Looking for a Few Good Partners in Asia to Shore Up the International Order


Strategic Asia 2015-16, Foundations of National Power in the Asia-Pacific, Ashley Tellis, Alison Szalwinski and Michael Wills (eds.)


In an age of fragmentation, all of the world’s great powers confront enormous domestic and international pressures. Disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the shocking savageries inflicted with seeming impunity by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and their imitators, North Korea’s defiant brandishing of its growing nuclear arsenal, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory reveal the limits of American power and an alarming spread of disorder. The European Union remains gripped by economic tensions that threaten to rip it apart, even as its member states fend off waves of desperate Middle Eastern refugees. Despite the efforts of an energetic prime minister, Japan appears incapable of arresting the steady erosion of its economic power and demographic decline. Russia, while flexing its muscles in Crimea and Syria, anxiously awaits the effects of a looming recession on its fragile economy and a bleak demographic outlook. China, meanwhile, has expended enormous resources to strengthen control of a vast, uninhabited maritime domain, even as its leaders accelerate a ruthless crackdown to curb social unrest as its juggernaut economy cools.

These developments have coincided with a broader dispersion of power both internationally and at the societal level. The United States remains the single most powerful nation by far, but its share of world GDP has ebbed from a high of 27 percent in 1950 to 24 percent in 2015. China, meanwhile, has seen its share increase over the same time period from 5 percent to 15 percent. Indeed, the relative decline of the industrial world in recent decades has coincided with a “rise of the rest” as developing countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America experienced tremendous gains in income, life expectancy, and well-being for their populations.

At the societal level, the phenomenon of angry citizens taking action to show their frustration with their leaders has repeated in capitals the world over. Economic prospects have stagnated and public budgets weakened at the same time that more people have gained more access to information technology and modes of travel than ever before. The contradiction between rising public expectations and constrained government resources to address those demands underpins much of the gridlock, political polarization, and turmoil that have unsettled politics throughout the world.

Asia’s growing importance in shaping international order

Without question, the unique peace and stability of the short-lived post-Cold War “unipolar moment” has faded. If power has not quite “ended,” as the dramatic title of Moses Naim’s celebrated book suggested, the reality of its fragmentation and dispersion seems undeniable. The United States will remain the world’s leader for years to come, if for no other reason that there is no plausible alternative candidate. However, as fractures deepen in the current order, the challenge of shoring up or rebuilding the foundations of the international system gains new urgency.

This monumental task will require a rebuilding of the international and societal foundations of international order. The starting point for the former lies with an assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of potential partner countries. Which nations have the resources and motivations to either cooperate or frustrate Washington’s designs? What liabilities and assets reside with each country? The book, Strategic Asia 2015-16: Foundations of Power, published by the National Bureau of Asian Research, surveys some of the most powerful nations in Asia with such questions in mind. As the latest in a series on strategic issues in Asia, the volume confines its gaze to the Indo-Pacific, but this scarcely limits the value of its contribution. Asia is predicted to occupy a growing portion of global economic growth and geopolitical power, after all. Any similar survey would need to prioritize study of the Indo-Pacific region.

The book offers case studies to trace the foundations of power for various major countries. In his introductory chapter, editor Ashley Tellis acknowledges that “power” remains a surprisingly elusive concept. As a framing device, he offers a three-part definition consisting of a country’s “resources,” “ability to act,” and the “outcomes” of its policies. Most studies of national power focus on the material aspects of power, such as economic or military strength. However, Tellis argues convincingly that evaluations of national power must consider the ability of the state to mobilize and employ those resources in purposeful action. The third part of the definition, which looks at the “outcomes” of policies, conveys the idea that real power is most clearly demonstrated when it results in the realization of policy objectives. This three-part definition proves a useful way for the authors to evaluate the relative strengths of different countries.

As the world’s second largest economy, China enjoys tremendous advantages, including vast resources, an enormous workforce, a diverse and modern economy, a largely unified and motivated elite, and a rapidly modernizing military. Nadege Rolland’s review also notes the nation’s weaknesses, however, including demographic challenges, environmental degradation, and a repressive political system. Reflecting the country’s ambivalence about international arrangements, Beijing has pursued policies that both reinforce the existing order and, as a hedge, establish alternative institutions and mechanisms better suited to its needs. Because the inclination of future PRC leaders to make China a helpful partner or competitor remains an open question, U.S. policy has wisely sought to encourage the former while hedging against the latter.

Japan has seen its economic power stall in recent years, but it retains considerable strength in the size and maturity of its economy, stable democracy, and professional, capable military. But despite the country’s promise, it faces serious obstacles. Michael Auslin’s chapter notes that among the most severe are demographic trends that anticipate today’s population of roughly 125 million will drop 20 percent to under 100 million by 2050. A shrinking, aging population will further constrain the country’s economic prospects and military power. Both the United States and Japan have much to gain in pooling resources to shore up an international order under which both have prospered so greatly, and for this reason Tokyo will likely remain an essential partner for Washington.

Among U.S. treaty allies in Asia, South Korea stands among the most prosperous and successful. In 1960, South Korea’s per capita income stood roughly on par with that of Sub-Saharan Africa, but by 2014 its per capita income had surged incredibly to a level commensurate with that of the world’s wealthiest economies. Chung Min Lee’s chapter notes that expanding demands for welfare spending and a looming manpower shortage impose serious constraints on the country’s ability to carry out an expanding array of missions to address its growing security needs. South Korea’s close ties to both China and the United States position it to possibly serve a mediating role between the two super powers. On the other hand, deepening competition between the two rivals could squeeze Seoul, leaving it an excruciatingly uncomfortable position.

While usually considered a European country, Russia is also an Asian one, a point frequently reiterated by President Vladimir Putin. Rich resources — especially petroleum — vast land, and a large population provide a promising foundation for Russia’s role as a major power in Asia. Despite these strengths, Andrew C. Kuchins, Allen Maggard, and Narek Sevacheryan paint a pessimistic future. Endemic bureaucratic corruption, an excessive dependence on petroleum industries, and an unhealthy and aging populace have seriously weakened the foundations of national power. As with China, it remains unclear whether Russia will prove a helpful partner or competitor. U.S. policy has tried on numerous occasions to encourage the former, but Putin has generally opted for competition.

The insight that various societal trends have constrained the ability of elites to implement policies resonates especially deeply when one examines the cases of India and Indonesia. Rajesh Rajagopalan contrasts the potential of India’s young, large population, productive agricultural capability, and technological ability, with the political and systemic obstacles that inhibit the realization of that potential. Vikram Nehru’s analysis similarly highlights Indonesia’s massive size, rich endowments in resources, and strategic location. Its lower level of development, fragmented politics, poorly educated workforce, and geographic disunity limits the country’s potential. As rising developing countries, these countries hold reservations about an international order long upheld by wealthy, industrialized nations. At the same time, these massive democracies also share considerable values and interests with the United States. They could play pivotal roles in helping to buttress the current order.

Alone among these countries, the United States enjoys enduring strengths that ensure it will remain the global leader for years to come. In his chapter, Admiral Dennis Blair notes many of these advantages, including the size, resilience, and diversity of its economy, a healthy demographic outlook, a powerful military, an established edge in innovation, robust democratic institutions, and a relatively benign security environment. But societal trends pose serious challenges in the form of political gridlock, competing demands for resources to address domestic concerns, and outdated bureaucracies. The United States will also need to find ways to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure and recruit skilled workers if it is to capitalize on its advantages.

Asian powers key to maintain order in era of fragmentation

Reinvigorating the foundations of an international order upon which the world’s prospects for prosperity and peace depend will remain a major endeavor certain to command the attention of decision-makers for years to come. Careful study of the available resources will be required to inform that effort. The NBR volume provides a wealth of insights into the potential international partners with which the United States will need to work.

But this volume merely serves as a starting point. Much work remains to be done in the study of broad societal trends that can erode or bolster the foundations of international stability. Notions of “power” may require further refinement as well. With trends of slow growth and greater diffusion of power well entrenched, we may be entering a complex era in which notions of national strength continue to evolve in ways unimaginable even one decade ago. As one example, increasing constraints on the ability of traditional great powers to exert influence have coincided, in many ways, with the increasing clout of rising, middle-sized powers, of which the book examined two clear examples (Indonesia and South Korea). As a growing, vibrant region, Asia has many other such examples: Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Mongolia, and Vietnam all show a capacity to “punch above their weight” and offer considerable potential to promote Asia’s economic growth and to serve as possible partners for building a more stable international order. But analysis of these promising states remains a project for another day.


Timothy R. Heath is a senior international defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is the author of the book, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation  (Ashgate, 2014).