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Sunday, Sept. 1, 2002


Taking stock of power and purpose in Asia

STRATEGIC ASIA: Power and Purpose 2001-02, edited by Richard J. Ellings and Aaron Friedberg. Seattle, Wash., National Bureau of Asian Research, 2001, 378 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Power is the currency of international relations. Incredibly, we still aren't exactly sure what "power" is, how it is exercised and who has it. Take the United States. It has a military arsenal, international influence and a global reach, all of which are unparalleled in human history. But the U.S. has been put on the defensive by a minuscule group of terrorists operating out of ATM machines and Internet cafes.

A fair number of people in Washington feel threatened by North Korea, a country on the verge of collapse that has no known arsenal of nuclear weapons and relies on international aid to avoid mass starvation. Finally, for all its power, influence and reach, the U.S. has been forced time and time again to accommodate other much less powerful nations to achieve goals it deems necessary for its national security. These anomalies underline the difficulties in making strategy. This is more art than science, and there is ample room for disagreement on just about every conclusion, no matter how trivial or important.

As the subtitle to this new regional assessment by the National Bureau of Asian Research makes clear, meaningful analysis must look at both power and purpose. The first is considerably easier to understand -- apart from the difficulties of measuring "comprehensive power," which includes economic and cultural influence -- just add up the planes, ships, soldiers and other elements of a nation's arsenal. That is only half the equation, though. Purpose is just as critical and divining that particular mystery is, well, a mysterious process. The essence of politics is compromise, and the possible on any given day is a product of the particular circumstances at that time. Who would have thought a year ago that Japanese warships would be on station in the Indian Ocean?

Editor Aaron Friedberg points out: "On a day to day basis, interstate relations in Asia are dominated by trade and talk of peace. ... Beyond this placid surface, however, run other, darker currents.

Each of the major Asian powers has serious security concerns. Most . . . are preoccupied with the threats that confront them today at their frontiers, but all also have nagging anxieties about the long-term capabilities and intentions of their large neighbors."

The "Strategic Asia" series, to be published annually, will explore those insecurities and anxieties. There is a Strategic Asia Web site, www.strategicasia.nbr.org, with a database of more than 300 "indicators" (GDP, population, defense expenditures) for each of the 37 entities covered in its definition of Asia for each year since 1990.

In truth, there is little surprising in "Strategic Asia." The contributors are well-respected scholars, and that tends to take some of the surprises out of their conclusions. For example, figuring out China's intentions is a hazardous business, and hawks will no doubt challenge Thomas Christensen's argument that there is "little or no evidence that China's goal or expectation over the next two decades is to dominate East Asia militarily." Nonetheless, China is developing military potential to force Taiwan into accepting a deal with Beijing. Thus, "the medium term (five-10 years) could be quite dangerous. China is developing coercive options for the period and beyond."

Despite the economic stagnation of the last decade, Japan is likely to remain "the most important and powerful nation in East Asia for the next 25 years." Faced with China's rise, Tokyo is likely to strengthen the alliance with the U.S. while engaging China both politically and economically. China's economic importance to Japan should rise. Hard to argue with any of that.

Russia's decline will continue. It faces a combination of dire economic and demographic trends, severe restrictions on its military power and pressing challenges on its southern borders. Moscow will seek friends and money wherever it can find them. The focus of its dwindling energy will be the region stretching from the North Caucasus to Central Asia where Moscow can maximize its influence.

As is often the case, India could be a wild card. Modernizing India is a huge assignment, but then again, Delhi doesn't have to solve all the country's problems. Rather, the government only has to coax sustained growth out of the economy "to be able to provide its national leadership with the marginal resources necessary to pursue its power political ambitions in Asia, including those related to the defense of its interests vis-a-vis China."

Analyst Ashley Tellis, one of the U.S.' premier India watchers, has an eye on the Indo-Japanese relationship. He believes it could become "the fulcrum of a future geopolitical alignment that ties the entire maritime Asian rim into a cooperative force that helps to contain any local challenger that threatens to disrupt the Asian balance of power."

Tellis' analysis makes the analytical bias of "Strategic Asia" quite clear. "The balance of power" reigns supreme. A lot of people would like to believe that the world operates on different principles. That is a comforting thought, but there is little proof that it is true. If nothing else, the fact that "Strategic Asia" forces us to consider these questions -- the meaning and measurement of national power -- makes it a valuable project. Even better, there is a lot more to it.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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