By Dr Subhash Kapila
“The next ten years will witness the creation of the parameters for a new international balance of power. The world’s center of gravity is shifting towards the Asia Pacific region not only economically but also in military and strategic aspects. The power balance which shifted towards the wings under the leadership of USA and USSR during the Cold War re-entered the phase in which it will be established in China, India and the Middle East, the ancient civilizations of the world.
This situation means, indeed that the renormalization of history and that the continents, regions and countries which were the center of gravity of the world 200 years ago are regaining their old capacities.
Political and economic history shows that when countries desire it, their economic power can be turned into military power and influence”—– Turkish President Abdullah Gul in an address to the Turkish War Academy April, 07 2012.
The global shift of power to Asia and the global strategic dominance of the United States have been the subject of discussion in my preceding few Papers. In these Papers, it was conceded that what was debatable was whether United States power was in ‘absolute decline’ or ‘relative decline’. Either way, with the global shift of power to Asia what would inevitably follow is that the global balance of power would also be acquiring newer contours.
Global shifts of power take some time in the making and indicators start emerging slowly but surely. In the present shifting of the global balance of power, the tipping point emerged in the first decade of the 21st Century when the United States as the unipolar Superpower at the apex of its glory was drawn into military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq— as wars of necessity arising from its own policies or lack of policies.
Strategic and military factors alone do not account for global power shifts. Attendant also is the global shifts in economic power. The global financial crisis of 2008 which debilitated the United States and Europe also debilitated their strategic and military power and influence. In marked contrast Asian major economies of China, India and Japan were strongly resilient in weathering the global financial crisis without any major impact on their economic growth rates.
If the global shift of power to Asia has taken place it primarily arises from the Asia Pacific emerging as the centre of gravity of economic power. And as I have stated in an earlier paper as to what strategic and military contours the global shift of power to Asia assumes and the directions that it undertakes would largely be dependent on the United States policy formulations of adapting to global power shifts or confronting them.
The last point made by the President of Turkey in his address to the Turkish War Academy is well made and should be well taken as it seems to be missing in Western strategic discourses. Economic power can be turned into military power and influence when countries desire it.
In the global shift of economic power to Asia, this is already evident in the case of China where it has turned its resurgent economic strengths into equally stupendous military power and influence. So much so that the global shift of power to Asia is being made synonymous in United States discourse with a global shift of power to China
This is erroneous on two counts and both are strategic in nature. The first point is that the global shift of power to Asia does not exclusively arise from China alone but is the sum total of China, Japan and India and also of other sizeable Asian economies.
India and Japan are also showing indicators, likewise China, that they too have not only intentions but also have given shape to turning their economic power into military power and influence. India and Japan should no longer be counted as ‘reluctant Asian powers’.
The second strategic point that I would like to offer for discussion is that the United States and the West by their “China-Centric” labelling of the global power shift to Asia are surely being driven not by any pious intentions towards India and Japan but by strategic motivations of balance of power considerations so as to co-opt India and Japan in their strategic power-play against China in the Western Pacific.
The 20th Century witnessed three major shifts in the global balance of power. Till the eve of the Second World War, the global power structure was multipolar in nature with global strategic, political and economic power standing distributed to UK, France Germany and Japan. Notably, the United States was virtually nowhere in the picture as it was still recovering from the debilitating effects of the Great Depression. Similarly, Russia too stood enfeebled due to its internal Stalinist purges.
The above global power balance changed drastically by 1945 from a multipolar distribution of power to a global bipolar structure where the United States and the USSR emerged as the two opposing Superpowers as Europe lay prostrate and German and Japan stood destroyed militarily and economically.
The third major shift of global balance of power occurred in 1991 with the disintegration of the USSR and the emergence of the United States as the unipolar Superpower.
At the turn of the Millennium, the unipolar strategic dominance of global affairs by the United States was at its apex having in the closing decade of the 20th Century no countervailing power to oppose it. The United States went through Gulf War I against Iraq and the Balkans Wars aimed at the disintegration of Yugoslavia as the remaining Russian protégé in Europe without any opposition.
The first decade of the 21st Century as the tipping point in the diminishment of United States global strategic dominance stands made already above.
‘Balance of Power’ strategies amongst nations and regional and security alliances have been a recurrent and normal feature of global history, Power shifts when they take place generate corresponding responses in strategic jockeying by established powers to recreate new balance of power to ensure the continuance of the of the old established order.
The United States is seemingly engaged in such an exercise today by the Obama Doctrine of the strategic pivot to Asia Pacific. Underpinning this latest US strategy is the strategic objective of recreating and revitalizing its Cold War security frameworks in East Asia and a serious attempt to find newer strategic partnerships.
Implicit in the above is the creation of a new balance of power in the Asia Pacific to contain and confine China strategically within East Asian confines, where preponderant US military power strengths in naval and air force power can be effectively applied against China.
India and Japan may have their territorial disputes with China and political differences too, but I have serious doubts that both India and Japan and the second line Asian powers too would like to be drawn into any US-led ‘containment policies against China.
One can foresee that Asian integration of their powerful economies and their growing interdependence may eventually prove to be a better policy alternative than Asian countries joining in any ‘containment policies’ against one of their own. China consequently should be enjoined by contemporaneous global factors and its own security to strive that much harder to dispel Asian misgivings on its rise and work towards greater Asian unity.
Also needs to be noted is that economically, the world has shrunk and nowhere this is more evident than in Asia. The global shift of power to Asia has also drawn more closely the Gulf Region oil-rich economies to Asia’s economic heartland which hithertofore were content to be under the strategic umbrella of the United States. The Gulf Region’s increasing economic and political ties with China, India and Japan may possibly herald making the global power shift to Asia more substantial and less fragmented.
The above itself represents the changing contours of the global balance of power in that a vital strategic region of the world has now chosen to make its strategic choices and investments turning away from its traditional benefactors
The rise and growth of new groupings like RIC (Russia, India, China) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia India, China, South Africa) also represents the changing contours of the global balance of power. RIC is an entirely Asian grouping and BRICS has three major Asian powers as its members are ominous signs. At some time in the near future if Japan elects to join RIC and BRICS, it would again amount to adding yet another dimension and contours to the global balance of power.
Concluding, one would like to stress that with the global shift of power to Asia, one is already witnessing the first stirrings of political cementing and economic integration of major Asian powers. RIC’s common standing on Iran and North Korea are the indicators. The exponential expansion in trade between China and India is also a pointer.
Strategically, the problem is that the United States and the West see balance of power in traditional terms of military balances only and dispute that economic power does not necessarily translate into military power. As Asia rises, the traditional major powers like the United States, in terms of balance of power approaches would have to learn to contend with both Asia’s ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’. The United States reading the changing contours of global balance of power seems to have made a beginning with the adoption of ‘Smart Power’ strategies.