September 1, 2013
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.