Power Shifts in Asia and the Role of the USA
Peaceful power shifts between states or regions have been rare in history. Similarly, it is to be feared that the power shifts going on within the international system today will not take a peaceful course because they require striking a balance between the interests of political and cultural traditions which could hardly differ more than they do. For it is mainly the populous states of Asia that are demanding a greater role in global politics these days. The changes initiated by the end of the Cold War were profound not only in Europe but in Asia as well. Next to powerful China, it is mainly India which keeps trying to enhance its influence in Asia and even extend it beyond the region. In the space of no more than a few years, China has moved into the centre of international politics. The country is growing stronger not only in economic but also in political terms, advancing to the status of a world power and, by the same token, rivalling the USA. While China’s foreign policy mainly focusses on east and south east Asia in geographical terms, it also shows a growing interest in other regions, such as central Asia and the Near and Middle East, because of its growing energy needs. The impact of China’s rise is felt everywhere. By now, the country ranks first among the trading partners of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and occupies rank three in the USA. To be sure, Beijing is confronted by great challenges, but the economic boom continues unbroken despite the baleful prophecies of the past – the country has become a global player. India is another economic heavyweight that became the talk of the region a while ago. China’s rapid rise helped to invigorate Delhi’s economic and political endeavours. Today, India is fully integrated into the global economy, and its national economy is one of the most dynamic to be found anywhere. And since the end of the Cold War, when the country’s former nonalignment policy was called into question, many things have changed in the political field as well. Today, India’s foreign policy follows a realistic approach that is guided by the country’s own national interests. Asia’s rise has only just begun, and if its great powers manage to hold on to their stability, its growth might endure. China was stronger than Japan for along time, but in the last 200 years, Japan gained ascendancy. Today, both countries are powerful, a fact which represents a particular challenge to the endeavours to maintain security and stability. Relations between India and China are characterized by a traditional rivalry over status and influence within the region, with China claiming a leading role for itself without ever recognizing India as a partner of equal rank. Thus, for instance, the Chinese turned a deaf ear to Nehru’s vision of an Indian-Chinese axis. Beijing and Delhi are still locked in a dispute over open border questions. Bilateral relations began to grow more relaxed only recently, although it does appear likely that the rivalry between India and China will persist. Another factor in the region’s power fabric is the USA, whose influence began to extend across the Pa-cific as well as the Atlantic 150 years ago. Washing-ton’s Asian policy focusses mainly on three objectives: First, there are the country’s traditional economic interests in the region. Second, it is pursuing security-policy interests that go back to the time of the Cold War. And third, it wishes to promote the spread of American values within the region. The network of economic contacts between the USA and the national economies of Asia is growing denser by the day. For half a century, Asia’s growth has been underpinned mainly by exports, and its most important export market is the USA. At the same time, Asia’s culture is being increasingly moulded by the Americans. A considerable proportion of Asia’s elites is taught at American schools and universities. And finally, many countries in the region enjoyed decades of relative peace because of Washington’s guarantees of security – a peace which allowed their national economies to flourish in its shadow. Today, however, stability is threatened as Asia now harbours quite a number of international hotspots. The two Asian shooting stars are entangled in hazardous territorial conflicts. In addition, they are confronted by grave challenges including, for instance, domestic problems, ossified leadership structures, ethnic conflicts, and ubiquitous corruption. Because of all this, the interest of the US in preserving stability in Asia is urgent indeed. In Washington’s Asian strategy, east and particularly north east Asia are regions of outstanding importance. Together with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the risk that the economic and social system of the People’s Republic might collapse presents a great challenge. The Korean peninsula has been a persistent security problem both for the region and for Washington ever since the end of the Second World War and the division of Korea. The alliance with Japan forms the core of America’s Asian policy. In Washington’s political relations with Beijing as well as with south east Asia, it is an enduring constant. China’s ambitions to enhance its role in regional and global politics will very likely entail a conflict with the USA, in which the Taiwan question will probably be of particular importance. At the same time, the two countries share certain interests, and fields of cooperation are opening up. Since the events of 9/11, south east Asia’s importance for the US has grown as well: There, the focus of attention is on Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country and a stage for anti-western terrorist attacks. While relations between Indonesia and the US are by no means free of problems at present, those with other countries in the region, such as the Philippines and Singapore, have been improving. Another region of importance for Washington is south Asia. Here, the US tries to prevent any destabilizing developments such as a renewal of the war between India and Pakistan in which, at worst, even nuclear weapons might be employed. However, it appears doubtful whether American politics will ever succeed in bringing the conflict over Cashmere closer to a solution. It is becoming increasingly clear that a new triangle of power consisting of China, India, and the US is emerging in the Asian region, although the US will go on playing a dominant role. In this development, each player is haunted by the concern that the two others might band together against him. The construction of the power triangle itself is asymmetrical in two respects: On the one hand, China and India are more concerned about the aforementioned possibility than the American side. On the other hand, Washington’s and Beijing’s interest in mutual relations is greater. China’s political and economic rise will probably be unstoppable in the years to come. India, too, belongs to those states within the region that powerfully strive for greater influence. Nor should Japan be written off entirely, and the Asian interests of the USA as the only remaining world power continue unbroken. Given this dynamism, the importance of this power constellation is bound to grow in the years to come, both in Asia itself and in the world as a whole. It would be fatal for Europe to do nothing more than take note of this development.