Significant movements in world affairs often go unnoticed by the media. For what fits inside the strictures of hard news are usually dramatic statements by politicians, dramatic actions by military units or dramatic economic shifts. But what also really changes history are the gradual developments that accrue over time. That's one of the reasons you are liable to learn more by reading serious books or scholarly reports than by reading newspapers. Asia is a case in point.
The news about Asia is relentlessly repetitive and often insignificant, however tragic in human terms sometimes. Indeed, the recent building collapse in Bangladesh was heartrending, but geopolitically it was of marginal importance. The jousting between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea is important -- but after reading about it for months on end, unrevealing. The same with the islands in the South China Sea. We already know that Japan has a more activist prime minister and for years his country has been shedding its quasi-pacifism, if only the media would finally tell us more.
So what is really going on in Asia, slowly and undramatically in news terms but critically in historical terms? It is the demonstrable tendency of Asian countries to strengthen ties with each other rather than solely depend on the United States for balancing against China. According to the Center for a New American Security in Washington, a centrist think tank with which I am affiliated, the growing momentum of bilateral links of nearly every country with nearly every other one is nothing less than an "emerging Asian power web." Over the past decade, this expanding network of relationships within the Indo-Pacific has included high-level defense visits, bilateral security arrangements, joint operations and military exercises, arms sales and military education programs.
The bottom line: As Asian countries -- from India to Vietnam to Indonesia to Malaysia to Japan and so on -- arise out of poverty, guerrilla war and stagnation, they are forging robust relationships with each other, providing a whole new security dynamic to go alongside the U.S.-China rivalry. The Asian power web is also an offshoot of the emergence of midlevel powers, which are now forging deeper links with each other -- thus "widening the analytical aperture," in the words of the report, through which international relations must be viewed.
Keep in mind that by 2025, Asia is likely to account for almost half of the world's economic output and four of the world's top 10 economies: China, India, Japan and Indonesia. Moreover, Asian investment in the United States and U.S. investment in Asia have doubled over the past decade. To the extent that any one part of the world is more important than any other, Asia should now dominate American foreign policy thinking, especially since the war in Iraq is over, the one in Afghanistan is winding down and the likelihood of boots on the ground in Syria is small. The first-term Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia was less a bold departure than an acknowledgment of ongoing trends.
To be sure, the United States has been busy negotiating increased access and presence arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, notably rotating up to 2,500 Marines through northern Australia and rotating up to four new littoral combat ships through Singapore. By 2020, the ratio of American warship deployments between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans will change from 50-50 to 60-40.
But as the emerging Asian power web reveals, America's renewed emphasis on the region represents only one level of the strategic changes afoot, especially as the size of the American Navy reaches a plateau. To wit, India is training Vietnamese submariners. Japan has signed a security arrangement with Australia. Japan has also increased its high-level exchanges with South Korea by more than 50 percent since 2000. Indonesia and Malaysia have more than doubled their respective high-level exchanges with India and Singapore during the past decade. Vietnam and Australia now regularly exchange high-level military delegations. Vietnam and Japan have announced their intention to accelerate defense cooperation, as have Vietnam and India. Perhaps more significantly, trade between India and the countries of Southeast Asia increased 37 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone. This is part of a proliferation of intraregional foreign trade agreements.