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Asia's Near-Future Power Game

By       Message Philip Dorsey Iglauer     Permalink
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Today we live in a unipolar world with the U.S. on top, but the future will have to be more accommodating to Asia.

Asia will be accommodated, but it is not the major powers of China, India and Japan that the U.S. should worry about destabilizing the region. The smaller “second-tier’’ countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam may surprise everyone in the long-term, say 10-20 years.

The quagmire that resulted from the U.S. occupation of Iraq proved to everyone the limits of Washington's ability to force its will without question. Washington finally learned the importance of multilateralism. That’s why even though Bush used the sword against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, he had to turn to diplomacy—perhaps at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s insistence—with Kim Jong-il.

What Washington is game to do now, under Condi’s leadership, is to play a classic Realist power-balancing strategy dependent upon partnering with regional allies against perceived or potential adversaries.

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That is all well and good to assuage sometimes and, at other times, contain countries like China and India, but what of the erratic ascendancy of such Asian countries as Vietnam and Indonesia?

While Condi is playing power politics, some very important demographics are being missed. If these countries’ development fails to satiate their growing populations, their problems will become regional problems.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and currently the fourth most populous state in the world. Its growing market economy and international presence is a reflection of its government's pragmatic policies. It is presently a U.S. partner in the War on Terror, but it might not be for long.

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Indonesia’s overall stability is far from certain. It faces secessionist movements, internal dissent and natural disasters as impediments to its number No. 1 priority—development. If these impediments cause instability, not only will its U.S. partnership end, but regional security will also be in jeopardy.

Increasing population in the coming two decades will put a strain on the country’s limited natural resources, forcing it to look to other countries to supplement its diminishing supplies.

Given Jakarta’s powerful military and its investment in military hardware and development, Indonesia will emerge as an even more powerful player in Southeast Asia. If the state is able to hold it together in the face of the mounting social, economic and natural challenges, it will be powerful.

Indonesian instability will mean regional instability. If Indonesia cannot maintain cohesion, the resulting discord will surely spill across its borders, and could destabilize Malaysia and Australia.

Solid governance and strong state institutions don’t necessarily run along democratic-capitalist lines. Government control over the military and internal affairs, not to mention a strong economy, are needed for Indonesia to be stable and peaceful.

The absence of any of these conditions may render the state incapable of providing safety and security to its restless population, leaving the door open to subversion or influence by outside forces.

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The other two populous countries that have the potential to precipitate regional instability in the medium or long-term are the Philippines and Vietnam.

Vietnam and the Philippines will have populations passing the 100-million mark by 2020. They will face similar problems as Indonesia—diminishing resources, limited natural space, and the coming difficulties of satisfying the economic desires of their growing populations.

Both states have robust militaries. They are likely to confront not the U.S., but growing Chinese ambitions in the region. The Philippines is already threatened by internal discord, including two insurgencies, poverty and lawlessness.

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A former reporter in Seoul, Philip Dorsey Iglauer is third-place winner of the 2007 Iris Chang Memorial Essay Contest and Communications Officer at the International Cooperative Agricultural Organization, South Korea.

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