It has become something of a cliche to predict that Asia will dominate the 21st century. It is a safe prediction, given that Asia is already home to nearly 60 percent of the world’s population and accounts for roughly 25 percent of global economic output. Asia is also the region where many of this century’s most influential countries — including China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Indonesia and the US — interact.
However, to point to Asia’s growing importance says nothing about its character. There can be two, very different Asian centuries, and the one that emerges will have profound consequences for the region’s peoples and governments — and for the world.
One future is an Asia that is relatively familiar: a region whose economies continue to enjoy robust levels of growth and manage to avoid conflict with one another.
The second future could hardly be more different: an Asia of increased tensions, rising military budgets and slower economic growth. Such tensions could spill over and impede trade, tourism and investment, especially if incidents occur between rival air or naval forces operating in close proximity over or around disputed waters and territories. Cyberspace is another domain in which competition could get out of hand.
The question is this: Will 21st-century Asia resemble Europe — the dominant region of much of modern history — during the first half of the 20th century, when it experienced two wars of unprecedented cost and destruction, or the second half, when tensions with the Soviet Union were effectively managed and Western Europe experienced unprecedented peace and prosperity?
The reference to Europe is instructive, because Europe did not just get lucky. History unfolded as it did only because its political leaders demonstrated great vision and discipline. As a result, long-term adversaries like France and Germany were reconciled within a regionwide project — first a coal-and-steel community, which expanded to become the European Economic Community and, ultimately, the EU — that integrated the continent politically and economically to such an extent that violent conflict was rendered unthinkable.
All of this is worth considering, because few parallels are to be found in contemporary Asia. On the contrary, the region is notable for a lack of meaningful regional agreements and institutions, particularly in the political-military and security spheres. Moreover, a marked lack of reconciliation and settlement of longstanding disputes makes it all too easy to imagine not only a military incident involving two or more neighbors, but also the possibility that such an incident leads to something larger.
Many of these disputes date back to World War II, or even before. The Koreas and China harbor strong anti-Japanese sentiment. There is no Russia-Japan peace treaty, and the two countries have competing claims over the Kuril Islands (known as the Northern Territories to the Japanese). The border between China and India is also a matter of contention.
The regional security climate has only worsened in recent years. One reason is the continued division of the Korean Peninsula and the threat that a nuclear-armed North Korea poses to its own people and its neighbors. China has added to regional tensions with a foreign policy — including advancing territorial claims in the East and South China Seas — that would be described diplomatically as “assertive,” and more bluntly as “bullying.”