THERE has been considerable conjecture recently about the shift of power from the West to Asia. Is this happening?
The answer is not simple.
The power calculus of the 21st century is more complex than at any other time in history. The three basic components of power — military, economic and political — remain unchanged. But the nature of these factors, the manner in which they are utilised and the identity of the power players have all changed dramatically over the past century.
Today, military power is more implied than overt in deciding political and economic outcomes. The size of armies is less relevant than training and motivation. The role of air and naval power has increased; that of land forces has declined. Space and cyber capabilities, advanced technologies and timely intelligence are now critical for modern combat. Nuclear weapons have emerged as a mostly latent but decisive factor in defining power relationships.
Since the distribution of power is so unequal, asymmetrical warfare — guerrilla tactics and terrorism — has become the modus operandi of the weak, often scrambling conventional military calculations.
The US is by far the most powerful military power, with the capacity to deliver lethal force globally. Its military expenditures are half of that of the entire world, ten times that of China.
Russia’s air, missile and space capabilities are comparable to those of the US but in most other areas, it has fallen behind considerably. China is a rapidly rising military power but cannot yet match the breadth and depth of American military power. Japan is an underestimated military power, India overrated and Israel first-rate (uninhibited due to the American ‘umbrella’). The Arab world is virtually defenceless, despite heavy arms expenditures. The only credible Muslim military powers are Turkey, Pakistan and Iran.
The composition and exercise of economic power have become similarly complex and sophisticated. For the modern economy, the control of natural resources — oil and gas in particular — remains vital for growth and economic independence. Yet the quality of human resources, physical infrastructure, industrial and manufacturing capability, competitive trade and ready access to affordable investment finance are equally if not more essential for dynamic growth and genuine prosperity.
European economic dominance has ended and American economic supremacy is significantly diminished. The instrument of this decline was self-created: the Washington Consensus requiring virtually total trade and financial liberalisation. Globalisation boomeranged and when the barriers came down, most manufacturing was transferred to China and other low-cost producers. The West tried to maintain growth through the financial rather than the ‘real’ economy, utilising leverage (debt) with abandon.
The bubble burst in 2008 with the Lehman collapse. Today, despite repeated financial bailouts, Europe and the US are stagnating. Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union will almost certainly collapse as austerity is rejected and nationalisms revive. The knock-on effect is likely to lead to a double-dip recession in the US. Financial power now rests considerably in China’s $3tr reserves.
Nevertheless, the shift of economic power from Europe and the US to Asia and other emerging economies will not happen overnight. For one thing, the former still enjoy the advantage of advanced technologies. Hydrofracking technology, for example, can make the US almost self-sufficient in gas and oil within a decade. This will also significantly diminish the power and prosperity of the current energy exporting countries, including Russia and those of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Despite the current crises, the West remains much richer than the rest. The US economy is still three times larger than that of China, with the per capita income of the former ten times that of the latter. Due to the size of its population as well as greater potential for growth, China will in the next few decades become the largest economy in the world — as it has been for most of the past two millennia. But China and other developing countries have a long way to go to close the ‘prosperity gap’ with the West.
The political component of power has assumed greater importance, in large part because recourse to military force and economic coercion has become more difficult, among and within states. Power rivalries today are most often decided by the success of the political message rather than coercion. The effective use of modern communications — the print, audio and visual media as well as the Internet — has become vital for the victory of political viewpoints and ideologies. This ‘soft’ power is an alternative and often a prelude to the exercise of ‘hard’ power.
Political competition in the present era is broadly between three ideologies: secular democracy, state power and religion. Secular democracy is the organising principle of the US-led Western alliance. The West has succeeded in establishing the superior virtue of its value system mostly because of its past economic success, its political dominance during the decolonisation process and the assiduous propagation of a self-serving mythology.
The acceptance of its value system has enabled the West to override the principle of non-interference and to promote its favourites for power in other states. By contrast state power — epitomised by China and, to a much lesser extent, Putin’s Russia — has demonstrated the ability to deliver dynamic economic growth and translate this into military and political power.
But this path lacks full global acceptance. Religion is an important element in the life of most societies and states. Yet as a political ideology, it is generally identified with the Arab and Islamic world. Apart from Turkey, religious parties in other countries have not yet offered an economic model that ensures sustainable development and progress in the modern world. Neither have Islamic states achieved great military triumph in modern history.
The current calculus of power is most depressing for the powerless. Inequality has grown universally. The global economic slowdown will affect the poorest countries most seriously.
Unless they can grow at least seven-eight per cent annually, they will be unable to eliminate extreme poverty. The Western economic crisis has also denuded international solidarity and development assistance, as well as the will to address global threats such as global warming. These developments will add to the Sisyphean challenge of survival for the wretched of the earth. Thus, expect famine and conflict, mass migrations, racial intolerance and perhaps the rebirth of fascism in many forms. Sadly, not a happy prognosis.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.