanded. The region is home to five nuclear-armed militaries (China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Russia), and their number could increase. Meanwhile, on the conventional side of the weapons ledger, Asian nations have been investing in advanced combat aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, submarines, and surface vessels and progressively expanding arsenals of both long-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
Compared to Europe, Asia has weak international organizations and means of resolving disputes. Moreover, it contains different types of states — from liberal democracies to authoritarian regimes of various stripes and repressive totalitarian dictatorships — with myriad outstanding differences over borders and maritime claims. Asia is also a region in which the domestic politics of many significant players are characterized by strident forms of nationalism.
For these reasons, Asia is one region of the world where conflicts among major powers remain plausible and may even be probable. It is also a region where the United States has substantial economic interests, strong alliance commitments, quasi-alliance relationships, and a continuing interest in preserving freedom of navigation across the Western Pacific.
Even though defense budgets and force levels have declined in Europe and North America, Asia’s have expanded.
Contrary to what Thomas Friedman has maintained, the world is not flat. Geography still matters, certainly in military affairs, and that is nowhere more evident than in Asia. Compared with Europe, the Middle East, and other areas of intense geopolitical interaction, strategic Asia is very large; distances within the region are huge, and one key player is more than 6,000 miles away. Save for China and Russia, and partly for China and India (which are separated by the Himalayas), the major powers are not physically contiguous. Nations that wish to deter, coerce, or attack enemies must generally be prepared to project power across great expanses of water and airspace, which until recently few were actually capable of doing. Moreover, this is a region in which suitably equipped major powers may fight what Chinese strategists have called noncontact wars, engaging one another on the sea and in the air — and perhaps even in space and cyberspace — without ever coming into contact on the land.
Many Asian nations, including China, Japan, and South Korea but with the notable exception of India, face aging populations. Others, notably Japan and Russia, will shrink in absolute terms over coming decades. The implications of these demographic trends for economic growth, social cohesion, military policy, and international behavior more generally are unclear, but they could be profound.
Despite their remarkable performance in recent decades, there is considerable uncertainty about the future trajectories of major Asian economies. India’s ability to achieve and maintain annual growth rates closer to 10 percent than 5 percent will go a long way toward determining whether it can achieve its potential to become a true great power. For China meanwhile, the question is when and how rapidly its economic engine will slow. Not even the most optimistic denizens of China’s state planning apparatus think that the near double-digit rates of the last three decades can be sustained indefinitely. What remains to be seen is whether growth slows gradually and gracefully or plummets, perhaps as the result of a crisis involving years of politically motivated overinvestment in real estate and infrastructure. Steady, rapid economic growth has enabled China to expand military budgets without greatly increasing the share of gross national product devoted to defense. Slower, more erratic progress would likely mean an increased incidence of social unrest as well as tougher trade-offs between guns and butter.
The development and diffusion of strategically relevant technologies will substantially affect the distribution of military power. Nuclear proliferation is the most obvious manifestation of this large and multifaceted process. Although its implications have not become fully apparent, that North Korea has established itself irrevocably as a nuclear weapons state is beginning to register in the minds of the people within the region. The likelihood of South Korea, Japan, and perhaps other nations following suit has always existed in theory, but today it is being considered more openly and taken more seriously than at any time in the past.
Compared to Europe, Asia has weak international organizations and means of resolving disputes.
Whatever happens in the nuclear domain, more states are obviously determined to acquire the capabilities to project conventional military power beyond their borders. This trend, in turn, fuels interest in antiaccess and area-denial capabilities similar to those that China has developed to counter the preponderance of U.S. military forces. Low-cost drones and cruise missiles launched from land, sea, subsurface, and aerial platforms will threaten naval vessels or commercial ships operating dozens or even hundreds of miles from China’s coasts. The proliferation of antiship ballistic missiles could extend defenses even further and affect naval warfare in ways comparable to the advent of carrier aviation in the interwar years. Crowded Asian coastal waters could quickly be transformed into no-go zones in a war, with implications felt around the world. Outside nations that lack a military presence, as do most European powers, could find their interests threatened by developments over which they can exercise little direct control. State and possibly non-state actors will also have the increasing capacity to launch cyber-attacks. This form of warfare is likely to be appealing in a region where disputes are deeply rooted and the costs of open conflict remains high.
The question facing the new leaders in Beijing is whether to continue the assertive approach to long-running maritime disputes with its neighbors that it began in 2010. In Japan, on the other hand, the question is how best to respond to Chinese forcefulness. The answer, at the moment, seems to involve resistance rather than appeasement. Tokyo has announced plans to increase defense spending and seek tighter strategic cooperation with Washington. It also has taken measures that include relaxing the ban on arms sales to third parties, which are aimed at shoring up the regional balance of power in the face of the current Chinese military buildup.
Australian decision makers and analysts are debating how to manage deepening economic relations with China while preserving their traditional security alliance with the United States. The South Korean military posture and future diplomatic disposition are also in flux. Seoul has already taken steps to loosen American-imposed restrictions on its missile forces, and the issue of an independent nuclear deterrent seems to be back on the table. Even though South Korean elite and public opinion have been growing warmer toward the United States and cooler toward China, relations with Japan remain strained.
Contrary to what Thomas Friedman has maintained, the world is not flat. Geography still matters, certainly in military affairs, and that is nowhere more evident than in Asia.
Meanwhile, in Washington, debate continues over whether the Obama administration’s pivot, or rebalance, toward Asia, an initiative undertaken largely in reaction to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness, is stabilizing or provocative. AirSea Battle, which is the integrated warfare doctrine associated with the pivot, has become a source of lively disagreement. Looming above such questions is whether the intensified geopolitical rivalry with China is affordable for the United States given fiscal constraints.
Of the factors at work in Asia, popular nationalism is likely to prove particularly important in shaping national strategies. It would be a mistake to assume, as so much of the political science literature does, that international behavior is produced by rational deliberation and calculation. To the contrary, collective pride and deep-seated animosity, fear, and resentment can play critical roles in shaping national strategy, even when the end results seem obviously counterproductive.
Beyond current national interests and memories of the past are deeper patterns of thought that influence policy makers. China, India, Japan, and other nations have undergone centuries of internal and external conflicts and competition. As a result, they have developed characteristic ways of thinking about politics, diplomacy, and war that differ from those of the West. In their initial interaction with outside powers, Asian societies’ obvious material weakness overshadowed their unique strategic cultures. Whatever advantage they might have enjoyed from the subtlety of their statecraft or skill at employing deception in time of war was overwhelmed by the superior strength of their enemies.
The current situation is different, but it is not entirely without precedent. The first wave of scholarly interest in strategic culture in the 1970s coincided with a growing recognition that the United States no longer had a massive edge in military power over the Soviet Union. Albeit belatedly, some American and other Western strategists began to realize their counterparts were not simply laggards who needed to be schooled in the revolutionary effects of nuclear weapons and the virtues of stability. The Soviets had their own approach to warfare, which if put to the test, might have proved superior. In any event, the obvious erosion of previous American advantages made it clear that bolstering deterrence required gaining a better understanding of Soviet thinking. Similarly, the growing strength of China, India, and other Asian nations is kindling a resurgence of interest in their distinctive strategic cultures.
Debate continues over whether the Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia is stabilizing or provocative.
Standing back and contemplating the evolving pattern of interaction among key players, the broadest questions concern the structure of the emerging Asian system and its major axes of antagonism and alignment. Will Asia become really multipolar, with several independent centers of power, including China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and perhaps Indonesia, maneuvering with and against one another? Or will the regional system become increasingly bipolar, with a line drawn between China and the United States and like-minded powers, including allies such as Japan and quasi allies like India? Or is Asia — at least East Asia — moving toward a hierarchical order, with China at the center, resembling the premodern tribute system?
Established U.S. relationships with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea are all in flux, with a trend toward even closer ties. Nevertheless, the combination of growing concern over Chinese power and the likelihood of persistent downward pressure on U.S. defense budgets means that burden sharing is regaining salience and could become a source of controversy. Efforts by Washington to increase the efficiency of the hub-and-spoke alliance system by promoting greater cooperation among partners also face difficulties, especially in the case of Japan and South Korea. Moreover, the United States is seeking ways to use commercial policy as an instrument of national strategy, proposing free-trade agreements as an alternative to friends and allies being drawn into the orbit of the massive Chinese economy. At the same time, Beijing is attempting to promote alternative regional institutions of its own design that exclude or marginalize Washington.
In addition to transpacific ties, many Asian nations are seeking to forge stronger strategic relationships within their region. The linkages take different forms, including bilateral and multilateral dialogues among participants such as Australia, India, Japan, and Vietnam. Military exercises, intelligence exchanges, and arms sales are also increasing in frequency and volume. Whatever the United States does, Asian nations are seeking ways to work together to shore up their positions in relation to an increasingly powerful China.
Enhanced cooperation in some relationships is being accompanied by intensified military competition in others. Although it has taken time for U.S. officials to acknowledge the obvious, Beijing and Washington have been competing for the better part of two decades. Strategists on both sides regard the other as a potential enemy, which influences deployments, exercises, war plans, research and development, and procurement. While China and the United States are not engaged in a simple action-reaction arms race, each is increasingly focused on the other and their plans are becoming more tightly linked. Each aims to deter the other from taking actions that it opposes and seeks to improve the chances to achieve its military objectives if deterrence fails.
China in particular appears to have adopted a competitive-strategies approach, developing weapons and operational concepts that target U.S. vulnerabilities and will be disproportionately expensive to counter, such as using comparatively inexpensive cruise and ballistic missiles to attack multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers.
Military competition between China and the United States will not be the only struggle in Asia. China and India observe each other warily across the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean. China and Japan are not only planning for conflict but maneuvering their forces against one another in the Western Pacific. Additionally, Japan and South Korea are developing capabilities to project power in response to other contingencies, which can possibly be seen as mutually threatening. The nations bordering the South China Sea are enhancing their ability to defend their maritime claims against China, but some have long histories of mutual mistrust.
Military interaction in the Asia-Pacific region is complex, multifaceted, and dynamic — and likely to intensify.
Aaron L. Friedberg is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s Council of Academic Advisers and a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
This article is excerpted from “sup.org.edited by Thomas G. Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal. Copyright ©2014, Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. All rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution is allowed without the prior permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press,
Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group.