Marshall M. Bouton, President, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Summary by Richard C. Longworth 

The swift and extraordinary rise of Asian nations to global power has created a “new Asian great game” of competition and rivalry that could “threaten instability and even war,” Marshall Bouton told a Chicago Council audience Wednesday evening.
Asia’s rise already is reshaping global politics, Bouton, who will retire soon after 12 years as Council president, said. In Asia itself, he said, this rise could create “competition and distrust among major powers in Asia that might lead to open conflict, much as it did among European powers in 1914.”

Bouton stressed that he was “deliberately taking a glass-half-empty view of how Asia’s geopolitics might development” to show how the “rise of new powers often leads to instability and war.”

“I am no historical determinist and I do not see conflict in Asia as inevitable,” he said, “but I do view it as possible, and that is too much.”

Bouton’s lecture, part of The Council’s Chicago and the World Forum, was a sweeping overview of the economic, political, and military changes in Asia and their implications for the future, including “potentially profound impacts on the United States and the global order.” 

Bouton, an expert on the Asian subcontinent, came to The Chicago Council from the Asia Society in New York in 2001, when Council programming was more focused on transatlantic issues. He quickly gave both Council programming and studies a global scope, with a particular attention to Asia – not just the sub-continent but China and the rest of East Asia.

As president, Bouton has traveled constantly through Asia, establishing the Council’s reputation among leaders there and, among other things, arranging for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first trip to Shanghai. But he also kept his eyes and ears open, becoming an expert not just on China or India but on the continent itself, on its many parts and how they confront each other.

“I have been storing up what I have to say for ten years,” Bouton said Wednesday evening.
There are four major powers competing in Asia, Bouton said – China, India, Japan, and the United States. What happens within one country or another, he said, is less important than how these powers interact with each other, and with other nations such as Korea or Vietnam.

“What’s at stake in the new Asian great game is nothing less than global prosperity, stability, and peace in the decades ahead,” he said.

Bouton quickly reviewed Asia’s rise – its economic growth, its growing share of global production and trade, its prominence in financial markets, its increased demands for energy and other natural resources and, connected to this, its soaring military spending.

“Asia, he said,” is in the early stages of a major arms race.”

Then he laid out the “great game” as now playing in Asia.

First, there’s the interplay of nations and nationalisms, similar to pre-war European rivalries but moving much faster in Asia than they ever did in Europe.

Second, this great game “will be played out largely at sea.” Land wars are unlikely, he said: China dominates eastern Asia and India southern Asia, with the Himalayas a wall between them. Instead, Asia’s seas – the Sea of Japan, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean – “are the economic lifelines of virtually every Asian nation.” The sea-lanes connecting them are potential flashpoints: almost all imported oil and gas, for instance, passes through “a single chokepoint,” the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesian Sumatra.

At the moment, the US naval presence dominates the region and any contest for regional power must deal with this presence.

In addition, he said, the South China Sea lies atop potentially rich oil and gas reserves. Already, China and its neighbors are staking overlapping claims to territory there.

Then throw in a history of national rivalries, heightened nationalism, proliferating Chinese and Indian naval bases in the Indian Ocean, and potential hot spots, such as a constellation of competing claims to various tiny islands.

In sum, Bouton said, “the future of Asian geopolitics is endangered by a combustible mix of national rivalries, resource competition, insecurities resulting from fast-expanding military capabilities and unresolved disputes.”

“The result is an atmosphere of ‘strategic distrust’ between key powers,” he said.

A half-empty glass is also half-full, and Bouton listed four “restraining factors” that could keep this “strategic distrust” in hand. These are the commitment of all nations to economic development, the economic interdependence between the Asian nations, the spread of cooperative regional institutions, and the continued ability of the United States to play its role as a regional security balancer.

Only two weeks earlier, Singapore scholar Kishore Mahbubani told the Council that these forces are propelling Asia toward a cooperative and peaceful future.

Maybe so, Bouton said. But he warned that these might not be enough to prevent “an Asian cold or cool war of unconstrained great power competition in Asia,” accompanied by a nuclear arms race.

The United States has a crucial role to play, Bouton said. This means that Asia must lead America’s foreign policy priorities in this century. American naval power in the region must remain strong and credible and America diplomacy must be both “agile and far-sighted.” In addition, US presidents, starting with Barack Obama, “must communicate more effectively to the American people the importance of Asia to America’s future.”

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy and global issues. Views expressed in event summaries are solely those of the author, not The Chicago Council, which takes no institutional positions.

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   WEDNESDAY, MARCH 20, 2013


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