Asia’s Conflict-Ridden Rise to Power

Image courtesy of The Times Photography

The 21st century is largely going to be an Asian century, as the transfer of power from the West to the East is ostensibly gathering pace (Hoge, 2004: 2). With the global economic dominance of The United States in decline and the European markets in disarray, Asia is fast becoming the world’s main creditor and economic locomotive (Chellaney, 2012). These economic changes are bringing about changes in the perceived distribution of strategic power, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where the US has traditionally been preponderant (Mearsheimer, 2010: 381). Yet, given that shifts of power between states, or between regions, are rarely peaceful, why haven’t these power changes looked like resulting in conflict and will this be sustainable? This peaceful scenario is made even more incredible by the existence of potential flashpoints of conflict across the continent, which could become catalysts for full-scale war if ignited. What, then, is preventing power-change conflict from occurring in the Asia-Pacific region and will it continue to do so in the future?

The rise of Asia and the potential power-change conflict it entails

There are many indicators to Asia’s rise. China’s amazing growth is the most obvious factor. Reflecting this growth, Kissane, using a power cycle theory analysis, claimed in 2001 (116) that “China has more than tripled its share of the relative power of the major power system” since 1950 “and continues to increase its share”. However, as Hoge (2004) notes, China is not alone – at least in economic terms – as other Asian states boast growth rates much higher than their Western counterparts.

Japan was only recently displaced as the world’s second biggest economy by China but according to Chellaney (2012: 3), it “will remain a strong power for the foreseeable future, given its $5.5 trillion economy, Asia’s largest naval fleet, high-tech industries and a per-capita income still eight to nine times greater than China’s”. Also, if India sustains its high growth rate for 50 years, which is entirely possible according to some financial analysts, it will eventually equal or overtake China (Hoge, 2004). Along with this, one cannot deny the strong economic potentials of the “Four Asian Tigers” of Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore either.

History shows that when power distributions are in the process of change, rarely does it prove peaceful. Once states grow more powerful and the global order begins to change in their favour, they become more self-assured and try to continue their rise to ascendancy, which may produce tension with the already dominant power(s), which see their rises in terms of mounting challenges. Meanwhile, other states start to fret over securing their position in the emerging order. Power-change conflict occurs when these trends stir tensions. Both World Wars were examples of this, as Japan and Germany saw a window of opportunity to rise to predominance due to the perceived decline of the major powers of the day (Overy, 1995: 7-8).

Power-change tensions are seemingly simmering today in Asia, reflected in states’ attitudes towards each other. America is subtly seeking to exert its influence in the region to possibly contain a mounting threat from China by setting up an alliance structure with China’s neighbours who would be threatened by its ascension, whilst the Obama administration officially adopts a pro-China stance (Rajagopalan, 2009: 21). This is best exemplified by the quadrilateral alignment it seeks to foster with Japan, India and Australia (White, 2008).

If this is true, we can begin to see the formation of two Asian coalition blocs (White, 2008; Rajagopalan, 2009: 19). Chellaney (2012: 2) observes that this is resulting in a Cold-War-like geopolitical divide between democracies in one camp and autocracies and pariah states in another, which may contribute to power-change tensions.

Meanwhile, China is becoming much more assertive in its foreign policy. It has been trying to affect change in international institutions, regimes and norms to suit its interests, become more actively engaged in matters of “core national interest”, such as its disputed claims to the resource-rich South China Sea, and increasingly flexed its economic and military muscles by threatening to impose sanctions for the first time on US companies selling arms to Taiwan and conducting unprecedentedly large naval exercises (Friedberg, 2011; Ikenberry, 2008: 23).

Other Asian nations are displaying interesting trends as well. Japan of late has shown more nationalistic leanings, suggesting it is time to become more independent from the US and opening up to the possibility of expanding its military and nuclear programs to shield itself from potential threats of China and North Korea (Chellaney, 2010; Rajagopalan, 2009: 15). South Korea has grown increasingly enamoured with China and disaffected with America, while Sino-Indian relations have remained rather ambiguous (Hoge, 2004).

Potential flashpoints of conflict in the continent could easily spark power-change conflict

Adding to the pressures of power-change conflict, there are two types of clashes regularly going on in the continent: geopolitical disputes, such as political or territorial ones, and tensions over water and energy distribution.

The continent is strewn with geopolitical disputes. Territorial disputes are common between Asian countries, and when one involves two of the continent’s most powerful, nuclear states, one which sees itself as challenging for supremacy and the other which sees itself as a future challenger, power-change conflict doesn’t look so unthinkable. China and India are at odds over the ownership of territory in Kashmir, and have failed for decades to settle the issue politically. Other territorial disputes have become prevalent in the news of late, with China’s newfound assertiveness over its territorial interests in the South China Sea which has worried of some of its Asian neighbours (Lague, 2012).

China is also embroiled in a political dispute with Taiwan, dating back to their split in 1949. America has historically taken Taiwan’s side in the dispute, and it is believed that the only scenario in which China would do something irrational and spark a massive power-change conflict with the US would be one involving Taiwan. The other potential flashpoint for a geopolitical dispute to spur a regional and global power-change conflict rests in the nuclear troubles in North Korea, as it could potentially involve all of the US, China, both sides on the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Whereas all the abovementioned tensions could be – and are being – solved politically, disputes over water and energy consumption could be more volatile in the future. Energy usage in Asia is rapidly rising, as the middle classes grow across the continent. This is problematic for Asian countries because they rely on oil to be imported (Funabashi, 2010). However, potential conflict over water is more critical within the continent in the long run, as it could severely put strains on relations between Asian nations – particularly India – and China, whose annexation of Tibet means it controls the Himalayan headwaters of the main rivers of India and Southeast Asia and other Asian neighbours (Bolton, 2010: 24).

So why isn’t conflict erupting in Asia and will it continue to be like this?

Given the potential for power-change conflict in the Asia-Pacific region, especially with all of its possible catalysts, why has it failed to erupt and is this sustainable? From a realist perspective, the prolonged peace within Asia may be a result of power-balancing. According to Xuetong (2003: 30), some scholars say China and the US have balanced each other out with their spheres of interest amongst Asia’s continental and oceanic countries respectively. With the advent of Nuclear Deterrence in an Asymmetric Power Structure (NDAPS) in the modern era, this power-balance is possible even though US far outbalances China in respect to traditional power capabilities. As Lundberg (2010: 2) puts it, “even China’s asymmetric nuclear deterrence capabilities can raise the risk of a degree of Mutually Assured Destruction” so America would not want to attack it. Therefore, for a realist, power-change conflict won’t occur if China and America are able deter each other from instigating any sort of conflict with the threat of MAD.

However, the realist perspective is not entirely cogent in explaining whether this peace is sustainable. By placing the agency in states as rational actors, realists fail to take into account the possibility of individuals or domestic regimes doing something irrational to incite conflict, which is possible when we’re talking about the likes of the People’s Liberation Army, especially with Taiwan, or North Korea’s military dictatorship and its nuclear obsession, among other things.

Through Liberal and/or Constructivist ideas of complex interdependence, regional institutionalism and co-operative security, we can find a complement to the idea of NDAPS in explaining how power-change conflict is being prevented in Asia. The biggest factor promoting peace in the Asia-Pacific region is the atmosphere of cooperation, mainly economic, being fostered by regional institutions such as the East Asian Community (ASEAN) and its various permutations and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

By reinforcing economic cooperation and entrenching more interdependence across borders and seas, as well as implementing confidence-building measures, these integration models are helping to keep power-change conflict at bay. If they can consolidate a security community through initiatives such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which they are currently trying hard to achieve, then peaceful settlements to all conflicts, let alone those relating to power-changes, will look more realistic (Xuetong, 2003: 48).

One cannot look past the efforts of states to contribute to confidence building measures through bilateral engagement either. The best example of this has been through China’s attitude change towards Taiwan from one consumed by power politics to one looking to build institutional links to foster a peaceful relationship. Through a systematic embedding of economic interdependence across the Strait, the Mainland expects “that the ‘spillover effect’ of economic cooperation could help bridge the current political and ideological gulf between the two sides” (Xin, 2010: 538), which has effectively allowed relations between the two to significantly improve in recent years.

Thus, security from power-change conflicts in Asia-Pacific seems to be dependent on the deterrence measures associated with NDAPS, in conjunction with attempts to build a security community and foster economic interdependence within the region through institutions such as ASEAN and APEC, as well through bilateral engagement. If the region continues on its path of fostering an atmosphere of cooperation and confidence-building, the absence of power-change conflict will continue into the foreseeable future.



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Xin, Qiang, 2010, “Beyond power politics: institution-building and Mainland China’s Taiwan policy transition.” Journal of Contemporary China, 19 (65) June 2010, pp 525-539

Xuetong Yan, 2003, “Decade of peace in East Asia.” East Asia: An International Quarterly, 20 (4) Winter 2003, pp 29-51 (p. 30 & 48)

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