A Sobering Assessment

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A Sobering Assessment

A report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council notes some troubling projections for Asia : a potential for increased conflict.

There are plenty of big stories in Asian security this month – the North Korean rocket test, China-Japan tensions, and the implications of the Japanese and South Korean elections for regional order.  But taking the long view, there is one story that the region's security watchers should not ignore — the release of the U.S. National Intelligence Council's 2030 report on global futures, titled Alternative Worlds. 

This document is full of thoughtful and in many instances worrying assessments about where the Asian strategic order is going, and about the risks of instability and conflict in the years ahead.  It may in theory be a global report, but many of its more troubling projections have an Asian angle, unsurprisingly given the shift of economic and strategic centrality to this region.

To be fair, much of the document is occupied with an impartial examination of megatrends, and some of this is good news, for instance the growth of the global middle-class. But one of the key so-called game changers highlighted in the survey is about the potential for increased conflict. And here, although there is the usual homage paid to the war-constraining qualities of economic interdependence, we find some grim observations.

“The risks of interstate conflict are increasing owing to changes in the international system”: that is, power shifts, notably but not only the rise of China, are upsetting the Asian power equilibrium.

“If the United States is unwilling or less able to serve as a global security provider by 2030, the world will be less stable”: this is an honest but also exceptionally forthright point to make by an American intelligence community which has traditionally analyzed the external world while suspending judgment about the consequences of America's own policy behavior. It is a clear warning against American retrenchment from maritime Asia’s strategic affairs.

While the Middle East and South Asia may remain more conflict prone regions than East Asia, “a conflict ridden East Asia would constitute a key global threat and cause large-scale damage to the global economy”.

The report implies that China, India and Russia are the three great powers to watch closely for risks of involvement in future great power conflict.  Importantly, and sensibly, the report recognizes that both the governments of China and India are likely to remain heavily focused on building a stable strategic environment for their internal development. But a sustained stalling of economic growth, combined with rising nationalism and dashed middle-class expectations, could have a dangerous impact on interstate relations involving the emerging giants.

Finally, those most 20th-century of weapons, nuclear armaments, are not going to be a thing of the past: future wars, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East, would risk “inclusion of a nuclear deterrent.” As to whether those weapons of mass destruction will be fundamentally a stabilizing or a destabilizing factor, and indeed whether they might likely be used, with catastrophic consequences — well, the report is perhaps a little too polite.

Considering that Alternative Worlds is synthesis of consultations with many hundreds of non-government experts worldwide, a lack of consensus is to be expected.   Still, on balance this is a grimmer read than previous such reports in 2004 and 2008, and Indo-Pacific Asia's strategic community should take note.