CARTOGRAPHICAL CONCEPTIONS of Asia obscure what, in strategic terms, is a “Greater Asia.” It stretches from eastern Iran through Central Asia and South Asia to Indonesia, and from the Aleutian Islands to Australia, encompassing the Russian Far East, China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is connected by multifarious transactions, cooperative and adversarial, resulting from flows of trade and investment, energy pipelines, nationalities that spill across official borders, historical legacies that shape present perceptions, and shifting power ratios, within and among states. This is not a closed system; after all, many Greater Asian states are closely tied to the United States, a non-Asian Pacific state whose prowess enables it to shape power balances and political and military outcomes across the region. Yet America will face unprecedented changes in the distribution of power in Greater Asia’s eastern theater and disruptions in the western theater, as domestic constraints—economic and political—curtail its choices. That, in turn, will necessitate strategic reassessments by states in the region, particularly those that have relied on American protection. All this will undermine long-standing analytical frameworks and policies.
These looming changes cannot be fully understood through the prism of the grand theories devised to depict the post–Cold War world, including the three most prominent ones: the “Clash of Civilizations”; the “End of History”; and globalization. All three, underpinned by reductionism and historicism, miss the manifold, complex and contradictory forces shaping Greater Asia.

Samuel P. Huntington’s perception of persistent civilizational clash missed the reality that in Greater Asia states, not civilizations, remain the principal wellsprings of change. True, something akin to civilizational conflict is visible in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Sri Lanka, China, the Philippines, Pakistan and Malaysia. But, while it may threaten the cohesion of such countries, it has not integrated them into any civilizational blocs. In Asia, the effects of culture and religion are fissiparous rather than integrative and will remain so.

There is no Hindu civilization capable of mobilizing Asian loyalties and resources and aligning states’ policies to India’s benefit. Within India, Hindu nationalism—Cassandras’ cries notwithstanding—has failed to overcome the abiding appeal of secularism among the country’s founding doctrines. Though imperfect in practice, secularism has more purchase in Indian politics than ideologies based on religion and remains the signature of the Congress Party, India’s only national political organization. Partly because of its association with the North’s “Hindu heartland,” the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—previously the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—has shallow roots in southern India, the locus of much of the country’s innovation and high economic growth, and has failed to capture the national imagination. Only twice (in 1977–1980 and 1999–2004) has the BJP formed a multiyear national government. Singly or through coalitions, the Congress Party has dominated India’s national politics.

India’s 170 million Muslims, nearly as numerous as their Pakistani coreligionists, represent another barrier to Huntington’s view of a Hindu civilization. It’s hard to imagine a bigger threat to India’s future than millions of Muslim citizens so fearful of ascendant Hindu chauvinism that they can overcome differences of language, regionalism and theological pluralism within their faith. But no such Hindu nationalism has gained sufficient traction in the country to raise such fears among Muslims. Hindutva—the inchoate ideology that conflates Indian and Hindu—has never attained significant influence. Gujarat State’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, a BJP luminary and aspiring prime minister, has been undermined by his association with a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. And various other militant Hindu movements—among them the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Shiv Sena—have never gained national followings.

Even weaker is the transnational potential of Hinduism, a capacious creed with an array of deities, doctrines and rituals that is further fractured by differences rooted in region, caste, class and language. While Hindu communities exist in Malaysia and Singapore and Hinduism’s imprint is evident in Bali and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Asia’s non-Indian Hindus would find their prospects imperiled, not advanced, by becoming associated with a religion-based political movement led by gargantuan India. Furthermore it would be self-defeating for India to adopt a civilizational strategy at a time when it will need allies to counterbalance a rising China.

A Sinic civilizational bloc is equally implausible. Confucianism’s transnational allure will not match the emotional pull of nationalism, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, still influenced by their conflict-laden history with China. Moreover, a campaign by China to organize a Han civilizational coalition would antagonize its minorities, particularly the Tibetans and Uighurs, but also the Hui, whose rising nationalism already poses problems. China’s minority nationalities constitute less than 10 percent of China’s population, but they inhabit more than half its landmass. Progress in education and economic development has strengthened anti-Han nationalism, not weakened it through assimilation. Tibetans have been engaged in serial self-immolations (119 since 2009) and riots; bombings and demonstrations have erupted in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Uighurs’ homeland and site of bountiful energy deposits. Tibet and Xinjiang are remote from China’s eastern power centers. Tibet borders four countries, including China’s preeminent Asian rival, India. Xinjiang borders eight. Geography and ethnicity conspire to compound the challenge of maintaining the state’s control.

The Chinese leadership can contain restive minorities through repression and co-option, but changes in the surrounding region could make it harder. New states have risen in the Turkic Muslim regions of Central Asia once ruled by Russia; this area neighbors Xinjiang and constitutes a kindred cultural zone. Separatist Uighurs also can seek succor in an unstable Afghanistan. China’s minorities could prove even harder to handle should a prolonged economic crisis produce political upheaval in the East, weakening the government’s authority. Then minorities could become even more resentful over irritants such as Han Chinese migration and the building of Han-majority urban beachheads— massive regime policies since 1949. Unrest and violence in Tibet and Xinjiang could expand significantly.

Sinic civilization, like its Hindu analog, cannot undergird an effective foreign policy. The most receptive constituency likely would be the thirty-four million “overseas Chinese” in the Asia-Pacific, with about half residing in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. But these groups are regarded with envy and often hostility in host countries because of their share of national wealth. They would be ill served by becoming adjutants to what would look like a culture-based quest for primacy by a country already viewed with trepidation. The persistent political divide between China and Taiwan illustrates the limits of cultural kinship in producing political influence. Taiwan would scarcely join a Beijing-led civilizational coalition, which would likely be directed against the United States, the country most critical to continued Taiwanese independence, or at India, China’s most powerful Asian rival. If the communities and countries culturally closest to China are poor candidates for a civilization-based strategy, Beijing would have even less success with those further removed and with a history of conflict with China, such as India, Japan and Vietnam.

An Asian Islamic bloc is the least likely, as there is no obvious candidate to serve as a hub. Pakistan and Indonesia, which have heft in size and population, come closest, but an Islam-centered Asian strategy would further unsettle a Pakistan already awash in violence stemming from disputes over who is a true Muslim, what Islam demands of its devotees and the rights of non-Sunnis (Ahmadis and Shia). As for Indonesia, its efforts to orchestrate an Islamic coalition would estrange non-Muslims in Bali, Maluku, North Sulawesi and especially Papua, where nationalism and separatist sentiment remain resilient.

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA’S “End of History” thesis—that liberal-democratic capitalism remained the sole global ideology following Soviet Communism’s demise—fares no better as a guide to Asia’s future. In Iran, Central Asia, Russia, Singapore and China, there is widespread ambivalence toward democracy. Some leaders, invoking “Asian values,” attack the materialism and hyperindividualism they see in liberal democracy and criticize its lack of regard for order, hierarchy and social obligation. Denouncing democracy promotion as a push to advance American influence, they emphasize inconsistencies that arise when pragmatic interests and democratic principles collide. Russia’s government has developed a variation on this theme—a mélange of statism, nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, social conservatism and critiques of Western human-rights norms. These sentiments resonate with many Russians, as public-opinion experts have noted, and may have greater appeal than the street protests of big-city anti-Putin liberals suggest.

The “Asian values” manifesto, designed to forge a coalition against the United States throughout much of Greater Asia, has not had much effect. Some of its proponents, such as Singapore, rely on America for their security and conduct multiple transactions with it, some of which have cultural significance. Still, the weakness of this approach does not mean the people of Greater Asia are ready to embrace democracy over authoritarian alternatives. Consider the contrast between democratic India’s checkered economic record, authoritarian China’s stunning economic successes, the galloping growth rates South Korea and Taiwan achieved when neither was democratic, Vietnam’s brisk economic growth, and Singapore’s enviable living standards and clean government. The democracies in Asia have not been most successful at instituting economic reforms. China, unencumbered by election cycles or opposition parties, has instituted reforms more rapidly than India.

Indeed, the India-China dichotomy raises questions about whether democratic India or authoritarian China will prove to be the more attractive model in Asia and whether the contrast in their economic records to date may shape attitudes in the region more than Western democratic ideals. Though opinion surveys in Asia show substantial support for democracy, people’s responses become more nuanced on such specifics as its effectiveness in delivering rapid economic growth and efficient, clean government. The point is not that authoritarianism is better than democracy at promoting growth or curbing corruption—which is massive in China and elsewhere in Asia—but that the former’s successes may shape Asians’ political attitudes more than the End of History thesis assumes. This may also explain the lingering support for authoritarianism reflected in regional opinion polls.

GLOBALIZATION, THE third grand narrative, overlaps with Fukuyama’s framework. Its gurus proclaim that the desire for economic growth and technological prowess will force states to adopt market economics and open politics. But the first priority of any government is the preservation of its power, not maximizing economic growth. When leaders fear that liberalization could threaten their political power, economic privileges and patronage networks, they resist. North Korea is an extreme example. More pertinent, perhaps, are China, Russia, Japan, India, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Each, in its own way, has bent globalization to its own purposes.

Asian governments have shaped globalization as much as it has shaped them. Several restrict trade, foreign investment and travel. They decree currency controls, manipulate exchange rates and violate intellectual-property conventions. They censor the mass media and block Internet sites (a practice even in democratic India). They suppress opposition groups and imprison, or even kill, their leaders. They assert state ownership over key economic sectors. Globalization’s advocates might retort that such measures are inefficient. But that misses the point that governments covet stability and control more than efficiency. Seen thus, the curbs on economic or intellectual exchange in Iran, Central Asia, China, Singapore, Russia and other nations in Greater Asia have achieved their goals. On occasion, the refusal to adopt policies peddled by globalization pundits has proved prudent. During the 1997 East Asian currency crisis, Malaysia, India and China all limited capital mobility, faring better than Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand, which didn’t.

Each of the three narratives discussed above exalts a singular force, whether cultural, ideological or economic, as determinative and to which states appear hostage. But states remain the paramount political participants in world politics. Fashionable theories miss the mark when they proclaim states’ diminishing significance and assert that the political and military competition among them counts for less in the era of qualified sovereignty, global governance and nonstate actors. The biggest changes in Asia will result from the successes, failures and strategic choices of three states in particular: China, India and Japan.

THANKS TO growth rates averaging 9 percent a year since 1978, an unsurpassed record, China overtook Japan in 2010 as the world’s second-largest economy. By 2030 its economic output is expected to exceed that of the United States. This economic success gives Chinese leaders vast resources for advancing their objectives and their standing in Greater Asia. The economic boom also has yielded other sources of strength: near-universal literacy, a vast middle class, political stability, modern infrastructure, soaring exports and enormous trade surpluses, vast capital reserves, big advances in technological innovation, and a substantial and versatile manufacturing sector.

China’s trade ties, investments and lending in Greater Asia already are making it the fulcrum of an economic system. It is the leading trade partner for nine of Greater Asia’s countries: India, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Mongolia and Taiwan. Central Asia—the preserve of czars and commissars for some 150 years—is being pulled eastward by Chinese trade, investment, migration, cultural programs, railways and energy pipelines. And this reorientation has happened in a remarkably short time frame: since 1991, the year the Soviet Union imploded. On another front, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization provides institutional legitimacy to China’s expanding role, and stake, in Central Asia’s security. In Afghanistan, China is investing in oil fields and minerals and countering India’s determined efforts to gain influence (though once NATO forces depart, Beijing will have to devise a strategy to defend its newly acquired assets amid instability). While China and India remain at odds, the former has become the latter’s biggest trade partner (and racks up surpluses). The West has moved to isolate Iran, but China has not. It is Iran’s foremost trade partner, while Iran is China’s third-largest source of imported oil. On Greater Asia’s eastern flank, Russia is connected to China by oil flows, trade and arms sales, while a “strategic partnership”—featuring joint military exercises—born of a shared opposition to a unipolar, American-dominated world has ended decades of ideological polemics, territorial disputes and militarized borders. Underlying this, however, is a dramatic shift in the balance of power in China’s favor, another historic transformation.

American alliances (or implied promises of protection) span Greater Asia and are especially salient for Australia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. But these commitments will operate in a different context from the recent past. China still trails the United States in the standard indicators of power: GDP, defense spending, armed forces’ reach and lethality, sea and air power, and technological innovation. Yet such indices obscure a subtle yet critical shift occurring in East Asia. China has increased the risks faced by the United States in defending friends and allies. It has done this by increasing spending; purchasing modern ships, submarines and aircraft from Russia; modernizing its own military industries; and upgrading its technological know-how. This has not gone unnoticed in the region.

The ambit within which China can now exact a toll on American forces is larger than ever before and will expand. Standard “force on force” comparisons or tallies of relative economic power provide a snapshot of how the United States and China compare in aggregate global power. But such comparisons obscure the altered distribution of risk in East Asia and the degree to which it will require states in the area—especially those that have long relied on America for their safety (above all Japan)—to rethink familiar defense strategies. As the twenty-first century advances, the question these nations must ask themselves is just how far the United States will go to defend them, especially if they clash with China over the rightful ownership of tiny islands and outcroppings or challenge the validity of China’s “nine-dash line,” which essentially asserts Chinese ownership of the South China Sea. The point is not that China is likely to attack these countries but that, if current trends continue, it could prevail on contentious issues and cast doubt on America’s reliability, without firing a shot. That is the way of Sun Tzu.

Yet China also faces pressing problems. Perhaps the biggest stems, paradoxically, from Beijing’s success in transforming China’s economy and society since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms commenced. The ensuing socioeconomic modernization has been revolutionary. What has been lacking, though, is a corresponding transformation in China’s political order, which has produced a disjuncture between, in Marxist parlance, the “base” (socioeconomic forces) and “superstructure” (the state and its institutions). The signs include the increasing group consciousness of non-Han nationalities; sharp increases in protests (which reached 180,000 in 2010, twice the number in 2006) over official land grabs, corruption and environmental despoliation; new levels of labor unrest; and an anachronistic official ideology, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, which is an impediment to economic growth and management. Continued socioeconomic change will only aggravate this misalignment, for which the Communist Party appears to lack solutions beyond repression, co-option, censorship and harangues about subversive ideas.

Deng and his successors maintained order in part by ensuring phenomenal economic growth rates that have recast the lives of Chinese, creating opportunities few had imagined. Yet the post-Mao political system has never had to operate outside the congenial context of breakneck economic growth, so we don’t know just how much its stability hinges on maintaining the blistering pace. High-tempo growth also has increased income inequality, pervasive corruption and environmental degradation, all of which have bred social turmoil. The Communist Party is likely to manage the polity-society misalignment by embracing nationalism (the true opiate of the masses) and touting China’s emergence from weakness to global power. Yet that could present its own problems. Chinese leaders will find it harder to reassure their Asian neighbors that China’s rise is benign and that they need not take steps to bolster their security. Beijing’s room for compromise during crises and confrontations, especially involving Japan or the United States, will also be reduced. Chinese citizens, increasingly nationalistic and equipped with information and technologies that empower protesters, will judge the party against its rhetoric. And the more powerful China becomes, the greater these expectations will be.

The mainstream view among Sinologists is that China will overcome all such problems or will not even face them. Yet increasing capital flight (circumventing low official ceilings on moving money overseas) and a surge in the numbers of wealthy Chinese choosing to emigrate to the West suggest that China’s most privileged are hedging their bets. While China may not be headed for collapse, its long-running success could be replaced by a period of turbulence and uncertainty. A faltering China, rather than a rising one, could be the challenge that awaits Asia. Prolonged instability in China would have wide repercussions. Chinese leaders could lean harder on nationalism as a legitimizing ideology under such circumstances. And because of China’s importance in the global economy, its misfortunes would spread well beyond its borders.

IF CHINA’S successes routinely make headlines, it is India’s failures that get attention. While the acceleration of India’s economic growth after its reforms of the early 1990s have received coverage, enumerations of India’s failings, especially relative to China, are more common, and there are many of them. India’s 2012 per capita GDP was $3,900, ranking 168th worldwide; for China, the respective numbers were $9,300 and 123rd; for Japan, $36,900 and 38th; for South Korea (whose income per person in the early 1950s was on par with India’s) $32,800 and 44th. India’s literacy rate is 73.4 percent, while those of China, Indonesia and Malaysia are over 90 percent. Fully 32 percent of all Indians subsist on less than $1.25 a day (in terms of purchasing-power parity), compared to 13 percent in China, 18 percent in Indonesia, 21 percent in Pakistan, 1.5 percent in Iran and 0 percent in Malaysia. In life expectancy, India ranks 164th; in Greater Asia, only Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan and Afghanistan fare worse. Its infant-mortality rate ranks 50th; the only states in the region with worse records are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Bangladesh. India’s infrastructure is antiquated—a drag on economic growth and inward foreign investment—and a stark contrast to China’s. In the UN’s most recent “Human Development Index” rankings—a composite measure of individuals’ access to basic necessities—India places 136th, and the only countries in Greater Asia that trail it are the likes of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. India’s anemic industrial-manufacturing base is a major barrier to export-led growth and poverty reduction. Its university system, despite pockets of excellence, cannot meet present and projected needs in science and engineering. India’s cumulative inward foreign direct investment in 2010 was $191 billion, compared to China’s $574 billion and lilliputian Singapore’s $274 billion. Neighbors with far smaller populations—Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea—were close in absolute terms and far ahead per capita. Though the subject of much hype, India’s information-technology sector employs a tiny proportion of the workforce and cannot offset the country’s weaknesses in manufacturing.

It’s true that India has scored some gains, among them a drop in the poverty rate, made possible by its accelerated economic growth since the early 1990s—averaging 6 percent for much of the 1990s, 5.5 percent between 1998 and 2002, 8.8 percent between 2003 and 2007, and 6.5 percent between 2008 and 2012, a sharp contrast to the 3.5 percent average from 1950 to 1980. But the dismal quality-of-life statistics cited above make predictions of India’s impending rise as a global power sound hollow. India can’t soon close the economic gap with China. Nor, despite huge strides in modernizing its armed forces since the humiliating 1962 defeat at China’s hands, can it balance China militarily without powerful coalition partners—a reality that will remain unchanged during the next few decades.

Yet India has impressive strengths compared to China. China’s urbanization, advances in education and, above all, its draconian population-control practices have, in a few decades, reduced its total fertility rate (TFR), or children born per woman of childbearing age. It is now 1.55, well below what’s required (2.11) to maintain a country’s current population size. India’s TFR, by contrast, is 2.55. China’s population is shrinking, and this trend will continue, increasing the proportion of retirees, skewing the ratio of retirees to taxpayers and increasing expenditures on the nonworking population. This pattern bolsters the “demographic transition theory” (economic advancement reduces population growth), which has been evident in the West and Japan as well. But as the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt notes, Europe and Japan got rich before they became old. China’s experience will be the opposite, and that portends problems for sustaining high economic growth and investment. By contrast, 25 percent of India’s population is projected to be below twenty-four years of age by 2025 (compared to 18 percent for China), guaranteeing an abundant supply of labor.

Paradoxically, some of India’s apparent weaknesses are strengths. India lacked the preconditions deemed necessary for democracy (in particular, high literacy and a large middle class). Yet it established a democratic system in 1947 and has nurtured it successfully ever since. Power has been transferred peacefully numerous times through national, state and local elections over nearly seven decades. India is a linguistic and religious kaleidoscope, but this trait, far from being an impediment to stability, has made it harder to organize mass movements against the central government. It also has increased the significance of state-level politics, thus localizing problems.

India’s diversity also has compartmentalized crises, whether violence in Kashmir, Sikh separatism, tribal and Maoist insurgencies, or riots provoked by the government’s efforts, now abandoned, to make Hindi the national language. The strong elements of decentralization in India’s political system reduce the probability that an upheaval in the center will radiate outward, encompassing the rest of the country—a contrast to what occurred in the twilight of the Soviet Union and to what could happen in China.

Then there are the clear-cut strengths of the Indian polity. The army has stayed clear of politics, which provides an added source of political stability. Despite Indian democracy’s blemishes (such as elections marred by corruption and patronage, and parties anchored in personalities), the country faces nothing comparable to China’s base-superstructure misalignment. India’s problem is the reverse of China’s: a lagging “base.” That’s a serious challenge but not comparable to the obsolescence of an entrenched political order.

THE LAST of the trio, Japan, has long since solved the problem of meeting its citizens’ basic needs. And it rivals Europe and America in living standards. Japan took to democracy when it was imposed by America following World War II and has maintained it through the decades while avoiding the kind of social turmoil experienced by the West in the 1960s and by Europe now. Japan is about as monoethnic as countries get (and employs a restrictive immigration policy to stay that way). The homogeneity has eased the bargaining and compromises integral to democratic politics. Though Japan descended into decades of deflation after the early 1990s, it now seems to be emerging from that swamp. It retains a world-class industrial and technological base and service sector, and its economy is still the world’s third largest. These assets give Japan the wherewithal to increase its military power relatively quickly. It can also do so without significant economic strain: thanks to its alliance with the United States, defense spending has averaged below 1 percent of GDP since the end of World War II. Altering the established pattern will ignite controversy at home and abroad, but Japan’s decades-long strategy of relying on American protection—outsourcing defense—will become less tenable as the balance of power between America and China changes. Changes in Japan’s defense strategy loom, and it is absurd to see the choices as limited to the militarism of the past or the minimalism of the present.

The “peace constitution,” many citizens’ aversion to abandoning military minimalism and still-strong Asian memories of Japanese imperialism will together make it difficult for Tokyo to respond to the new context. Yet, with an economy reliant on imports for just about everything needed to keep operating, Japan is especially vulnerable to states with naval power capable of blocking sea-lanes. It has been fortunate for almost seventy years: the national interest of the United States, the world’s preeminent maritime power, required that it keep sea routes secure, including Asian sea-lanes. Though the United States will maintain its naval preponderance for many years, China, also dependent on sea-lanes and thus susceptible to their disruption, will continue to expand its naval power with the advantage of having significant resources in hand. For the first time since 1945, Japan will face an ascendant Asian power that is an adversary committed to becoming a front-rank naval power.

Japan also faces serious demographic problems. Although the aging of Japanese society accelerated once Japan got rich, the process continues, and the Japanese seem unwilling to turn to immigration as a solution. Japan’s population, now close to 128 million, is projected to shrink to ninety-seven million by midcentury. Demographic constraints will shape Japan’s defense choices, inclining it toward sea and air power and high-tech weapons, but it will not rule out increases in defense spending or a rethinking of the established national-security strategy.

THE BIGGEST security challenge for much of Greater Asia will be balancing China, whose neighbors will hedge their bets even if the Chinese leadership uses sticks sparingly and carrots liberally, while emphasizing China’s “peaceful rise.” In the politics of nations, words have slippery meanings, and intentions are difficult to divine. Hence, states dwell on others’ deeds and on the changes in relative capabilities that create new power ratios.

Asian countries that have fought wars or had skirmishes with China will be particularly inclined to hedge. China’s growing capabilities will coincide with its territorial disputes with India, Japan and various Southeast Asian countries. It could resolve these disagreements to reassure the region, but that has not been the predilection of rising powers. China is more likely to retain what it has, offer partial concessions to India, and press its claims more forcefully over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as well as the Spratlys/Nansha and Paracel/Xisha archipelagoes. A Chinese leadership reliant on nationalism to manage internal instability will be even less willing (or able) to make compromises.

Barring an internal crisis, China will have substantial superiority in power over other Asian states. Thus, strategies aimed at balancing it will be collective rather than unilateral or bilateral, and even the United States will seek partners to reduce the associated risks and costs. Pressing U.S. domestic needs—outmoded infrastructure, long-neglected social problems, the rising costs of health and retirement programs, budget deficits and debt, and the increasing proportion of retirees—are likely to reduce the revenues and reservoir of public support American leaders require to sustain expensive overseas defense commitments. Thus, a diminution in the American commitment appears likely, the current clamor about a pivot to Asia notwithstanding.

The most effective collective strategy for states seeking to counterbalance China would be to extend Chinese focus and resources across several fronts. Given China’s size, these fronts are widely separated and hence hard to reinforce. Simple geography suggests that the natural partners will be the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore and India. Yet apart from the difficulties of orchestrating such a disparate coalition, its members’ varying degrees of economic dependence on China and exposure to its military power will complicate cohesion and collective action.

Still, security consultations among these states have increased, and some (India, Japan, Australia and Singapore) have engaged in joint naval exercises. China’s rise has initiated a strategic convergence between India and the United States—a stark contrast to the Cold War years—and their 2008 agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation was a landmark. That deal constituted, in effect, America’s recognition of India as a nuclear-weapons state—a major departure from Washington’s traditional nonproliferation policy. Yet talk of a U.S.-Indian alliance is misplaced. India will seek the material and symbolic gains that flow from a partnership with Washington but without losing its leverage or alarming China. Given China’s proximity to India and its growing power, the risks of joining an overtly anti-Chinese alliance would outweigh any gains. This same logic will guide Vietnam.

Japan will face the toughest choices. The prevailing view among Japan experts is that it will not jettison its military minimalism for various reasons—public opposition, a quasi-pacifist culture, constitutional barriers, confidence in the American alliance and regional memories of Japanese militarism. Yet over the past three hundred years Japan’s foreign policy has ranged from isolationism to imperialism, with variations in between, and changes in its external environment have often forced these fluctuations. Furthermore, Japan’s choices are not limited to inertia or imperialism. It now spends a tiny proportion of its GDP on defense and could improve its military capabilities modestly without provoking panic. Moreover, depending on how China wields its power, regional attitudes could change, especially if Japan increases its military strength in tandem with a multilateral strategy and resolves its territorial squabbles with South Korea (over the Takeshima/Dokdo island groups) and Russia (concerning the South Kurils/Hoppo Ryodo).

Some states will stand apart from an anti-Chinese coalition. They include South Korea, as long as China does not pose a threat and remains North Korea’s principal patron. Russia will follow suit. Its vast Far Eastern provinces—almost three times the area of France, Germany and Spain combined—are sparsely populated (just over six million, 4.2 percent of Russia’s total population), far from Russia’s western industrial heartland (Moscow is five thousand miles away) and hence hard to support militarily. This is particularly true given that the four Chinese provinces across the border (Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Jilin and Liaoning) alone contain about 160 million people. Russia’s relative weakness will give China a secure northern front and reduce any encirclement strategy’s efficacy. Mongolia—weak, exposed to Chinese power and lacking nearby allies—will respond similarly, while Laos and Cambodia will rely on China to balance Vietnam. For its part, Beijing will counter any encirclement strategy by preserving and extending interior lines of supply for energy and trade that connect it to Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. It will also seek access to ports on the coasts of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Iran, so as to have supplements to the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok. China also will insist that any deal over the unification of the Korean Peninsula, which will require its participation, involve the removal of or a sharp reduction in American forces now stationed in South Korea.

On Greater Asia’s western flank, China will replace Russia as the state most consequential for Central Asian states’ economies and national security. But this transition will unfold as much of Central Asia resumes its cultural trajectory southward, toward the wider Islamic world, a process interrupted by the nineteenth-century czarist conquest. In deepening its presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, China will have to navigate cultural and religious currents that could flow into Xinjiang. Another challenge will be to safeguard its economic investments and security interests without provoking a backlash or becoming mired in conflicts in what promises to be a volatile area. That balancing act will be even harder should China experience a political crisis that makes distant Xinjiang harder to control, precisely at a time when the province is exposed to destabilizing influences.

China’s biggest problem in Greater Asia’s western theater would be Pakistan’s fragmentation, which would undermine the most important element of China’s outflanking strategy against India and trigger upheavals with follow-on effects that could flow into China’s westernmost provinces. Pakistan’s breakup would be even more dangerous for India, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Each has borders and cultural and ethnoreligious connections with Pakistan, which would ensure that its problems would be theirs, too. India’s leaders, having long focused on Pakistan’s strength, would face new circumstances that are harder to comprehend, let alone counter, above all preserving nuclear deterrence with an adversary lacking a functioning state. Five other problems could surface or become more difficult to manage were Pakistan to unravel. One is irredentism, given that the Pashtun homeland straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Baluch territories traverse Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The second concerns groups that couple terrorism and radical Islam, which would find it much easier to operate in Kashmir and Afghanistan in the absence of a strong Pakistani state. The third is the management of crucial water resources shared by India and Pakistan, and by Pakistan and Afghanistan, in ways that do not pit upstream states against their downstream neighbors. Fourth is the prospect that transnational drug and criminal networks spanning Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran could be strengthened. The fifth would be ensuring Afghanistan’s stability amid upheaval in Pakistan.

Another challenge on Greater Asia’s western flank involves stabilizing post-American Afghanistan. What looms is freewheeling competition—featuring India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Uzbekistan—powered by fear and mistrust and without robust regional organizations that could foster collective action. Worse, as part of their rivalry, these states are likely to establish patron-client relationships with armed Afghan groups, making order in Afghanistan even harder to preserve. None of these states stands to gain from worsening turmoil in Afghanistan, yet each is acting in ways that increase its likelihood.

WOULD THAT one of the three prevailing megatheories offered a reliable guide to Greater Asia’s future. Alas, with so many forces at play in the region, tidy frameworks are useless. Greater Asia is like a big bus crammed with passengers of varying backgrounds and persuasions. Some are more important than others and can take a turn steering. But this bus has several steering wheels and no consensus on a common course, least of all among the drivers, who also lack maps and don’t trust one another enough to select a route or destination. Some vehicle parts are old and unreliable; others have yet to encounter rough terrain. And a thick fog obscures the road.

A likely consequence of the divergent interests among Greater Asia’s most powerful states and the absence of effective institutions to facilitate collective action is that problems that cannot be addressed effectively without multilateral cooperation will go unattended and fester. These problems include nuclear proliferation, terrorism, environmental degradation, territorial disputes and arms races. Among the desirables that appear infeasible are confidence-building measures that avert crises on land and sea; agreements that enable the cooperative exploration of contested oceanic energy deposits; rule-based management of shared water resources by riverine countries; and codes of conduct on cyberwarfare, trade and investment in a transaction-dense region. The pity is not merely that these challenges are likely to be missed opportunities for cooperation but also that they may aggravate already-abundant sources of tension and conflict resulting from changes in the balance of power. Thucydides would have found these tragic circumstances familiar, but our prevailing paradigms, long on sweep and short on subtlety, cannot do them justice.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007). This piece first appeared in The National Interest.