SINGAPORE – Not a week passes, it seems, without a big-picture thinker releasing a big-picture book or giving a big-picture sermon describing the gradual eclipse of American hegemony in Asia. True, American power will inevitably decline in relative terms as Asian giants such as China and India rise. But, at least as far as Asia is concerned, arguments about the end of American hegemony ring hollow.
For one thing, the United States was never a hegemon in Asia. Only some American post-Cold War triumphalists thought it was. The nature of US power and the exercise of its influence was always much more clever and subtle than most assume. In fact, as India and China rise, the US could actually find itself in a stronger position.
How can this be? After all, power and influence are built on the back of economic success. The Chinese economy has been doubling in size every ten years since 1978. The Indian economy has been doing the same since 1991. In contrast, it takes about two decades for the US economy to double in size. Doesn’t this surely mean that Asia is rushing toward a state of multi-polarity – a configuration of roughly equal great powers balancing against each other – while American influence is on the wane?
The seemingly obvious conclusion would be true but for the fact that Asia has a unique kind of hierarchical security system that came about partly by accident and partly by design.