Many commentators have hailed the current century as the 'Asian Century, reminiscent of the previous Western-led century. Analysts view this as the supersession of United States as the world hegemon, which is under pressure from Asia. But is this rise enough to hail a change in the status quo? In this piece, Advaya Hari Sing explores the argument of an ‘Asian Century’ and further analyses the roadblocks it faces.
The study of International Relations is dominated by the analysis of power among nation-states in the international order. A glance at the international political arena generally shows a state that holds the top position, and others states that seek to balance or supplant it. This has been true for the Western states till now. But changing dynamics have led to questions over the perpetual nature of Western dominance. Many have hailed the rise of the East as capable of countering this dominance and have celebrated the coming of an ‘Asian century’. Studying power shifts, many commentators have contributed to the literature in analyzing the supposed shifts among states, from a deeply entrenched hegemon like the US to rising powers of Asia.
Henry Luce of TIME magazine characterized the influence of America in the Second World War as the ‘American Century.’ According to some thinkers, the current trends in global politics has led to the rise of the Asian world as occupying the center of hegemony. But is the rise of Asia and the relative decline of the West enough to assert a conclusive shift in power, or is it too early to characterize an ‘Asian Century’? This piece provides three reasons to argue against the notion of an Asian century and further highlight that the global order is more complex than the simplistic ‘polar’ vision that has dominated discussions till now.
Structural Issues with Asian Unity
The first argument relates to a problem that is at the very root of this debate: a collective Asian identity. While it is no exaggeration to say that Asian countries such as China, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan, are making tremendous leaps individually, when one celebrates its success as a collective Asian success, problems can arise, since there are deep hostilities and suspicions within the Asian region. Asian states remain divided on issues, and the shifts in power are affecting not only the Western states, but also the Asian states themselves. With internal fissures continuing, it becomes difficult to envisage Asia as a counterbalancing force or as leading the creation of a new World Order. Deep hostilities exist between many of the leading powers, such as Japan and China, China and India, China and South Korea, and there are many unresolved issues, such as the status of Taiwan, and the numerous island disputes in the South China and East China Seas. The sheer number of disputes defy assertions of unity. The rise of China is perceived suspiciously by other Asian states, rather than being celebrated as a harbinger of an Asian century.These considerations point to the emergence of a complex and fragmented Asian century, with individual countries gaining speed in various sectors, but not as a collective front that poses a challenge to the Western-led order.
Relative Weaknesses of Asia
While internal structural issues present a challenge to the rise of an Asian Century, a relative comparison to the US-led world order also reinforces the assertion that it is a little early to hail an Asian century. The US has two indispensable factors which allow its position to remain unrivalled: global alliance networks and soft power capabilities. A wide network of states seek to ally with the US for the political and economic prospects. For many bandwagon states, the US symbolizes security and economic guarantees that also act as a source of legitimacy. But many question the continued dominance of the US leadership of the international liberal order, especially in light of Trump’s maverick foreign policy, and China’s changing role of as a financial ‘big brother.’ Even if the US alliance system is weakened due to the Trump administration, there is another element which does not depend so much on political leadership - that of soft power.
The element of soft power, which according to its proponent Joseph Nye is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion, is the greatest source of legitimacy for the US. This aspect of power allows it to garner immense influence, and if leaders like Trump seek to change the status quo, the nature of soft power influence is deeply entrenched, preventing any major alteration. A robust higher education sector, developed research and technology sector, a liberal democratic culture, English as the lingua franca, and the ability to attract immigrants to the ‘American Dream’, allows the US to retain its status as a global power. While Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, and Singapore are improving their ability to attract companies, investment, students and immigrants, the ability to generate Asian ideas or an alternate world order has not yet been seen, and therefore poses a major roadblock to an Asian century.
Changing World Order
Lastly, the nature of the current world order has affected the way we analyze power relations among states. The end of World War II and the Cold War were two notable instances where the world stood at the cusp of a new world order. The post-World War II period presented the US with a unique and unprecedented opportunity to lead the way in shaping the global framework and inspire the world with a liberal ideology. Both moments made the US ‘rise’ seem like a necessary action to establish stability and order in an uncertain world. However, the rise of the Asian century is happening at a time when countries are mutually interdependent and globalization has engendered greater flows between countries. The absence of grave ideological threats and desire to assume hegemonic status has rendered the superpower/ rising powers rhetoric meaningless in a world where states are committed to a more stable and prosperous world order. The world is in a drastically different position than before, and the presence of mutual interdependence between countries has played an important role in preventing a realist style conflict situation. As Joseph Nye asserts, an “Information Revolution” has resulted in power shifting to non-state actors like corporations, NGO’s, terrorists, and societal movements, and has diminished the relevance of governments in global politics. What this has done is induce cooperation among States in combating global problems which require a concerted effort to move towards developing mutually beneficial outcomes. Thus, states are content with marching on their road to modernization and being part of what Barry Buzan accurately terms ‘Decentered Globalism’ and what Amitav Acharya calls a ‘Multiplex’ global order, where states and non-state actors simultaneously play an equal role with the century being nobody’s but everybody’s.
The international arena is a place where states are coming to recognize the benefits of cooperation and conciliation. The world faces numerous serious threats, which makes the focus on inter-state competition seem almost fruitless. While organizations such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) may serve as contenders in heralding alternate world orders, the presence of deep interconnectedness is likely to obviate the possibility of intense competition. Discussions about whether the world can be characterized as the ‘American Century’ or the ‘Asian century’ may seem insignificant under current circumstances. Instead, what we may witness in the future may be a movement towards a different era where the hitherto relevant ideas may cease to matter and new ones will likely take their place.
Advaya Hari Singh is a student at National Law University in Nagpur, India.