How are Power Structures in Asia Changing?

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the power dynamic in Asia saw the United States exert its prominence as the established global superpower, while China quietly and steadily expanded its regional influence. In recent years, as China has become more assertive in the region, this power dynamic has begun to shift and there is increasing uncertainty surrounding American influence and commitments in the region. As a result, the power structure in Asia is in flux, somewhere between a unipolar system of American hegemony and a bipolar system of rivalry between the United States and China. As the Cold War proved, such bipolarity is unstable and undesirable.

The power struggle between the United States and China does not exist within a vacuum—as such, it is important to consider the role of third parties in this changing power structure. For its part, India has experienced ever-evolving relationships with both powers, at the same time as it has seen its own influence and prominence grow significantly since the 1990s. With its large population, significant military and defence budget, ever-growing economy, expanding middle class, and nuclear weapons program, India is one of the few countries in Asia that has the gravity to shape the region and influence its power structures in a significant way. India’s role in the Asian regional order should be to facilitate a multipolar power structure in Asia, which sees some combination of power-sharing between India, China, the United States, and other strong nations in the region, such as Japan and Australia.

Where Does India Come In?

India has the potential to contribute to a multi-polar power structure in Asia in many ways, including through leveraging its nuclear capacities to place a check on China, and increasing its involvement in international organizations to provide an alternate voice for Asia.

India was the first Asian country to establish a nuclear weapons program after China and has been followed only by Pakistan and North Korea. This places India in a unique position as both Pakistan and North Korea have close relationships with China—leaving India as the only nuclear power in Asia with the intention to counter or deter China from using nuclear force within the region. India’s nuclearization served to increase its power and position globally since the 1970s and can continue to do so as it endeavors to shape the Asian regional order. India’s nuclear capacities are one of the features that make it an attractive option to the United States for strategic partnership. If India continues to enhance its nuclear capacities and garner the support and assurance of the United States, it may be strong enough to impede China’s assertiveness and deter China from engaging in force in the region.

Far too often, China is the loudest voice for Asia in international forums, such as the United Nations Security Council, APEC, and the G7. It is past-due that India should be considered for permanent membership in major international agenda-setting institutions. The reality is that international organizations are slow to change and that these international institutions have not evolved fast enough to accommodate New Delhi’s growing role and influence in the international order. By continuing to lobby for its inclusion in prominent international institutions, India has the potential to emerge as an alternate voice for Asia. If India can create a new voice for Asia that is recognized globally, it would be increasing the multipolarity of power in both Asia and the liberal international order.

What is Stopping India?

India will only be able to fulfill its role of facilitating multipolarity within Asia if it can overcome two major impediments to its own power—domestic underdevelopment and tensions with Pakistan.

Before India can engage globally on the scale that is required to facilitate multipolarity, it needs to diminish the extent of poverty and underdevelopment that exists within its own borders, as underdeveloped systems consume considerable state spending, attention, and resources. India’s economic and social choices at home will be a principal determinant of its international success, because these choices influence its capacity and resources for global engagement.

If India cannot improve or manage its ties with Pakistan its wider strategic role in Asia will be limited. Resolving conflicts with Pakistan would allow India to shift its focus from South Asia to Asia more broadly. To do so, India needs a more long-term strategy to deal with Kashmir, rather than just a reactive one. Solving issues in Kashmir would allow India to use its political, military, and diplomatic energies to service its role of facilitating multipolarity in Asia.


Karly Hurlock is an M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.


Banner image by ORDBILDDESIGNFOTO, courtesy of Pixabay.

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