Leading members of the governments of India and South Korea recently met to begin a new “strategic partnership.” They are not alone in doing so, for across Asia, a new security architecture is being constructed, seemingly piecemeal.
How Asia’s geopolitical landscape will evolve over the coming decades is not easy to foresee. However, it is apparent that an increasingly assertive China is unwittingly reinforcing the US’ role in Asia, restoring US primacy as the implicit guarantor of security and stability in the region.
There are at least four possible Asian security scenarios for the years and decades ahead. The first is the rise of a Sino-centric Asia. China seeks a multipolar world, but a unipolar Asia. By contrast, the US desires a unipolar world, but a multipolar Asia.
A second scenario is that the US remains Asia’s principal security anchor, with or without a third possibility: the emergence of a constellation of Asian states with common interests working together to ensure that Asia is not unipolar. Finally, Asia could come to be characterized by several resurgent powers, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and a reunified Korea.
Of the four scenarios, the first has caused the greatest unease. China’s neighbors are increasingly anxious about its growing power and assertiveness. While China’s rulers aspire to shape a Sino-centric Asia, their efforts to intimidate smaller neighbors hardly make China a credible candidate for Asian leadership.
After all, genuine leadership cannot come from raw power, but only from other states’ consent or tacit acceptance. If leadership could be built on brute force, schoolyard bullies would be class presidents.
In any event, China’s power may be vast and rapidly growing, but it lacks the ability to compel. In other words, China does not have the capability to route any rival militarily, let alone enforce its will on Asia.
That fact has, however, done little to allay fears in the region. With its defense spending having grown almost twice as fast as its GDP, China is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle.
For example, China now includes the South China Sea in its “core” national interests, on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, to stake a virtually exclusive claim to military operations there. China also has increasingly questioned India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern Indian state that China’s rulers call “Southern Tibet” and claim largely as their own. Indian defense officials have reported a rising number of Chinese military incursions across the 4,057km Himalayan border.
As China seeks to translate its economic clout into major geopolitical advantages in Asia, a country that once boasted of “having friends everywhere” finds that its growing power may be inspiring awe, but that its actions are spurring new concerns and fears. Which states will accept China as Asia’s leader? Six decades of ruthless repression has failed to win China acceptance even in Tibet and Xinjiang, as the Tibetan and Uighur revolts of 2008 and last year attested.
Leadership entails more than the possession of enormous economic and military power. It demands the power of ideas that can galvanize others. Such power also serves as the moral veneer to the assertiveness often involved in the pursuit of any particular cause or interest.