Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
The bipolar view of Asian power does not fit the reality of a complex region. And as regional power becomes more diverse and diffuse, it will fit less and less.
A man walks past the Malaysia's iconic Petronas Twin Towers ahead for the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on 23 April 2015. Photo by Getty Images.A man walks past the Malaysia's iconic Petronas Twin Towers ahead for the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on 23 April 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

It is hard to get away from the US-China bipolar narrative. Despite the presence of dozens of world leaders in New York for the September UN General Assembly meetings, including for example Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the media was focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping and the US-China relationship (although the Pope was some distraction). With the announcement of successful Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations a week later, much of the rhetoric is whether the US has done this to counter China’s rise. It is difficult for analysts to look beyond this bilateral relationship.

As an American former senior government official told me last year, it is hard to stop looking at the ‘bright shiny object’, in this case China. It is bigger and moving faster than anything else. And thus for most it becomes, like Japan before it, either a potential threat to US leadership, or an opportunity.

Such thinking is not restricted to the United States. In a series of interviews with senior officials and other analysts in China, India, Japan and other Asian nations, we found the common narrative of the power balance in Asia revolves around the idea of US-China bipolarity.

Nevertheless, as our recent report 'The Asia-Pacific Power Balance: Beyond the US-China Narrative' shows, this bipolar perspective does not fit the reality. As one looks out 15 or so years, it will become even less reflective.

Measures of power

Power was historically measured by the size of ones military or economy. But today, such simplistic analyses are vastly outdated. A much more diverse set of tools need to be considered in analysing the relative power and influence of different actors. But even in these two areas, the message is a far from straight forward one.

While America has the largest defence budget, China has the largest active military in the world. Yet neither are measures of capability. If one takes into consideration such issues as equipment, training, operational history and interoperability with allies, it is clear that the US can bring to bear, with its partners, the most force in this arena. At the same time, questions have been raised regarding America’s will to use its military. Further, the military is a tool to address only certain problems, and increasingly it is the non-traditional challenges that are becoming more tangible.

Economically, China’s GDP surpassed that of the United States last year (by purchasing power parity), and Japan’s in 2010 (using market exchange rates). By another important measure of economic power, GDP/capita, the US will have the most pull for many decades. But most of the Asian-Pacific powers have China as one of their top, if not their top, trading partner. And so, dependent as they are on China, it has great influence (although the TPP in time may diversify this picture somewhat).

Demographics must also be taken into consideration and here Japan and China have major challenges ahead with aging populations and long-term decline. The US also has an aging population but immigration in particular is helping manage this process. India on the other hand still has more than a decade of demographic dividend to enjoy.

Two other areas, natural resource access and cyber capabilities, have a significant role to play not least in terms of a nation’s potential vulnerabilities or resilience. On the former, the US is again strong while in energy, water and food terms the other major Asian powers have notable weaknesses that are growing with rising demand. Both the US and China in particular have strong cyber resources although those of India and Japan are rising too.

There are many other measures of power. The proliferation of trilateral and plurilateral groups in the region (from the US-India-Japan trilateral right up to the East Asia Summit) affects the ability of a nation to call upon partners for assistance. Other tools from diplomacy and development assistance to culture to the media play a role. At the same time, attention must also be paid to non-state actors, from a nation’s business sector (which wields enormous financial power) to its NGOs and civil society (which at least in the US case provide more resources to international development than does the US government).

When all these instruments of power and more are taken together the picture that emerges is not a clear cut one in which the US and China are balancing off against one another. But instead one that increasingly can be represented by four characteristics or trends.

Four trends

Changes (such as economic and demographic trends) in the region are occurring more rapidly and with greater volatility. New actors from international businesses and NGOs to institutions such as the EAS or ASEAN plus 1 and 3 are rising fast and, in many cases, disrupting the established system. These actors along with other factors such as new technologies are resulting in power becoming more diverse and diffuse.

With new actors, tools, technologies and networks the region is becoming more complex leading to decision-making becoming harder. And this complexity is only enhanced by the rising interdependence among nations within the region.

What these four characteristics point to is a different reality from the bipolar one – instead there exists a ‘flexi-nodal’ Asian-Pacific region in which there are many actors who come together in different groupings dependent on a specific issue and their respective interests, will and capabilities. There is, in this vision, no single paramount power, nor in fact, a clear trend of rise or fall of one or other nations. Instead it is a world defined by many nodes.

Success in this reality will come to those who have many tools at their disposal and who are able to partner with a wide variety of actors, both other states and non-state actors. Nations that can be flexible and adaptable, who are able to move to respond to events will realize the greatest good for their populations.

This more complex vision of the region is perhaps less appealing – it is certainly less clear and predictable. But it is more reflective of reality and is likely to lead to better analysis and policy-making. It also has one other significant benefit. While the bipolar vision can lead to Cold War-esque zero sum analysis which could descend into a self-fulfilling prophecy, the flexi-nodal narrative, in its complexity, avoids this danger.

This article was originally published by China-US Focus.

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