China May Be Rising, But America Is Not in Retreat

Should Asia become riven with conflict, leaders will be even more hard-pressed to muster the trust and cooperation needed to address serious collective challenges. These include climate change and the water-shortage-induced disputes festering between upstream and downstream states in Asia. Similarly, while arms control and confidence-building measures—especially in such flashpoints as the Sino-Indian border, the Taiwan Straits, the East China Sea and the South China Sea—may help reduce tensions, they too will be harder to negotiate. Finally, freewheeling political-military rivalries reduce trust among states and consequently their capacity, even willingness, to develop procedures for managing crises that could spiral into armed confrontations, even war.

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ASIAN COUNTRIES will not lack for opportunities to benefit from the economic resurgence of their continent, home to three of the world’s largest economies. Many of them, China included, have acquired a stake in economic interdependence—finance, trade and foreign direct investment—substantial enough to make military recklessness a costly choice. All of them understand that a regional conflict will have catastrophic consequences. Still, one cannot assume that Asia’s growing wealth and interdependence will guarantee stability—that the logic of what Richard Rosecrance called the “trading state” mentality will win out. There is scant historical evidence for such an optimistic inference, which verges on economic determinism and overlooks, for example, how deeply economically intertwined the countries that went to war in 1914 were. States are not motivated by economic calculations alone; they are not bankers or accountants. Pride, fear, hubris, misperception, nationalism and sheer stupidity shape what they do and how they do it. As Asia’s power balances shift, there will inevitably be occasions when these noneconomic influences drive decisions, overriding economic logic.

The Asia of the Cold War was a dangerous and often bloody place. But its alignments were predictable and its problems readily identifiable. That is no longer the case. North Korea’s recent nuclear tests offer further evidence of the volatility of the region. That volatility, however, underscores why America is becoming a coveted partner for smaller regional powers. China may be rising, but an American retreat is not in the cards.

Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/CUNY and senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University. His most recent book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, was published in June.

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U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships underway in formation as part of a photo exercise on the final day of Keen Sword 2011. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Cold War–era Asia was a dangerous and often bloody place. But its alignments were predictable and its problems readily identifiable. No longer.

SEEN IN historical perspective, a Western-dominated world represents a recent phenomenon. Not until the fifteenth century did the gap between the West and the rest start widening dramatically, with the Industrial Revolution, which followed much later, serving as the critical accelerator. For centuries before that, the centers of cultural splendor, wealth and scientific achievement lay in the East. Asia accounted for nearly 60 percent of global economic output as recently as 1700. Its position declined steadily thereafter, but started regaining ground in 1980. China’s remarkable post-1978 economic resurgence, along with rapid growth in South and East Asia, ranks among the most significant changes in the international system in the last three decades. This does not necessarily betoken the West’s marginalization. Still, the change in Asia’s relative…

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