The Manchurian Paradox

In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, for the first time since the beginning of modernity in the sixteenth century, the single largest concentration of global economic power will be found not in Europe or in the Americas, but in Asia. C. Dale Walton, in his recent book Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century, has evocatively called this shift “the coming of the post-Columbian epoch”. Similarly, the leading Singaporean intellectual Kishore Mahbubani has written of Asia’s rise as carrying with it an “irresistible shift of global power to the East” which will transform the world.

Yet this economic revolution is not matched by any corresponding sense of geopolitical certainty. Indeed, the dominant feature of contemporary Asian geopolitics is that of change occurring against an unresolved tension between the direction of economic growth and that of strategic alignment. The vital interests of the world’s lone superpower, the USA, and those of the great powers of China, Japan, India and Russia are all engaged in Asia in a climate of uncertainty about motives, actions and future directions. Asia’s rise to economic supremacy is occurring against a geopolitical environment that lacks formal security architecture for either stable arms control regimes or structured conflict-resolution. American supremacy is challenged by the rise of China and the growing multipolarity of Asia as a whole. More ominously, concern over long-term regional security is fuelling a process of military modernisation across East, Central and South Asia, including weapons of mass destruction through missile defence and information technologies to a steady growth in power-projection capabilities.

Asia is also increasingly a laboratory for the cross-cutting themes of what US political scientist James Rosenau has called “the two worlds of world politics”—that is, the old security agenda of realist geopolitics and inter-state rivalry and the new security agenda of globalised security and non-state threats. In terms of the old security agenda, Asia is home to eight of the world’s ten largest militaries; it contains four dangerous flashpoints in the form of the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, Kashmir and the Pakistan-Afghanistan crisis. There is a volatile mixture of Islamist extremism, transnational threats and weak states in South Asia and parts of South-East Asia. To quote a 2008 study on American policy in Asia, The Power of Balance, by Kurt M. Campbell, Nirav Patel and Vikram J. Singh of the Washington think-tank the Center for New American Security:

Asia is not a theatre at peace … The continent harbors every traditional and non-traditional challenge of our age; it is a cauldron of religious and ethnic tension; a source of terror and extremism; an accelerating driver of the insatiable global appetite for energy; the place where the most people will suffer the adverse effects of global climate change; the primary source of nuclear proliferation and the most likely theatre on Earth for a major conventional confrontation and even a nuclear conflict.

The point in sketching these challenges is not to scaremonger but to underline the impossibility of taking the pulse of contemporary Asia without reference to the intimate relationship between the three imperatives of geopolitics, strategic alignment and military modernisation.

Accordingly, this article seeks to examine three areas in order to determine Asia’s current strategic condition and geopolitical outlook. First, it provides a thumbnail sketch of the complex trajectory of Asia’s sub-regional geopolitics and their nexus with economic globalisation. Second, it analyses the extent to which the interacting forces of economic globalisation, geopolitical uncertainty and military modernisation are fostering the rise of new capabilities—in particular force projection capabilities—that may, over time, affect the balance of power. Here, the focus is mainly on the arsenals of the three indigenous Asian giants, China, Japan and India, all of whom possess significant land, air and sea assets. Russia is not considered largely because it no longer possesses its powerful Soviet-era Pacific fleet and has, in essential respects, retreated to its traditional role as a Eurasian land power. Finally, the article briefly assesses geopolitical and military power trends in Asia against the reality of continued US power and does so in the light of the current, and highly fashionable, debate in academic circles on alleged “American decline”.

Primacists, Exceptionalists and Pragmatists

The shift in global economic power from West to East has seen no shortage of prediction and punditry on the likely shape of Asian geopolitics in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Judging by the huge popular literature that continues to be published, all one needs is a rush of statistics, an occasional nod to Asia’s history and a Confucian aphorism here and there. Yet, the very term “Asia” requires qualification. The region contains an East Asia of the so-called quadrilateral of the USA, China, Japan and Russia; a South Asia in which India and Pakistan have their own rivalries; and a Central Asia, where the interests of China and Russia are engaged in an environment of the politics of energy access. In South-East Asia, stability is largely dependent on the internal cohesion of Indonesia, the great Muslim pivot country of the sub-region where democratic rule remains in its infancy. These diverse sub-regional strategic problems are emblematic of the fluid and unstructured geopolitical environment of Asia in general.

Much analysis is, however, driven by what Zbigniew Brzezinski has defined as the core uncertainty facing Asia as a whole, namely the problem of a stable East Asia. East Asia is in many respects the strategic anchor of the entire region in that the vital interests of the world’s three most economically powerful states, the USA, China and Japan intersect. As Brzezinski puts it in his 2004 book, The Choice, “East Asia is yet to establish whether its geopolitical future will resemble the Europe of the first half of the twentieth century or the Europe of the second half of the twentieth century.” In East Asia, continued American supremacy, the rise of China and corresponding Japanese anxiety—all fuelled by a range of national pathologies, painful historical memories, and unresolved territorial and maritime disputes—have the potential to collide.

Complicating rivalry in East Asia is the emergence of what Brzezinski calls the new “Global Balkans” of Eurasia—that resource-rich area stretching from Suez through Central and South Asia to Xinjiang, an area that engages not only the interests of the East Asian powers proper but also Russia, India and Pakistan. If the future of Eurasia is to be secured over the long term it must be done from the pivot of a stable East Asian geopolitical anchor forged by the USA, China and Japan in co-operation with India, Russia, Pakistan and the new republics of Central Asia.

In generic terms, there are really three contending schools of thought on the future of Asia, all of which pivot around the stability of East Asia and the key question of the rise of China. These schools can be shorthanded as the primacist or “the strategic competition” school; the exceptionalist or “the peaceful rise” school; and the pragmatic or “competitive coexistence” school.

The primacist school takes a realist view of Asia’s future, as portrayed by Western scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Robyn Lim. It argues that Europe’s pre-1945 past is likely to be Asia’s future. In this view, Asia eerily resembles Europe before 1914. China’s emergence is analogous to that of Imperial Germany with Beijing seen as an inevitable strategic competitor of the USA.

The realists are fond of recalling Thucydides’s observation about the Peloponnesian War: “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta”. Transpose China for Athens and Sparta for America and we have Mearsheimer’s “tragedy of great power politics”. As the Australian scholar Robyn Lim puts it in her 2003 book, The Geopolitics of East Asia, the interaction of economic development, military technology, strategic geography and national interest will inexorably lead to a systemic crisis among the “quadrilateral powers” of the USA, China, Japan and Russia.

In the Mearsheimer–Lim view, great power competition is an historical rule as fixed as Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Given that strategic competition is inevitable, the USA has little choice but to keep its Asian alliance system in good order, particularly the Japanese alliance, if it is to contain China’s rise over the long term. In this context, it is no accident that within the Bush II administration, Richard Armitage, as Deputy Secretary of State, advocated a calibrated upgrading of the US-Japanese alliance, describing Japan as “America’s Britain in Asia”.

Primacists believe that Deng Xiaoping’s late-twentieth-century strategy of economic modernisation will translate into a twenty-first-century strategic challenge to the American-brokered status quo. They point to Chinese military modernisation in general, and to its anti-access missile strategy in particular, to highlight their strategic concerns. They also highlight China’s stealthy “string of pearls” strategy of “building presence”—which stretches through the South China littorals, the Strait of Malacca across the Indian Ocean and on to the Persian Gulf—as a precursor to future expeditionary bases in countries such as Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Cambodia and along the Horn of Africa.

A variation on the Mearsheimer–Lim view is that recently provided by James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara in their 2008 books, Chinese Naval Strategy in the Twenty-First Century: The Turn to Mahan and Asia Turns Seaward: Power and Maritime Strategy—both of which cleverly situate discussion of Chinese naval development in the context of Asian geopolitics. Holmes and Yoshihara argue that China, traditionally a continental power, is turning seaward. Its orientation in sea power is changing from Theodore Ropp’s philosophy of continental navalism towards Alfred Thayer Mahan’s blue-water maritime ideology.

Three main reasons are advanced for China’s turn seaward. First, the landward threats China once faced from Central Asia are now much diminished, with relations with a diminished Russia relatively stable. As a result, future conflict is far more likely in China’s oceanic periphery, not its continental hinterlands. Second, China’s huge energy dependence on foreign oil demands the development of a Gorshkovian blue-water fleet to secure its sea lines of communications in the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca. Third, of course, there is the Taiwan imperative. In the South China Sea, Taiwan holds the strategic “central position” off China’s mainland in the island chain overlooking the Western Pacific and so controls the throat of the Malacca Strait that is vital to Chinese prosperity. For sound geopolitical reasons, then, China will become an amphibious power like the contemporary United States. Vital interests will see Beijing develop a “crouching tiger, swimming dragon” strategy based on a “creeping assertiveness” towards the projection of naval forces and the acquisition of expeditionary capabilities. 

The second school, the exceptionalists, view Asia as a place where China’s “peaceful rise” is possible because a Chinese exceptionalism based on Confucian-Mencian ideas will avoid an “Asian Europe”. This school is clearly influenced by the policy outlined by the Chinese political strategist Zheng Bijian, in his seminal Foreign Affairs article of September 2005, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to Great-Power Status”. He outlines a doctrine of Chinese exceptionalism based on economic and social values and a rejection of great power military confrontation. Accordingly, US analysts such as William H. Overholt in his 2008 study, Asia, America and the Transformation of Geopolitics, view Confucian values of modernisation derived from Hong Kong and Singapore as the driver of Chinese policy and cite Deng’s famous phrase on pragmatism: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white; so long as it catches mice it is a good cat.” The Chinese communist elite are seen as “Market-Leninists” more in tune with the values of Gordon Gekko than Mao Zedong. Exceptionalists uphold former President Jiang Zemin’s “sixteen-character” guiding principle on US-China relations: “enhance trust, reduce trouble, develop cooperation, and avoid confrontation”. They also emphasise the potential of the Six Party Talks on North Korea from 2003 to 2007 to evolve into a multilateral security regime for North-East Asia over the next decade.

In some ways, the exceptionalist school is reinforced in its views by Robert Ross’s seminal 1999 essay in the journal International Security, “The Geography of the Peace: East Asia in the Twenty-First Century”. Taking his title from Nicholas Spykman’s celebrated 1944 study, The Geography of the Peace, on the emerging postwar world order, Ross argues that a de facto “geography of the peace” exists and will be perpetuated in twenty-first-century Asia. The discrete geopolitical zones of influence established during the Cold War are deeply entrenched and cannot be easily transformed. For example, China dominates continental East Asia while the USA dominates maritime East and South-East Asia, so creating a continental-oceanic bipolar balance of power. Because the Chinese and US spheres of influence are so geographically distinct, major armed conflict is unlikely. China cannot match America’s system of maritime-littoral offshore balancing. Similarly, despite its presence in Korea, the USA has no significant land power interest on the Asian mainland.

In effect the situation is akin to the child’s game of “rock, paper, scissors”, with neither the USA nor China possessing a decisive military edge for all continental-maritime strategic contingencies. In other words, the “geography of the peace” facilitates a peculiar US-Chinese condominium of mutual interests. Indeed, when it comes to US-China relations, many exceptionalists believe that we are no longer in the old world of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate but in a new world of what might be called the Manchurian Paradox. In this new world of paradox, most of Asia wants the USA to play the role of benign ringmaster, to balance China and Japan; China meanwhile needs the USA in Asia to prevent Japanese rearmament and a potential Japan–Taiwan alliance. For its part, the USA requires China’s assistance in dealing with North Korea and WMD proliferation. For the exceptionalists, then, most threats in Asia are no longer traditional but non-traditional and encompass weapons of mass destruction, state failure and non-state actors. They also note that even the great South Asian rivals India and Pakistan have, since 2001, both drawn closer to the USA, so increasing the expansion of the “geography of the peace”.

Finally, many “peaceful risers” suggest that China’s grand strategy is essentially “soft” and economic. Beijing is more interested in the energy resources of the continental hinterland of Eurasia than in challenging US maritime supremacy in the Western Pacific. In the exceptionalist view, China’s natural strategic culture is that of a riverine civilisation, a Mackinderite land power, not a potential Mahanian sea power adopting a blue-water naval fleet. For China, Eurasia holds much greater security opportunities for a new order based on land power influence, one in which it can exploit the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes its former rival Russia. Thus China is much more likely to expand its influence in West and Central Eurasia, leaving Eastern Eurasia to the USA—again the “geography of the peace” is at work.

There is a range of views between the primacists and the exceptionalists in the form of a pragmatic or “competitive coexistence” school which emphasises the complexity, contradiction and ambiguity inherent in Asian geopolitics. A good example of this school is Ashley J. Tellis and Michael D. Swaine who, in their important 2000 RAND Corporation study, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present and Future, put forward the notion that China possesses what they style as a pragmatic “calculative security strategy”—one that emphasises the primacy of economic growth, amicable international relations combined with increasing efforts to create a more modern military, and a continued search for asymmetric strategic advantages. 

Beijing’s calculative strategy is based on hard-headed Chinese perceptions about global power out to 2030. Tellis and Swaine do not suggest that China is inherently peaceful or status quo in its orientation over the long term. Rather, in their 2000 policy prescriptions towards China, they recommended neither containment  nor appeasement but what they called “realistic engagement”—a balanced strategy—aimed at exploring every possibility of avoiding future conflict while indicating to Beijing that challenging the USA militarily would be foolhardy and costly.

Realistic engagement on the lines of the Tellis–Swaine engagement strategy that combines political-economic co-operation and strategic deterrence was and remains influential in shaping US policy, particularly in the form of Robert Zoellick’s 2005 concept of China as a “responsible stakeholder” accepting the norms of the international system.

Asian Geopolitics, Military Modernisation and Force Projection

Historically, it is nearly always the interaction between geopolitical change and military modernisation that tends to destabilise any balance of power. In particular, the development of force projection capabilities challenges geopolitical stability because such capabilities suggest potential transformations in the configuration of any established system of maritime and continental power. The current “geography of the peace” in Asia will be no exception to this rule. There is no doubt that geopolitical uncertainty and a quest for energy access are fuelling what some experts call a “quiet arms race” throughout the sub-regions of contemporary Asia.

In overall terms, between 1994 and 2004, Asian military expenditure grew by 27 per cent; India’s defence budget doubled; while Chinese military expenditure, insofar as it is possible to identify figures, increased by an estimated 140 per cent between 1997 and 2003. Other countries such as Singapore and Australia have not been immune from these trends. Both Singapore and Australia have focused on “Revolution in Military Affairs”-style technologies and improved power projection. Singapore has developed Changi naval base to accommodate American aircraft carriers while Canberra has acquired new amphibious ships and air warfare destroyers.

“Crouching Tiger, Swimming Dragon?” The Meaning of Chinese Military Modernisation. There can be no doubt that China’s military power is growing, but the power-projection imperative in Chinese strategic thinking is not necessarily the driving force behind modernisation. Rather, China’s military seeks a range of important asymmetric capabilities in the form of “an assassin’s mace” of deterrent, compellent and attack capabilities for immediate regional requirements to offset America’s offshore maritime capability.

Official People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategic doctrine is that of “Limited War under High Tech and Information Conditions” in which the missile force, “the Second Artillery” is the mainstay. In terms of regional asymmetric strategies to offset American military muscle, China has achieved what David Shambaugh, the respected China defence specialist, writing in Strategic Asia 2005-06: Military Modernisation in an Era of Uncertainty, calls “a mini-leap forward”. Much of the PLA’s effort over the last decade has been focused on anti-access missiles and land-attack cruise missiles while acquiring command and control, information, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies, electronic warfare capabilities and space technology (as exemplified by the 2007 anti-satellite test); improved air capability through the acquisition of Sukhoi Mark 27 and Mark 30 jets; and developing special operations forces and a number of new naval platforms. Out-of-area activities by the PLA are largely confined to military diplomacy in the so-called “string of pearls” approach to building politico-economic presence. In Shambaugh’s words, “with the exception of certain naval programs, resources are simply not being allocated to building power projection systems that would give the PLA out-of-area capabilities”.

However, are the “certain naval programs” Shambaugh mentions representative of a latent Chinese expeditionary imperative? Are Holmes and Yoshihara right to believe that Beijing’s maritime interests will lead to some attempt at command of the sea within the Asian littoral and that the USA will eventually have to deal with a “crouching tiger, swimming dragon”? It is certainly true that improving the capability of the PLA Navy has been a priority in Chinese military modernisation. For instance, Russia has supplied advanced Sovremenny guided missile destroyers and these combined with the indigenous Luhai-class vessels are sometimes seen as a potential American “Aegis-equivalent” in terms of their missile power and electronic warfare. The submarine force has also acquired new assets in the form of Kilo– and Song-class diesel-powered boats.

Moreover, there is a potential that China’s growing energy security needs may, over time, lead to a markedly improved maritime expeditionary capacity. In 2025, many economists predict that China’s energy consumption may reach 15 to 20 million barrels per day. If so, then securing the flow of global energy raises the inevitable question of whether over the next two decades China will feel the strategic necessity to “turn to Mahan” or whether it will be content with the status quo in which the sea lines of the “global commons” are secured by American maritime power. The sea lines of communication in East Asia and the Indian Ocean that run through to the Persian Gulf are the vital sinews of China’s economy. In particular, the Strait of Malacca—through which much of China’s oil now passes—is a vital strategic asset for China. President Hu Jintao has spoken openly of China’s “Malacca dilemma”—albeit mainly in economic terms. But over time, Beijing may come to see the strategic imperative of a significant maritime expeditionary capability as vital to its interest as a great power.

However, to date and into the immediate future, as Shambaugh notes, the PLA Navy has exhibited little interest in a power projection capability and remains a largely coastal force focused on “active offshore defence” against Taiwan. Moreover, China lacks a strong domestic defence industrial base and has not built any aircraft carriers; it lacks an intercontinental bomber; its numbers of advanced fighters remain limited and it has only a small fleet of in-flight refuellers and airborne early-warning aircraft. Finally, despite its “string of pearls” strategy, China possesses no overseas bases to facilitate a blue-water navy. As a result, for the two decades the Chinese PLA will remain a second-tier military force with a regional outlook.

The Decline of the Yoshida Doctrine: The Implications of Japan’s Quest for “Military Normality”. Until recently Japan’s approach to strategic affairs was defined by the post-1945 Yoshida Doctrine based on a pacifist constitution under which Japan became essentially an American security protectorate and the centre of the US “hub and spoke” system of alliances in Asia. However, the strategic rise of China, continuing fears over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs since 1998, and America’s desire for a militarily stronger Tokyo since the end of the Cold War, have gradually eroded the foundations of this doctrine. Over the last decade, Japan has been engaged in a quest to convert its large Self Defence Force into a “normal military” establishment capable of force projection operations. The strategic analyst Christopher Hughes, in his 2009 study, Japan’s Remilitarisation, argues that, in the early twenty-first century, Tokyo’s security policy is undergoing long-term structural change and that Japan is “set upon a long-term trajectory that will see it assuming a more assertive regional and global security role”.

In its search for military normality, Japan has undertaken a “quantitative build-down” of its Cold War legacy forces in favour of a “qualitative build-up” of new defence capabilities to deal with an uncertain security environment. The aim has been to produce improved ballistic missile defence, greater interoperability with the USA and, most controversially of all, to increase power projection capabilities. In the latter realm, the Maritime Self-Defence Force, traditionally strong in anti-submarine warfare and minesweeping, has invested in force projection capability through an increase in the number of Aegis warfighting Kongo-class destroyers (from four to six), the acquisition of three Osumi transport vessels with flat tops for helicopters; an LPD amphibious ship and production of a new class of DDH destroyers (Destroyer-Helicopter) along with long-range in-flight refuelling aircraft. Japan’s focus on the Osumi and DDH-class vessels has led some in China and elsewhere in the region to believe that Japan may be rehearsing carrier-building technology. This potential has increased the fundamental strategic mistrust between China and Japan. In the future, as Kishore Mahbubani reminds us, the Sino-Japanese relationship, if it is poorly managed, has all the capacity to become as volatile as that between India and Pakistan.

To date, however, despite a stronger focus on force projection, the Japanese have been in reactive mode to meet new global and regional challenges and have acted within the context of their pacifist constitution. Japan remains a constrained military actor with its deployments being mainly of the nation-building and humanitarian kind or designed to uphold international law. Non-combatant Japanese Self-Defence Force contingents have served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan; there have been humanitarian relief missions such as in the 2004 Indonesian tsunami crisis; and naval involvement in international anti-piracy operations in the Malacca Strait. 

On current trends—and barring a US military draw-down or a series of major strategic shocks on the Korean Peninsula or over Taiwan, Japan is unlikely to channel its power projection capacity unilaterally. Rather it is likely to seek “normality” within the framework of both the US alliance and United Nations multilateral security initiatives. In terms of the US alliance, it comes as no surprise that given China’s rise, there has been a conscious, if careful and calibrated, reinvigoration of the US-Japanese Alliance. This has involved joint amphibious exercises such as those in California between the US Navy, Marine Corps and Japanese maritime forces in 2005. Christopher Hughes argues that “it is now possible to envisage a highly interoperable US-Japan military alliance machine … capable of perpetuating US military dominance over the region. The impact on future East Asian security will be profound.” The latter may be one possible long-term outcome of Japan’s evolving security policy but it is not a given. For the near future, it appears as if Japan’s quest for military normalisation will be a peculiarly incremental and discretionary process—one that remains deeply conditioned by the domestic politics of residual pacifism.

Rediscovering Curzon: Indian Geopolitics and Military Modernisation. India is rapidly emerging as a great Asian power and a potential twenty-first-century world economic giant. Geopolitically, the country is moving from a concept of Nehruvian aloofness regarding events in East Asia towards a greater strategic appreciation of India’s centrality in South and East Asian affairs. Some observers have described India as being engaged in a rediscovery of geopolitics along the lines of Lord Curzon’s celebrated 1909 book, The Place of India in the Empire, a study which upheld sea power in the Indian Ocean littoral and East Asia. Curzon, a former viceroy, wrote that India’s “central position” in Asia meant that the country could exert influence in many directions—on Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and China—while controlling the sea routes to Australasia and the China seas. As the Indian strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan observed in his 2003 work, Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy, “for sections of the Indian foreign policy elite who have long dreamt of a powerful role for India in its surrounding regions, Curzon remains a source of foreign policy inspiration”. In January 2002, one former Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit, went so far as to describe Curzon as “among the greatest of the Indian nationalists”. 

India’s main strategic concerns revolve around the rise and growing influence of China in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean and Beijing’s links to Pakistan, the accelerating problem of energy access, and, of course, the long-standing Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. Traditionally, like China, India has had a Mackinderite continental strategic outlook, with the Indian Army being the predominant service. Yet this traditional focus on land power should not be allowed to obscure the reality that with 155 vessels, the Indian Navy is among the ten largest in the world and is the most powerful maritime force in the Indian Ocean after the United States fleet. Moreover, it has a carrier capability which the Indian Navy believes is inherent in developing any serious expeditionary capability.

India’s evolving maritime strategic outlook is reinforced by its apprehension over China’s “string of pearls” strategy particularly with regard to the future of energy security and sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait. It is significant that while China has sought to engage various South-East Asian navies over its “Malacca dilemma” it has not engaged the Indian Navy. Like China, India needs uninterrupted access to oil for its economic growth, and both powers are now competitors for global energy resources. Not surprisingly, energy security has come to occupy a salient position in Indian strategic thinking and is now a motive force in both the development of closer relations with the United States and the development of improved Indian force projection capability along the Indian Ocean littoral. For example, in 2007, the Indian Navy was a major participant in the Malabar exercises in the Bay of Bengal with US, Australian, Japanese and Singaporean fleet elements.

The Indian Navy has been at the cutting edge of India’s new engagement in Asia, as symbolised by its rapid deployment in tsunami relief in late 2004. By 2012, the Indian Navy plans to deploy a refurbished Russian carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, as an “air defence ship”. In the future, it is possible that India could develop a three-carrier force and possibly acquire the maritime version of the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Indian Navy favours the creation of a Joint Rapid Deployment Force, alongside a greater emphasis on amphibious warfare through acquiring new landing ships and helicopters. The Indian Air Force (IAF) meanwhile has sought to project power into Central Asia based on Sukhoi 30s and air-to-air refuelling aircraft. The IAF has a base in Tajikistan and in November 2005 undertook the “Cope India” exercises with the US Air Force.

While India’s force projection capacity remains modest and its main strategic priority continues to be continental defence, we need to be aware that there is a neo-Curzonian impulse at work and that a growing Indocentric vision of geopolitics and strategy is emerging among Indian elites. In the words of Vijay Sakhuja, “New Delhi’s strategic geography now extends far into the South China Sea in the east and to the Red Sea in the west.” In the long term, there is every possibility that an economically vibrant and geopolitically confident twenty-first-century India will become, as C. Raja Mohan puts it, “the swing state in the global balance of power”.

The “American Recessional” and Asian Geopolitics

It has become fashionable in many Asia-Pacific academic circles from Sydney to Shanghai to conclude that the Iraq War is America’s Boer War—a conflict that has sucked the oxygen out of US foreign policy. According to this narrative, America is now a twenty-first-century version of British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain’s “weary Titan [that] staggers under the too vast orb of its fate”. The perception of an American recessional is well put by Kishore Mahbubani when he declares that we have reached the end of Western domination of world history in general, and of American supremacy, in particular. As he wrote in 2006:

The benign American world order conceived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and launched by Harry S. Truman in 1945 has been responsible for the unprecedented global peace and prosperity of the past 60 years. Despite its enormous contribution to humankind, this world order is likely to die in our lifetime.

Yet, like Mark Twain’s death, notions of American decline are greatly exaggerated. We have been here before. In the late 1970s when the USA was haunted by failure in Vietnam, assailed by stagflation and, under the hesitant Carter administration, facing an apparently relentless Soviet military juggernaut, the refrain “American geopolitical decline” was a buzz phrase in many Western universities. In the 1980s, the combination of Japanese economic power and Paul Kennedy’s famous theory of “imperial overstretch” were often cited as evidence of the ebbing of American power. With the Soviets now a relic of history and the Japanese economic model now stagnant and lacking appeal, China and India have become the newly favoured juggernaut powers among caffe latte analysts who view both countries as set to eclipse the United States in the coming decades. As the British strategist Lawrence Freedman has wryly remarked, candidates for peer competition with the USA come and go and “at one point the future spoke in Russian, then in Japanese, and now the bets are on Mandarin”.

Yet this is not a tale foretold or a zero-sum game of Eastern rise and Western fall. A useful corrective to recent declinist literature is Fareed Zakaria’s 2008 book, The Post-American World, which, despite its rather misleading title, makes it clear that America, for all its current economic difficulties and multiple strategic challenges, remains the indispensable global power—the only state that is capable of occupying the role of geopolitical ringmaster—by exerting a Bismarckian “power of balance” in a coming age which Zakaria describes as not so much foreshadowing the decline of the West as indicating “the rise of the rest”.

It is important to remember some essentials: first, the 14 trillion-dollar US economy remains nearly five times the size of China’s. Second, the American defence budget of over $500 billion accounts for 47 per cent of all global military spending, yet still remains only 4 per cent of America’s GDP. Third, American global power is not of the imperial kind based on colonial domination; rather it is based on agreement and consent through a network of alliances, and this network remains intact. For instance, US Pacific Command (PACOM) in Hawaii, with its forward bases in Guam and Diego Garcia, commands over 200,000 personnel and controls a co-operative Asian alliance system that stretches from Seoul through Tokyo to Canberra. Indeed, the beginning of wisdom when discussing the balance of usable conventional military power in the Asia-Pacific is to note that PACOM deploys six carriers, eighteen Aegis cruisers and twenty-six attack submarines.

In many respects, the future challenge the USA faces in Asia is not really military but geopolitical, requiring careful calibration and disaggregation of contending and interdependent global economic and strategic interests. In many key respects, in Asia, it is not so much emerging economic giants such as China and India that adversely threaten American power and influence, but rather failing states that are economic pygmies with oversized arsenals and unpredictable leaders, such as Pakistan and North Korea. Such countries present a bewildering array of systemic challenges ranging from nation-building, through protracted insurgency and terrorism to nuclear proliferation. Thus, despite the patterns of regional military modernisation, the truth remains that no Asian power possesses, or is in the process of seeking to acquire, the sustained power projection capabilities that might challenge either the USA or the present Sino-American geography of the peace. On current trends this situation is likely to continue for at least the next quarter of a century. And even if this situation was to change drastically, given the time that is involved in acquiring new military capabilities there would be sufficient warning time for the USA to undertake strategic counter-measures.   


In Asia, the dominant geopolitical trend is that of change occurring against an unresolved tension between the direction of economic growth and that of strategic alignment. Given this tension, Asian military modernisation will always tend to carry the danger of a potential challenge to the maritime-continental “geography of the peace”. At the heart of Asia’s economic-strategic dissonance, however, lies what US scholar David M. Lampton calls in his excellent 2008 book, The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Money, Might and Mind, a great “double gamble” that is being undertaken by China and the USA.

For China the gamble is that the USA will, despite misgivings and reservations, accept its “peaceful rise” without hindrance; for America the gamble is that by 2030 China’s “peaceful rise” will integrate the Middle Kingdom into the fabric of international norms as a status quo not a revolutionary power—“a responsible decent role model for others”. Most Asia-Pacific countries—not least Australia—have an existential stake in the success of this unprecedented double gamble in which the Chinese economic miracle becomes the twin brother of the benign American security umbrella. We need to remember that historically, it has always been China’s failure and its weakness, not its success and its strength, that has created regional chaos. As the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi remarked:

Talk of China as a threat presupposes it has a planned agenda. I don’t think it has one. If China’s economic reforms fail miserably, there will be no need for an agenda; the outflow of people will knock us all down.

Indeed, in contemporary Asia there are many imponderables, both traditional and non-traditional, that could “knock us all down”. These imponderables range from inter-state military rivalry and maritime energy competition to protracted insurgency and terrorism, failed states, weapons of mass destruction threats and economic collapse—any of which could interact to spark a chain-reaction crisis that spins into possible fatal miscalculation. Moreover, there will always be potential for the contending imperatives inherent in the USA–Japan military alliance on the one hand, and those of the USA–China political-economic condominium on the other to become gradually irreconcilable over the next two decades.

It will be the central challenge of American and Chinese statesmanship in the first quarter of the twenty-first century to ensure that, in Asia in general and East Asia in particular, Robert Ross’s co-existent “geography of the peace” continues to prevail and that we are not propelled, by either accident or design, into the bleak conflict universe of John Mearsheimer’s “tragedy of great power politics”.

Dr Michael Evans is the ADC Fellow at the Australian Defence College, Canberra. This article reflects the author’s personal views and is based on a discussion paper delivered to the Asia Study Group of the US Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia in May.

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