The distribution of power in the world is changing in an epochal way. It is tilting away from the Atlantic—where it has been for the last 150 years—and moving toward the Pacific.
The United States still wields the strongest single influence on global affairs—whether military, economic, or cultural. But even America cannot act by itself any longer. Consider how restrained the impetuous President Trump has been on Washington’s dealings with Pyongyang—because other power centers are rising in relative strength.
By 2025, Asia should be home to three of the five largest economies. By then, China, India and Japan will be competing with the United States and the European Union for the top places.
Faster than possible
China has been growing faster than the world had thought possible. In the late 1970s, at the start of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, China’s economy had been smaller than Italy’s, and just about the same size as Canada’s. But it surpassed Germany as the largest exporter in 2009, and overtook Japan as the second-largest economy in 2010. Now only the US is ahead in GNP terms—and even that may change before 2025.
Only two still standing
Of World War II’s victorious ‘Big Five’ powers, only two are still standing. Three have been reduced to the rank of regional powers.
Even now, the once-Great Britain that at Dunkirk (1940) stood alone against Hitler is girding—much less heroically—to negotiate its retreat from the European Common Market.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s populist ‘National Front’ is expected to win today’s general elections—though not decisively enough to avoid a May 7 run-off she’s then expected to lose to the pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron.
A moral struggle
Meanwhile, Russia—once the formidable Soviet Union—has lost to the Western mutual defense pact, NATO, its girdle of Eurasian buffer states. The Cold War President Putin is trying to reconfigure as a moral struggle between a godly, traditional Russia and an ethically anarchic West.
The Moscow strongman has embraced religious-ethnic nationalism and rehabilitated the Russian Orthodox Church. Some analysts expect Putin may yet find common ground even with religious nationalists in the Muslim world.
Russia is just emerging from a recession set off by low oil prices and Western economic sanctions.
Dream that failed
In practice, communism has been absorbed into the East Asian political model of a market economy managed by an authoritarian state. The Chinese variety emphasizes the leadership of a cohesive and disciplined vanguard party.
Most everywhere in Western Europe, ethnic nationalism—aroused by waves of immigration from the tumultuous Middle East—threatens to unravel the idealistic European Union.
No end to history
During the brief period of America’s global dominance, Francis Fukuyama (1992) had famously theorized that Western-style liberal democracy could be the final form of government—the end-point of humankind’s political evolution that generations of western philosophers have awaited.
But History has not ended, and liberal democracy has not triumphed once and for all. In fact, Western-style capitalism faces an authoritarian model that apparently works. Deng’s reforms have dramatically reduced Chinese poverty; and his economic model is favored by populist movements rising in the West.
The US in populist mode
Only China can challenge the US credibly, and Beijing is starting to do so—on the great inland sea that gives access to China’s industrial and cultural heartland.
And the Chinese challenge is well-timed. It comes just as Washington is realizing the limits to what the US can do in the world. America’s foreign-policy ventures have returned it little—in relation to their costs in blood and treasure.
President Trump’s Washington is in populist mode. Consider how casually it repudiated the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ his predecessor, Barack Obama, had negotiated as the symbol of America’s ‘pivot to Asia.’
But dealing with Beijing will be vastly more difficult. The Australian Hugh White notes that “The days are long gone when America could threaten grave punishments for China without running big risks itself. (Now) America can only deter China and protect its regional leadership if it can plainly display greater resolve to bear the costs and risks of confrontation.”
Preserving the balance
Like all epochal transformations, this transition of the global system is a delicate and dangerous period. But it confers one advantage on the ‘middle powers.’ It gives them diplomatic weight and flexibility: it offers them an active role in creating and maintaining regional stability.
For second-tier states, the highest imperative in this complex world is to preserve the strategic balance, and not to be drawn irrevocably into any single great power’s sphere of influence.
In Southeast Asia, Asean is the ready vehicle for regional cooperation; but local rivalries still are too strong to empower any concert of middle powers.
From outside the region, Australia and India are the states most concerned with how Southeast Asia’s relations with modern China turn out.
Among all the Asian powers, India alone has the weight—of population, economy and technology—to ‘balance’ this resurgent China. While Australia is a model of even-handedness in dealing with the rival powers.
US marines on rotation and Chinese shippers on leaseholds share the north Australian port of Darwin, overlooking the strategic Malacca Straits. Asean must cultivate a similar flexibility—as it awaits the appearance in China of a middle class with liberal tendencies that can check any chauvinism in a triumphal Communist Party.