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Who Will Be the Dominant Power in East Asia?

Updated on August 17, 2011

[Written in 2010]

In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy. Clearly this is a significant event, as one is apt to notice with all of the articles, books and news stories trumpeting this as the first sign of China's rise as a major power. It is significant, but let's get some perspective on the hard facts.

China is a nation of 1.3 billion people. Japan has 127 million people--let's see . . that's just about 1/10th the size of China. And yet, China's GROSS domestic product is just overtaking Japan. Consider that the PER CAPITA annual income of Chinese citizens is somewhere between $3,000-4,000, just about 1/10 of Japan's. There is no escaping the fact that the vast majority of China's people are poor.

This has been the year of China. Fresh off the relative success of the Beijing Olympics and the World Expo, the Chinese (or a significant portion of them) are optimistic about their future. They have weathered the financial crisis better than the western economies and Japan, and they are flush with "China money" that they are investing in all areas of the world, including Africa, the US and Japan. Many are afraid that China's increased military spending and increasing assertiveness may pose a significant threat in East Asia.

But who can predict the ebb and flow of power? Take a look at world history and you will see how unpredictable it has been. My question in this article is: which country will dominate East Asia in the 21st century? Although most writers and scholars are now sure of China's dominance and Japan's waning influence, there are some who are taking a long-term perspective and saying otherwise.

George Friedman, an American political scientist, is taking the perspective that Japan will be the dominant power. He says that China will clearly have problems from within. The main cause is the vast number of impoverished and dissatisfied people. Across its history, China's governement has often been unseated by rebellions and weakened by stagnation. Who is to say this won't happen again? Beside the millions of poor (who are just inches away from starvation) there are the "outsiders" who were forced into the Chinese nation by the communists, such as the Tibetans, Mongols, and Manchurians. Any unrest and these people will take the opportunity to free themselves. Around 90% of the population is Han, an ethnicity that considers themselves superior to other ethnicities. They want to keep other people within their borders, but they will not allot them the same power and wealth that they themselves have. There is not "one China" but in fact many, and some parts of that China are much happier than others.

Can Japan maintain its dominance in Asia? It has an aging population, and has relied on US protection for its priveleged position in the world economy. Although it has a self defense force, it has renounced war and carries no nuclear weapons. If the US were to withdraw from the Asian arena, what would happen to the dynamics of power in the region? Would Japan once more become militaristic and assert its power? Would it dare to challenge China now?

It is George Friedman's perspective that Japan has a very capable military in its self-defense force, and will be able to sustain its economy to remain a major power.

See the video below:

However, George Friedman may be part of the minority when he says that Japan will be the major power in Asia. Most writers, scholars and journalists have jumped on the bandwagon to say that China will rule in the 21st century. For example, the writer Martin Jaques argues in his book When China Rules the World that because of its unique style of government and projected economic growth, China is certain to gain the #1 in not only Asia, but the entire world.

What about Korea? Will this small country located between the two great powers of China and Japan take sides, or instead assert its own power? At the moment Korea is still divided between North and South, and this has crippled its capacity to be a leader. Would things change if it was reunited?

There is no doubt that the Korean peninsula is a "hotspot" in East Asia where potential conflict could result in power swinging one way or another. In North Korea, which is essentially a relic of the Cold War conflict between the USSR and the US, Kim Jong Il is in failing health. Although he is trying to set up his son as a successor, the poor governance of his country has left it impoverished and isolated from the world. Despite its bold threats to attack neighboring countries, it is apparent that the country is on its last legs. The military "exercises" conducted by the US and South Korea in July 2010 hint that the US is not unaware of the possibility of a North Korea meltdown. Could they be preparing to intervene when things get messy? When North Korea falls, there will no doubt be a struggle for dominance in this region. I see three potential outcomes of a North Korean collapse:

1.Korean Reunification

- Similar to the reunification of Germany, the two Koreas would reunite under a democratic leadership and lead to a prosperous Korea allied with the US. The entire world would celebrate, except, perhaps China. China does not feel threatened by South Korea, but it would be wary of any US involvement. It does not want any American presence in such close vicinity.

2. Appropriation by China

China has always had an interest in this region (think back to the division of the kingdom of Goguryeo). In addition it has appropriated territories on its borders in order to protect itself (like Tibet and Inner Mongolia). If it has the military capability, it would see the benefit to including this region within its borders.

3. Protracted War

The collapse of King Jong Il's government has immense reprecutions. If the United States becomes involved, it could lead to war between the US/Japan/South Korea and China. The current governments of Japan and South Korea are normalizing ties with China, but they distrust its increasing power. I do not see them taking China's side in any conflict on the Korean peninsula.

My view is that China's dominance of Asia is not certain. It has many internal problems which the government has not attempted to solve. Many people are only looking at the economic and military figures. The institutions must develop just as swiftly to create a state that can cooperate peacefully with the rest of the world. What is certain that its increased power will create the potential for conflict between nations in this region.

Who can say exactly what will happen in the future? All I can say is that I hope there will be prosperity and peace instead of war.

Which view do you take? Answer the poll below!

What nation do you think will be the dominant power in East Asia?

See results


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    • pramodgokhale profile image


      5 years ago from Pune( India)


      By all indicators and parameters ,Japan is leading. China by GDP and PPP may be second economy in the world, but rising middle class and it's demand for more money ,luxury, or happy life will boost inflation.

      Demand supply gap will widen, Chinese banks are facing bad loans problem and undemocratic regime does not care for liabilities and not accountable to the people.

      Sustainability is always a challenge for any government and economy

      Yes tussle will continue and trade volume will speak who is dominant and to catch up with advanced technologies of Japan,USA is not a easy task.

      In India also we have mixed economy but fortunately our government and Reserve Bank Of India saved Indian economy from global crisis, Democratic government is accountable.

      I think USA has a role here and India may be the one of the allies in future to contain China.

      pramod gokhale

    • ocoonocoon profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks ramkkasturi, I appreciate the comment. "pure numbers" are dominating the news articles these days!

    • ramkkasturi profile image


      8 years ago from India

      An interesting article. Pure numbers may not help in future as much as technology.Industrially and otherwise Japan has an edge in many ways. China is a mere volume oriented bullish power that has dominated political scene given to it for trade reasons.I think it is being over played and may find it hard to sustain the economy in its current state.Thanks for the interesting article. Voting it up. Ramkkasturi


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