Shadow Government

Global Trends 2030: Pathways for Asia’s Strategic Future

Today the U.S. National Intelligence Council releases its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report, authored by the NIC’s resident thought leader and global futurist par excellence, Mat Burrows. Several of us in the Shadow Government stable contributed to the report in various ways over the past few years of its development . Because Asia is ...


Today the U.S. National Intelligence Council releases its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report, authored by the NIC’s resident thought leader and global futurist par excellence, Mat Burrows. Several of us in the Shadow Government stable contributed to the report in various ways over the past few years of its development .

Because Asia is the cockpit for so many macro drivers of the international system over the coming decades, it’s worth considering the outsized role Asia’s evolution will play in shaping the future world described in GT2030 — and how that evolution in turn will impact key variables like the resilience of American power and the future of democracy.

At the macro level, four broad pathways for Asian order are possible through 2030. Which order prevails will have determinative effects on the kind of international system our children inherit.

A Lockean order

In the first scenario, continued American maritime preeminence and the U.S. alliance system sustain a security order in which China’s "Prussianization," North Korea’s nuclear mischief, and other potential security dilemmas in Asia are mitigated by the preponderance of power enjoyed by the United States and its allies, thereby deterring aggressive revisionism on the part of Beijing or Pyongyang and continuing to supply the public goods that underlie wider Asian prosperity. In such an order, Asian institutions could continue to sink roots, but on the basis of a trans-regional outlook in which the United States remains what then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called a "resident power," with economic integration oriented around a Pacific rather than an exclusively Asian axis.

Great powers like Japan and India, secondary powers like South Korea and Australia, and the states of Southeast Asia could continue to engage economically and diplomatically with China, confident that their security ties with the United States constituted a hedge against falling under Beijing’s sway. In turn, China’s development would be shaped by the combination of engagement with the United States and its friends in Asia and Europe, and by the deterrent effect of America’s forward military presence and alliance commitments. These raise the costs of Chinese adventurism, allowing Beijing to focus its resources on internal development and peaceful external engagement — rather than on wielding its growing power to revise Asia’s order through coercion.

A Hobbesian order

In the second scenario, a U.S. retreat into isolationism or accelerated material decline (induced by protectionism or failure to reverse America’s alarming levels of national debt) would lead to the weakening of Washington’s alliance commitments in East Asia and its willingness to remain the region’s security guarantor. Such a regional order would be "ripe for rivalry," as forecast by realist scholars like Aaron Friedberg after the Cold War, when an American withdrawal from the region and raw balancing behavior in the midst of dynamic power shifts seemed likely to make Asia’s future resemble Europe’s war-prone past.

Such a balance-of-power order would feature self-help behavior by Asian states of the kind that has been mitigated to date by American defense commitments. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam might develop and deploy nuclear weapons as the only means of securing their autonomy against the Chinese military giant in their midst. Chinese leaders, no longer constrained by America’s Seventh Fleet and robust alliance network, might find themselves free to pursue their declared revisionist aims in the South and East China Seas. Lesser Asian states whose territorial claims conflict with China’s would find they had less ability to leverage a retreating America’s support in their favor.

A Kantian order

In the third scenario, Asia would evolve in Europe’s direction — not the pre-1945 Europe of great-power balancing and war, but today’s European Union, in which demilitarized societies between which war is inconceivable enjoy the fruits of democratic peace through institutional cooperation. Such a pathway for regional order presumes that Asian regionalism develops in a pluralistic way that preserves the autonomy of lesser Asian states, rather than deriving from a nonconsensual extension of China’s sphere of influence. It also presumes a dovetailing of Asian regime types in a democratic direction. After all, it was only the resumption of democratic control over previously militaristic European regimes following their defeat in war that made possible the institutional deepening that has defined the post-World War II European project.

Another necessary, and often unstated, condition for the development of Europe’s Kantian order of perpetual peace has been the American security umbrella. It has created a security cocoon within which European governments can dedicate national resources to domestic welfare rather than military defense and maneuvering against potential adversaries. Ironically, then, the development of a pluralistic and peace-loving East Asian community along the lines of the European Union may require the continued role of the United States as the region’s security guarantor. Such a role would naturally be more amenable to Washington’s leading regional competitor, China, should that country pursue the political liberalization that would make an Asian democratic peace both possible and self-reinforcing.

A Sinocentric order

In the fourth scenario, an East Asian community of economic interdependence and pan-regional cooperation would develop not along lines of democratic pluralism but as an extension of an increasingly dominant China. Rather than the horizontal sovereignty between states that developed in post-Westphalian Europe through the institution of the balance of power, such a regional order would feature hierarchical relations of suzerainty and submission of the kind that characterized pre-modern East Asia when China’s Middle Kingdom was strong and cohesive, and lesser neighboring states paid ritualized forms of tribute to it. A Sinocentric East Asia could emerge out of this historical past; it could also emerge through what neorealist international relations scholars like John Mearsheimer define as the imperative of great powers to enjoy regional hegemony. The Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt Corollary epitomized this process in the 19th and early 20th centuries with respect to the United States and Latin America.

A Chinese sphere of influence encompassing East Asia and Southeast Asia presumes that states like Japan and South Korea would bandwagon with, rather than balance against, Chinese power. This could follow from either a lack of external alliance options or out of a reemergent pan-Asian identity; in a scenario in which they were economically and geopolitically "Finlandized," these countries might have no choice. An Asian system in which China sat at the summit of a hierarchical regional order presumes that Asian institution-building develops along closed lines of Asian exclusivity, rather than through the open trans-Pacific regionalism that has been the dominant impulse behind Asian community-building since the early 1990s.

In my next post, I’ll describe some more specific scenarios for Asian order in 2030, from an Asian Cold War to a New Middle Kingdom.

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