Riding the crest of seemingly unstoppable growth, Asia’s rise has captured the popular imagination for three decades. By most hard-power measures, such as gross domestic product, trade volumes, technological prowess and military capabilities, Asia has emerged as the world’s third pillar, along with the United States and Europe. Indeed, many commentators have argued that the 21st century will not only be dominated by key Asian states such as China, India and Japan, and major middle powers including South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia, but also that the region as a whole is on its way to eclipsing the West.
But as President Obama embarks on a highly symbolic trip to Asia, it’s timely to point out that such linear conceptions of Asia’s inexorable rise are misleading and incomplete, given the magnitude of political, security and socioeconomic problems confronting Greater Asia. With the Asian economic juggernaut coming to an end, due to lower growth in China, an aging Japan and South Korea, and India’s ongoing problems with corruption and a bureaucracy that impedes structural reform, the continent must be viewed from another angle: as a department store of many of the world’s gargantuan political and military challenges. Indeed, unless Asia’s strategically consequential states can significantly mitigate, if not resolve, the region’s political and military deficits, Asia’s rise will never be completed.
Today, the Asian continent confronts two major challenges. The first lies in the long-term consequences of Asia’s de facto arms race. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States continues to lead the world in annual defense spending, at $596 billion, but the combined defense outlays of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and Singapore reached $334 billion in 2015. The institute data also show that from 2010 to 2014, nine of the top 20 arms importers were Asian states. China seeks to contest the U.S. military in the western Pacific in order to project power into the so-called first and second island chains by the 2020s, and its aggressive moves recently in the South China Sea demonstrate its determination. And beyond this, the continent is home to three major geopolitical flash points: the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea could conduct a fifth nuclear test; the Taiwan Strait; and the Indo-Pakistani nuclear competition in South Asia.
Asia’s de facto arms race creates deeper and wider security dilemmas and a constant, destabilizing introduction of more lethal, more accurate and longer-range weapons systems. If this military competition isn’t worrisome enough, the region is also burdened by unparalleled political quagmires. In 2021, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 100th anniversary and the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. China has made enormous economic strides since reforms began in 1978, and the Communist Party should be proud of its achievements. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the world’s second-largest economy via ironclad one-party rule. As the party continues to crack down on dissent and the free flow of information, while also issuing edicts on empowered nationalism, stopping “spiritual contamination” and resisting foreign intrusions, China will be characterized by progressively harsh surveillance and internal policing. The party’s biggest threat doesn’t arise from the United States or Japan; it comes from the hundreds of millions of educated, globalized and economically well-off citizens who will demand increasingly great liberties and accountability from their government. “Performance legitimacy” — the trade-off of popular political support for sustained economic growth despite constrained political freedoms — no longer works as China’s social contract.
Asia’s political landscape is replete with other dangers, too, including the failed state of North Korea, with its nuclear weapons and increasing ballistic missile capabilities. Pakistan, also a virtually failed state, faces unprecedented socioeconomic challenges while being run by the army despite a facade of civilian rule, all while locked in a nuclear arms race with archrival India. Burma is transitioning to a quasi-democratic system, but the army refuses to fully surrender power. In Southeast Asia, democracy has regressed in Thailand, while Malaysia’s government is embroiled in a major corruption scandal. For all these reasons, the vast majority of Asian states feel much more comfortable with the United States rather than China as the indispensable power in maintaining regional stability and prosperity.
There is no doubt that Asia has made enormous progress over the past half-century, but it’s time to wake up to the continent’s political, security and strategic quagmires. It is undeniably true that the liberal international order long led and maintained by the United States and the rest of the West faces problems. But attempts to blame the West for Asia’s problems today are intellectually shallow and politically expedient. Asia must undertake wrenching political reforms, including the embracing and strengthening of universal values, for an Asian century to truly dawn. Asia has risen, but it is far from reigning.
Chung Min Lee is a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul and a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of the new book Fault Lines in a Rising Asia.