A Global Power Shift in the Making

July 15th, 2004  

Topic: A Global Power Shift in the Making

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Global Power Shift in the Making
James F. Hoge, Jr.
Summary: Global power shifts happen rarely and are even less often peaceful. Washington must take heed: Asia is rising fast, with its growing economic power translating into political and military strength. The West must adapt -- or be left behind.

James F. Hoge, Jr. is Editor of Foreign Affairs. This article is adapted from a lecture given in April at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The transfer of power from West to East is gathering pace and soon will dramatically change the context for dealing with international challenges -- as well as the challenges themselves. Many in the West are already aware of Asia's growing strength. This awareness, however, has not yet been translated into preparedness. And therein lies a danger: that Western countries will repeat their past mistakes.

This time, the populous states of Asia are the aspirants seeking to play a greater role. Like Japan and Germany back then, these rising powers are nationalistic, seek redress of past grievances, and want to claim their place in the sun. Asia's growing economic power is translating into greater political and military power, thus increasing the potential damage of conflicts. Within the region, the flash points for hostilities -- Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and divided Kashmir -- have defied peaceful resolution. Any of them could explode into large-scale warfare that would make the current Middle East confrontations seem like police operations. In short, the stakes in Asia are huge and will challenge the West's adaptability.

Today, China is the most obvious power on the rise. But it is not alone: India and other Asian states now boast growth rates that could outstrip those of major Western countries for decades to come. China's economy is growing at more than nine percent annually, India's at eight percent, and the Southeast Asian "tigers" have recovered from the 1997 financial crisis and resumed their march forward. China's economy is expected to be double the size of Germany's by 2010 and to overtake Japan's, currently the world's second largest, by 2020. If India sustains a six percent growth rate for 50 years, as some financial analysts think possible, it will equal or overtake China in that time.

Other Southeast Asian states are steadily integrating their economies into a large web through trade and investment treaties. Unlike in the past, however, China -- not Japan or the United States -- is at the hub.

For example, China and Japan have never been powerful at the same time: for centuries, China was strong while Japan was impoverished, whereas for most of the last 200 years, Japan has been powerful and China weak. Having both powerful in the same era will be an unprecedented challenge. Meanwhile, India and China have not resolved their 42-year-old border dispute and still distrust each other. Can these three powers now coexist, or will they butt heads over control of the region, access to energy sources, security of sea lanes, and sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea?

Taiwan is the most dangerous example of this risk. It has now been more than 30 years since the United States coupled recognition of one China with a call for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. Although economic and social ties between the island and the mainland have since grown, political relations have soured. Taiwan, under its current president, seems to be creeping toward outright independence, whereas mainland China continues to seek its isolation and to threaten it by positioning some 500 missiles across the Taiwan Strait. The United States, acting on its commitment to Taiwan's security, has provided the island with ever more sophisticated military equipment. Despite U.S. warnings to both sides, if Taiwan oversteps the line between provisional autonomy and independence or if China grows impatient, the region could explode.

Kashmir remains divided between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. Since 1989, the conflict there has taken 40,000 lives, many in clashes along the Line of Control that separates the two belligerents. India and Pakistan have recently softened their hawkish rhetoric toward each other, but neither side appears ready for a mutually acceptable settlement. Economic and political instabilities within Pakistan could easily ignite the conflict once more.

Yet Japan, given its ongoing economic and demographic problems, cannot be the center of any new power arrangement in Asia. Instead, that role will be played by China and, eventually, India. Relations with these two growing giants are thus essential to the future, and engagement must be the order of the day, even though some Bush officials remain convinced that the United States and China will ultimately end up rivals. For them, the strategic reality is one of incompatible vital interests.

Militarily, the United States is hedging its bets with the most extensive realignment of U.S. power in half a century. Part of this realignment is the opening of a second front in Asia. No longer is the United States poised with several large, toehold bases on the Pacific rim of the Asian continent; today, it has made significant moves into the heart of Asia itself, building a network of smaller, jumping-off bases in Central Asia. The ostensible rationale for these bases is the war on terrorism. But Chinese analysts suspect that the unannounced intention behind these new U.S. positions, particularly when coupled with Washington's newly intensified military cooperation with India, is the soft containment of China.

Suspicious Americans have interpreted larger Chinese military budgets as signs of Beijing's intention to roll back America's presence in East Asia. Washington is thus eager to use India, which appears set to grow in economic and military strength, as a counterbalance to China as well as a strong proponent of democracy in its own right. To step into these roles, India needs to quicken the pace of its economic reforms and avoid the Hindu nationalism espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which suffered a surprising defeat in recent parliamentary elections. Officials of the victorious Congress Party pledged to continue economic reforms while also addressing the needs of the rural poor who voted them back into office. Bullish in victory, Congress spokespersons said that they would push to increase India's annual growth rate to ten percent from its current eight percent.

Unless Congress follows its secular tradition in governing, it will undercut any utility India might have for the U.S. campaign to counter the influence of radical Islamists. To date, the aberrant religious ideology that opposes all secular government has developed only moderate traction among the large Muslim populations of India and the surrounding states of Central and Southeast Asia.

A settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not end terrorism, and Muslims themselves must lead the ideological battle within Islam. Yet the United States could strengthen the hand of moderates in the Muslim world with a combination of policy changes and effective public diplomacy. The United States must do more than set up radio and television stations to broadcast alternative views of U.S. intentions in the Middle East. It must replenish its diminished public diplomacy resources to recruit more language experts, reopen foreign libraries and cultural centers, and sponsor exchange programs. Given the large number of traditionally tolerant Muslims in Asia, the United States must vigorously assist the creation of attractive alternatives to radical Islamism.


To accommodate the great power shift now rapidly occurring in Asia, the United States needs vigorous preparation by its executive branch and Congress. The Bush administration's embrace of engagement with China is an improvement over its initial posture, and the change has been reflected in Washington's efforts to work with Beijing in the battle against terrorism and negotiations with North Korea. The change has also been reflected in the reluctance to settle trade and currency differences by imposing duties. In other ways, however, Washington has yet to shift its approach. On the ground, the United States appears undermanned. Despite a huge increase in the workload, the work force at the U.S. embassy in China numbers approximately 1,000, which is half the employees envisioned for the new embassy in Iraq. Training in Asian languages for U.S. government officials has been increased only marginally. As for the next generation, only several thousand American students are now studying in China, compared to the more than 50,000 Chinese who are now studying in U.S. schools.

The United States must also avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of strategic rivalry with China. Such a rivalry may in fact come to pass, and the United States should be prepared for such a turn of events. But it is not inevitable; cooperation could still produce historic advancements.