Shadow Government

Global Trends 2030: Scenarios for Asia’s strategic future

The National Intelligence Council's (NIC) just-released Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report identifies key meta-trends that will shape the future international system, including the explosion of the global middle class, the diffusion of power away from the West, and the rising likelihood of inter-state conflict. In no other region will these trends play a more decisive role than in Asia, where the NIC predicts China to emerge as the world's largest economy, India to become the biggest driver of middle-class growth on Earth, and conflict scenarios between a number of rising and established powers likely to put regional peace at risk. In no other region will the future of U.S. leadership in the international system be more decisively tested than in an Asia featuring rising giants like India and Indonesia, a fully emerged peer competitor in China, and the dramatic tilt in the international economy's center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.

What kind of role Asia will play in the world, and how it will relate to the United States and other Western powers, in turn will be determined by what form of regional order is operative in 2030. My last post described four broad pathways Asia could take over the next two decades. This one sketches out a more granular set of scenarios for Asia's future, identifying seven distinct possibilities that could emerge by 2030. That there are these many pathways demonstrates how unsettled regional power dynamics are -- and how much uncertainty remains around China's trajectory, U.S. staying power, Japan's strategic re-emergence, and the nature of Asian regionalism.

Headline scenarios for Asia in 2030 include:

  • a fluid multipolarity driven by the rise of multiple strong states, with an extra-regional United States as primus inter pares;
  • a Concert of Asia;
  • a New Asian Cold War;
  • a Sino-American G2 condominium; and
  • a New Middle Kingdom.

More specifically, three forms of multipolarity in Asia seem possible: (1) a cooperative-competitive multipolar order in which the United States is the strongest power; (2) a fundamentally competitive multipolar order in which China is the strongest power; or (3) a liberal Concert of Asia in which multiple strong states organize themselves around cooperation rather than competition.

  • Multipolarity with a U.S. lead: this multipolar order would mix cooperation and competition, interdependence and rivalry, with the United States as primus inter pares. This continuation of today's pattern presumes continued U.S. full engagement in the Asia-Pacific.
  • Multipolarity with a Chinese lead: this multipolar order would be fundamentally competitive and conflictual, with the United States playing a more disengaged, offshore role, regional balancing dynamics predominating, and China as primus inter pares. Such a scenario is most likely in the case of U.S. disengagement or withdrawal. 
  • Concert of Asia: this liberal order would feature a regional entente in which political liberalization in China has made possible greater democratic cooperation on the basis of transparency, trust, and effective regional institutions. Such an order would be more sustainable if it included the United States, though one that excluded it is conceivable.

Alternatively, three forms of bipolarity seem possible: (1) an Asia split into two competitive blocs led by the United States and China; (2) a region featuring a withdrawn United States pitting a grouping led by China against a contending one led by Asia's other great and regional powers; and (3) a Sino-American condominium in which a cooperative bipolarity orders the region.

  • Bipolar Asian Cold War: U.S. v. China: this bipolar regional order would be centered on competitive blocs led by the United States and China. 
  • Bipolar Asian Cold War: Asia v. China: such a bipolar regional order would pit competitive blocs led by a coalition comprising Japan, India, unified Korea, and Southeast Asian allies against China and its allies (Pakistan, possibly smaller Southeast Asian states) on the other, with a withdrawn U.S. playing an offshore balancing role.
  • G2 Condominium: in this cooperative bipolar order, the United States and China would form a condominium that replaces the U.S. alliance system as the pillar of regional stability. Such an order could have spheres of influence characteristics mirroring that of the competitive bipolar order, but with cooperation rather than rivalry the defining quality of U.S.-China relations. 

Finally, one form of unipolarity is possible (and only one): a form of Chinese primacy that reduces other states to lesser status and effectively excludes the United States from playing a leading regional role.

  • New Middle Kingdom: in such a unipolar order controlled from Beijing, the United States would be effectively excluded from Asia and regional great powers would find their interests subordinated to Chinese primacy.

From the vantage point of 2012, the most likely Asian strategic futures for 2030 appear to be, in descending order: (1) multipolarity with a U.S. lead, (2) U.S.-China Cold War, (3) multipolarity with a Chinese lead, (4) Asia-China Cold War, (5) concert of Asia, (6) Sino-American condominium, and (7) new Middle Kingdom.

The key variable will be what role the United States chooses to play in Asia with respect to continued military presence and diplomatic/economic leadership (which themselves will derive in part from the ability of the United States to revitalize its domestic power resources); defense of its allies and deepening of strategic partnership with India; and the nature of its relationship with China. Other decisive variables will be the scope and pace of internal political change within China; the speed of India's economic and military rise; and the future of Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Guang Niu/Getty Images

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