Book review: Winning and wielding national power in Asia


Strategic Asia 2015-16: Foundations of National Power in the Asia-Pacific
Edited by Ashley J Tellis, with Alison Szalwinski and Michael Wills
(The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2015, 272 pp).In its 15th iteration, “Strategic Asia,” the flagship publication of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), revisits a topic that it took on in its first year: national power of Asian states and the role it plays in their worldviews. Now, a decade and a half later, the present volume expands the ambit of the issue and finds that the question of national power, and what constitutes it, remains just as relevant. The authors take up the United States and six leading Asian powers – China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India and Indonesia – to analyze how they convert their natural resources into national resources, and the constraints and opportunities they face in the process.For authors looking at national power in the Asia-Pacific region, the geopolitical climate in 2015 may seem less uncertain than the early 2000s. China is clearer about its message to the region – no longer a message of impending rise, but of its arrival. The underlying significance of the apparently platitudinous “win-win cooperation” is abundantly clear now: either join China as it moves to reclaim what it believes is its rightful position or be left behind. Those that the missive is directed at do not seem to be laboring under the illusion of China’s good neighbor policy anymore. Moreover, a greater number of countries in the Asia-Pacific have abandoned fence-sitting on the United States’ presence in the region, allowing Washington to strengthen partnerships and cooperation mechanisms under the Obama administration’s Asia “rebalancing” policy.

For consistency and comparability, the countries highlighted are examined on a common matrix developed by Ashley J Tellis, senior adviser to NBR, which is centered on “population, state structures, state-society relations, constitutional arrangements, culture and worldview.” These are the elements that make up the country as a political unit occupying a certain geography. The chapters investigate how states fare on each of these dimensions, looking for aspects where they might falter and determining the external impact they might have. Notably, this matrix assumes that natural resources on their own have no value and states have to actively turn natural resources into assets for the accumulation of tangible and actionable power.

This edition of “Strategic Asia” analyzes national power as part of a larger question being taken up as a multiyear study. As explained in the overview chapter, “Strategic Asia” will continue to explore this topic with interrelated questions in two subsequent volumes. Next year, the project will take up the question of strategic culture and the way it influences the use of resources. The third installment will examine the role that national resources and strategic culture play in advancing the objectives of states, especially in the present milieu of geopolitical rivalry in the Asia-Pacific.

No policy analysis tool available to researchers at present attempts to evaluate the national power of states in the Asia-Pacific on a set of concrete indicators. The current volume establishes the scope of the project and, in that sense, the greatest takeaway is the framework. Despite the wide spectrum along which the countries fall, the well-placed markers smartly sum up their comparative weaknesses and strengths. Mature economies such as Japan and South Korea fare better than others because of obvious technological advancements. Social cohesion and highly developed state-society relations, along with a flair for innovation, benefit Japan despite its scant resource base. However, as author Michael Auslin points out, Japan will require political will for a new military strategy and better management of the economy to feel secure as China gets stronger.

Similar advantages have accrued to South Korea, which for the most part enjoys a better relationship with China than Japan, but has North Korea to act as a foil. Chung Min Lee’s assessment of South Korea suggests a hard road ahead, where rigorous “political and social re-engineering” will be needed to maintain and produce national capabilities.

The authors find India and Indonesia similar in their unrealized potential for great national power. Rajesh Rajagopalan holds India’s “incompetent state management” and preoccupation with domestic issues responsible for it not living up to its potential despite no paucity of natural resources. Moreover, India’s security environment will continue to be fraught with uncertainties and a drain on its resources. Indonesia’s reluctance to project external power, on the other hand, has been a result of a lack of external security threats. With changing balances of power in the region, though, Vikram Nehru believes that Indonesia will have to balance disparate objectives such as being an anchor for stability in the region, participating in security alliances and adhering to its longstanding policy of strategic autonomy.

Russia is not the primary challenger to the current global order, either in terms of economy or security. However, it continues to be a critical player with considerable military, diplomatic and economic resources. The most striking trait emanating from the Kremlin in recent years has been a kind of nationalism that brings it into direct conflict with the West. Andrew Kuchins suggests that the United States should work to bring about rapid Russian-European rapprochement, while keeping a wary eye on the Russia-China alliance.

Considering that much of the efforts to consolidate national power by the countries discussed here have been prompted by China’s rise, a study of national power in Asia remains incomplete without a dissection of China’s capabilities. NBR’s Nadège Rolland takes into account China’s material capabilities: military prowess, economic resources and national and regional institutions. In the end, though, she concentrates on the “intangible, unquantifiable, and yet crucial factors” – political leadership and policy. She places state-society relations at the center of the quest for national power and posits that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have more to worry about on the domestic front.

Controlling dissatisfaction from slowing growth would require agreeing to broad-based economic reforms and releasing control, which the CCP leadership does not seem comfortable with yet. Rolland predicts that failing to live up to the dreams that President Xi Jinping has been urging the Chinese people to aspire to can only lead to a crisis of legitimacy.

Unlike the other nations, the United States continues to have one critical advantage: that of being the creator of the international system and not a mere adopter. In military capabilities and access to international trade, the United States has advantages others cannot imagine. These, says Dennis Blair in his chapter, reflect the nature of American strength – structural in nature and therefore enduring. What is worrisome, though, is national performance – lack of reforms in issues such as health care, education, national infrastructure and immigration. To Blair, these are emblematic of an obsolete government structure. He advocates concentrating on these reforms, along with forging a bipartisan national security strategy preparing not for any single enemy, but for changing conditions marked by the rise of nonstate actors that threaten global peace and security.

Australia is a surprising omission from the volume. It is a leading military and economic power in the region, with a growing defense budget. It is also a valued US ally with an important role in the Asia rebalancing policy. The editors might consider including Australia in future phases of the project. In addition, considering that the chapters follow a common matrix, a curated section at the end bringing together observations from each of the chapters would have been useful. Any discussion on national power is incomplete without insight on what it may mean for each state in concrete terms in the broader context. Since the project envisages taking on the question of efficacy of national power in pursuing regional goals, building on where states stand vis-à-vis each other from the beginning would have added to the intended outcome.

This review would be remiss without an acknowledgement of the diverse viewpoints that the editors took care to include. Inclusion of regional experts as well as trans-Pacific voices ensures that the exercise rises above being a mere echo chamber of views heard every day in Washington and translates into a more holistic attempt to understand power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. If the beginning is any indication, one hopes that eventually, the three volumes will together constitute a multidimensional framework offering useful insights on likely trends of power in the region.


The article appeared on the Strategic Review website on January 06, 2016.

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