America’s leadership in the Asia Pacific was founded in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on its status as the first atomic power. Nuclear weapons thereafter defined Asian geopolitics. Today, on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear technology is again set to feature in a dramatic shift in Asia’s power balance. With a summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now in prospect, future historians may come to see North Korea’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles as the trigger that unravels America’s strategic leadership of Asia.
The Wannacry virus that attacked computers around the world last week is one more reminder of the growing threat posed by vulnerabilities in cyberspace. Over 100,000 networks in over 150 countries were infected by the malware; the actual ransoms paid appear to have been limited, but the total cost of the attack – including, for example, the work hours lost – is not yet known. Experts believe that this is only the most recent in what will be a cascading series of attacks as information technologies burrow deeper into the fabric of daily life; security specialists already warn that the next malware attack is already insinuated into networks and is awaiting the signal to begin.
Cyber threats are climbing steadily up the list of Asia-Pacific security concerns. Experts reckon that cyber crime inflicted $81 billion in damage to the Asia Pacific region in 2015 and the number of such incidents is growing. Online radicalization and other content-related issues pose expanding threats to the region, challenging national narratives and in some cases undermining government legitimacy and credibility. The networks and technologies that are increasingly critical to the very functioning of societies are vulnerable and those vulnerabilities are being distributed as regional governments are more intimately connected and more deeply integrated in economic communities. One recent study concludes that an ASEAN digital revolution could propel the region into the top five digital economies in the world by 2025, adding as much as $1 trillion in regional GDP over a decade. This growth and prosperity are threatened by proliferating cyber threats.
The Regional Security Outlook 2017, prepared by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) and available at www.cscap.org, conveys an unmistakable sense of despondency. The Outlook includes a cluster of assessments by regional analysts of the security picture across the region as a whole and two smaller clusters focusing on what CSCAP deems the most acute challenges to stability and order in the region – North Korea’s nuclear weapon program and the dispute in the South China Sea.
The RSO 2017 contends that both principal actors – the US and China – believe themselves to be too wise and wily to stumble into a replay of the Sparta-Athens drama of 2,500 years ago but now stand exposed as capable of exactly that. Geopolitical contest, so stoutly denied over a number of years, intensified markedly, and was at last more openly acknowledged. We can, and should, take some reassurance from the fact that the tilt in the balance of power and influence in Asia is likely to be neither quick nor decisive. Although the drift of the US-China relationship toward difficulty and coolness inescapably heightens the risk of inadvertent incidents, neither side has any interest in conflict.
This article was published by Political Violence @ a Glance in October 2016. The post draws on the author’s chapter in a recently released Peterson Institute for International Economics Briefing volume.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a plan to build a vast network of roads, rail lines, new ports, and other infrastructure improvements a in more than 60 countries, at a cost of $4 trillion – is an economic policy designed to radically expand trade and investment in Asia and around the Indian Ocean. Critically, however, it is also a security initiative with the aim of facilitating economic integration and promoting longer-run peace in the region.
The economic benefits are likely to be large, but there may be rough patches along the new Silk Road. While the proposed investments are precisely the types of trade-enhancing projects development economists have long called for, the geopolitical implications of BRI are complicated. From the restive western Chinese province of Xianjing to Jammu-Kashmir, the Myanmar-Chinese border, and the Indian Ocean, BRI-related initiatives target or traverse some of the world’s most contested territories. Major power development programs abroad – such as the US Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress – have always been motivated by a mixture of economic and security concerns. Indeed, BRI is intended in part to address security fears emanating from these regions by improving economic prospects.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global political and economic architecture has been undergirded largely by one superpower, which set the stage for an unprecedented period of globalisation managed through multilateral institutions and actors. Now that unipolar moment is giving way to an era of diffused powers, with countries like the US, China and Russia each bearing considerable disruptive capacities, and each struggling to stitch together new norms and rules for these rapidly changing times.
This phase, the beginning of which was marked by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and characterised by America’s two bruising wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen a vacuum emerge. Many are seeking to fill it, most determinedly China, but with a push back from countries such as Japan and India. Separately, ISIS and radical energies in the Middle East also seek to grab new space. Russia has chosen this very moment to signal its ability to muddy the Eurasian fields and intervene in the Middle East. The fact is, there is not enough room to accommodate all of these ambitions.
A median will have to be arrived at, but who will sacrifice what?