In both this article and the forthcoming book, Mr. Khanna looks at the emerging contours of the new world order from the perspective of the second world: “Lying alongside and between the Big Three, second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics. From Venezuela to Vietnam and Morocco to Malaysia, the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in ‘coalition of the willing’), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st century.”
There is considerable value in this piece, not least in its warning to US policymakers that American hegemony is finished. Over the course of the Bush administration, it has become clear that the US, for all its military strength, is woefully deficient in other areas of power, making it difficult for Washington to solve critical problems. It’s not entirely the fault of President Bush, but his administration’s actions made it plain the limits of American power, hastening the emergence of a new order.
Mr. Khanna makes clear that competition between the US, China, and the EU will not be primarily in the military realm, but rather over energy, markets, and natural resources. The other point of interest is that the second-world countries might actually hold the upper hand in their dealings with the superpowers. These countries can pocket concessions and aid from all three, maximizing their security in the process. This dynamic is already at work in Southeast Asia, where countries like Vietnam are happy to trade with China even as they deepen their security ties with the US (an example not lost on Mr. Khanna). As a result, this piece is not simply a reincarnation of fears from the 1980s and 1990s about the creation of three exclusionary economic blocs.
Not surprisingly, however, Japan is absent from this piece (except in passing, with Japan’s interest in regional monetary cooperation cited as an example of how “Asians are insulating themselves from America’s economic uncertainties”).
Where does Japan fit in a tripolar world? Presumably as its population shrinks over the coming decades, Japan will increasingly come to resemble second-world countries busy playing the superpowers off each other. Granted, Japan will likely remain wealthier and more politically stable than the other countries in this group, but as a result of its security and economic needs, Japan will likely engage in the same behavior. In managing its relationships with the US and China, Japan is, in fact, already playing one power off the other, one moment strengthening security cooperation with the US, the next exploring new avenues of economic cooperation with China, ASEAN, and others that exclude the US. It will take some time before Japan fully embraces this “small Japan” path — I suspect there remains too much fear of China and too much dependence on the US — but it may be only a matter of time, with the process hastened by external changes like a mellower China or a prolonged economic downturn in the US that leads it to reconsider its defense spending and foreign deployments.
The question is the extent to which Japan can remain prosperous and dynamic and preserve some modicum of influence in the competition for energy and natural resources. That will depend, of course, on decisions made today to transform Japan’s moribund political and economic systems.