Significant movements in world affairs often go unnoticed by the media. For what fits inside the strictures of hard news are usually dramatic statements by politicians, dramatic actions by military units or dramatic economic shifts. But what also really changes history are the gradual developments that accrue over time. That’s one of the reasons you are liable to learn more by reading serious books or scholarly reports than by reading newspapers. Asia is a case in point.
The news about Asia is relentlessly repetitive and often insignificant, however tragic in human terms sometimes. Indeed, the recent building collapse in Bangladesh was heartrending, but geopolitically it was of marginal importance. The jousting between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea is important — but after reading about it for months on end, unrevealing. The same with the islands in the South China Sea. We already know that Japan has a more activist prime minister and for years his country has been shedding its quasi-pacifism, if only the media would finally tell us more.
So what is really going on in Asia, slowly and undramatically in news terms but critically in historical terms? It is the demonstrable tendency of Asian countries to strengthen ties with each other rather than solely depend on the United States for balancing against China. According to the Center for a New American Security in Washington, a centrist think tank with which I am affiliated, the growing momentum of bilateral links of nearly every country with nearly every other one is nothing less than an “emerging Asian power web.” Over the past decade, this expanding network of relationships within the Indo-Pacific has included high-level defense visits, bilateral security arrangements, joint operations and military exercises, arms sales and military education programs.
The bottom line: As Asian countries — from India to Vietnam to Indonesia to Malaysia to Japan and so on — arise out of poverty, guerrilla war and stagnation, they are forging robust relationships with each other, providing a whole new security dynamic to go alongside the U.S.-China rivalry. The Asian power web is also an offshoot of the emergence of midlevel powers, which are now forging deeper links with each other — thus “widening the analytical aperture,” in the words of the report, through which international relations must be viewed.
Keep in mind that by 2025, Asia is likely to account for almost half of the world’s economic output and four of the world’s top 10 economies: China, India, Japan and Indonesia. Moreover, Asian investment in the United States and U.S. investment in Asia have doubled over the past decade. To the extent that any one part of the world is more important than any other, Asia should now dominate American foreign policy thinking, especially since the war in Iraq is over, the one in Afghanistan is winding down and the likelihood of boots on the ground in Syria is small. The first-term Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia was less a bold departure than an acknowledgment of ongoing trends.
To be sure, the United States has been busy negotiating increased access and presence arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, notably rotating up to 2,500 Marines through northern Australia and rotating up to four new littoral combat ships through Singapore. By 2020, the ratio of American warship deployments between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans will change from 50-50 to 60-40. But as the emerging Asian power web reveals, America’s renewed emphasis on the region represents only one level of the strategic changes afoot, especially as the size of the American Navy reaches a plateau. To wit, India is training Vietnamese submariners. Japan has signed a security arrangement with Australia. Japan has also increased its high-level exchanges with South Korea by more than 50 percent since 2000. Indonesia and Malaysia have more than doubled their respective high-level exchanges with India and Singapore during the past decade. Vietnam and Australia now regularly exchange high-level military delegations. Vietnam and Japan have announced their intention to accelerate defense cooperation, as have Vietnam and India. Perhaps more significantly, trade between India and the countries of Southeast Asia increased 37 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone. This is part of a proliferation of intraregional foreign trade agreements.
Some of this may just be fluff. Politicians announce many initiatives at summits that rarely amount to anything. And whatever the intentions, meetings alone do not change the dynamics of raw military and economic power. Moreover, all these nations are disparate and divided, and China has numerous levers to use against each separately, and against such a fragile webwork of smaller powers. So one must ask: Can this new webwork function without the United States as a ringleader? Moreover, despite this flurry of new bilateral defense cooperation, can any of these countries really fight in a war? Only Australia, India and Vietnam have been tested on the battlefield in decades, and even then, not in a meaningful sense so far as the scaled-up use of air and naval forces is concerned. Nothing reveals military inadequacies like actual combat. That’s why the United States is so dominant. Say what you will about Iraq and Afghanistan and drone strikes, but they have continued for more than a decade to hone the skills that matter most in the U.S. military. Therefore, short of an outbreak of hostilities, one of the best ways to judge this emerging Asian power web is by the quality of joint military exercises, hours of flying time of fighter jets and so forth.
But maybe there are other ways to evaluate what is happening. As the report states, countries in the region “have begun hedging against” various uncertainties “by deepening engagement with like-minded states” in order to build a diversified “portfolio” that “reduces the risk of overinvesting” in the military power of the United States or in the economic power of China. Of course, a number of these bilateral agreements constitute diplomatic superficialities — but that’s how many serious relationships begin in the first place. Give the process time, in other words. The point is that Asian countries are scared, even as they have become more powerful. They are concerned about China’s regional economic dominance, despite China’s own economic problems. And they are worried that the United States might not have the staying power over the long run to remain militarily engaged in the Pacific Basin to the degree that it has in the past: budget cuts, sequestration, a history of abandoning regional partners and perhaps even a vague isolationist impulse are all things emanating from Washington that cause anxiety among Asian allies.
This desire to start the process of hedging against a one-dimensional, hub-and-spoke approach to Washington and Beijing comes at a historical moment when various Asian countries have the wherewithal, conceivably, to act in unison. After all, India is emerging as an authentic midlevel power with a sizable military — with great power pretensions deeper into the new century. Japan is adopting a normal, non-apologetic attitude toward its own, altogether considerable military might. Australia, always a feisty military power with a heroic tradition to go with it, has begun to see beyond American military unipolarity. Vietnam and Malaysia, with all their recent economic and domestic political travails, have emerged in the past half-century from long periods of internal wars and rebellions to project power out into the South China Sea. Indonesia has yet to fall apart and, meanwhile, is becoming an economy of scale in its own right. Singapore has always punched above its weight militarily and has always been eager to network with other states.
The emerging Asian power web is another aspect of the so-called rise of the rest, as opposed to the continued dominance of the United States and Europe. More specifically, it shows how the era of Western domination of the Pacific and Indian oceans, initiated by the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century, is continuing to ebb as China rises and other Asian states draw closer in some ways to each other. The question now becomes: Will China continue to rise? Or, will it falter domestically in the face of an excruciatingly complex economic transition? And how might that affect regional power dynamics? The last place to look for such gradual developments may be in the newspapers.