(16 December 2011) — An interesting political concept in China proposes that the overall power of a nation-state can be quantitatively measured using an index called the Comprehensive National Power (CNP).
An amalgamation of various quantitative benchmarks, the index takes into consideration the military (the hard power), economic and cultural (‘soft’ power) factors while calculating the ‘net power’ of a country.
The thought behind the uniquely Chinese political concept is that a nation-state can falter for a variety of reasons; and that a truly powerful entity will be insured from all possiblecauses of failure – socio-cultural, economic and military.
One of the reasons suggested for the collapse of the Soviet Union is that it invested all its resources in military capacity building during the Cold War, at the expense of culture and the general economic wellbeing of all social groups.
The US, on the other hand, encouraged its independent economy and culture to evolve – and grow – beyond its shores.
If we add the military might of US to that sphere of influence, it becomes easy to understand why the US earned the highest CNP score in the 2009 index. China, the current flavour of the world and the birthplace of the index, lags behind the UK, Russia, France and Germany.
China may be behind, but it still forms a four-nation strong contingent of Asian nations in the top ten rankings of powerful countries – with Japan, South Korea and India.
For a continent that has come through sectarian genocides, political upheavals and violent civic fissures, quite apart from scores of history-defining natural disasters in the last five decades, having four nations in the top ten on an all-round index is a notable achievement.
From being the home of the world’s fastest growing middle class, to boasting three of the world’s top four economies, Asia is now what the West was a couple of decades ago.
In the coming four decades, Asia would have more than 50% of the world’s population (as compared to Europe’s mere 5% share), while China and India would be the two largest economies of the world in terms of gross domestic product.
So when US President Barack Obama told a gathering at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hawaii in November that “there is no region in the world that we consider more vital than the Asia-Pacific region,” he was merely echoing what global analysts have been proclaiming for the last decade – the Asian century is upon us.
What that really means is that Asia’s biggest nations, China and India, are now well into the process of replicating the sustained economic success that Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have already attained.
It also means that the economic growth is now traveling beyond extravagant real estate and throbbing stock exchanges to sink deep into the social fabric of these Asian nations.
Like every transition, this too carries the sub-text of inherent chaos. Governments’ ambitious drive towards modern cities is displacing people, fueling frequent expressions of anger and angst by those affected.
The sections of the society who have acquired the ‘power of choices’ by means of economic growth are, in turn, questioning the unmitigated power that the state exercises over their lives. As a result, in the decades to come, people power across the region is either going to ensure governments become accountable to its citizens or give rise to general socio-political malaise and turmoil.
At the same time, private corporations, the raison d’etre for much of that people power, are becoming increasingly more powerful than, in some instances, the state itself. This comes from the ability of private corporations to hold a government hostage by their sheer significance to the nation’s economic wellbeing. With such power, corporations have the potential to control the lives of individual employees to an alarming extent.
Consequently, the power equation within Asian nation-states now resembles a continuing fight for supremacy between people, corporations and the state.
The same power struggle travels beyond borders to define the wider geo-political balances too. As an example, the territorial dispute in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei is playing out the geographical ambitions of nation-states and the nationalist emotions and livelihood issues of the local populace, as well as the business interests of corporations.
Beyond individual interests, as nation-states amass greater power, they start becoming more responsible for their surrounding environments too. So, India may be expected to get tougher with China over Tibet and with Myanmar over democracy. China, at the same time, would get even more decisive in its dismissal of a Western code of conduct for its administration, even though it might accede to some of the demands from its own people.
Eventually, Asian nation-states would begin to expect – and often demand – other nation-states adhere to practices (of governance) that they believe in – thereby completing the life cycle of acquiring overall power.
This expression of power would play out at all levels of society. The burgeoning middle classes of the region would force corporations from Asia and the world to pay attention to their consumer demands; social groups would advocate for and get greater socio-political powers; artists and thinkers would force the government to liberalise the space for free expression and governments would enforce a strict rule of law in exchange for governance delivery.
The rise of Asia would not make the established powers of the West less capable, or important – but they would cease to be the dominant power. And that is the hallmark of true power: It makes ‘others’ less dominant.
Europe and the US would retain their essential stature, but Asia would be the center stage – all over again.