27 September 2015

The predominant narrative of bipolarity between the United States and China is neither an accurate reflection of the Asia-Pacific region today nor a prediction of its future.


Xenia Wickett

Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Dr Tim Summers

Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme (based in Hong Kong)


Photo: Jacob Parakilas/Chatham House.
Photo: Jacob Parakilas/Chatham House.


The simplistic US-China focused narrative of the future of the Asia-Pacific does not sufficiently take into consideration other regional actors such as Japan and India, new instruments of leverage in the region, or the extent and complexity of changing relationships.

In making the situation appear simpler than reality, Asia-Pacific countries and the United States risk narrowing the aperture through which they evaluate policy choices regarding major regional challenges. At the same time, the bipolar perspective, potentially invoking Cold War-type mentalities, could exacerbate tensions rather than relieve them. Seeing US–Chinese competition as the main variable in the region could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This paper seeks to go beyond this perception by laying out the major narratives of the region’s power distribution currently in play in its four principal powers – the United States, China, India and Japan. Building on a review of the main instruments of power and the current regional trends, this paper argues that the Asia-Pacific region in 2030 will have at least four principal characteristics:

  • The pace of change will increase, along with its volatility. This will result in the power distribution between the principal actors becoming more complex, finely balanced and difficult to assess clearly. The emergence of new, often disruptive, technologies, particularly in media and communications, will make control of information increasingly difficult.
  • Power will become more diverse and diffuse, with more state and non-state actors having influential roles. Power is also becoming more diffuse within states, making it harder for governments to manage internal debates and to send clear messages to neighbours, particularly where nationalism is growing.
  • The region will become more complex, unpredictable and thus hard to govern as a result of the rise of new actors, challenges and tools. This could lead to policy paralysis on the part of leading state actors as a swiftly changing environment and too many choices lead to greater uncertainty and, in the end, hesitancy or no action being taken.
  • The region will become more interdependent, which makes the previous point troubling. Already, all states in the Asia-Pacific are increasingly dependent on one another for growth, stability and security.