How will the geopolitical map of the world be shaped by 2020?
A new report by the United States National Intelligence Council says that emerging global powers led by China willbecome increasingly prominent, sometimes jostling for influence with the United States and other countries in the Western alliance and sometimes working with them on common interests, such as countering international terrorism.
The alliance itself will change as will interstate relations. According to the report, China, India and perhaps other rising powers such as Brazil and Indonesia could render obsolete the old categories of East and West, North and South, aligned and non-aligned, developed and developing.
A state-bound world and a world of mega-cities, linked by telecommunications, trade and finance, will co-exist, the report says. Competition for allegiances will be more open, less fixed than in the past.
In this environment, US-Asia relations will result as much or more from what Asians work out among themselves as any action by Washington. Possibilities range from the US enhancing its role as balancer between contending forces to it being seen as increasingly irrelevant.
Either way, the likely emergence of China as well as India as major global players - similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful US in the early 20th century - will transform the geopolitical landscape, with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries.
In the same way that commentators refer to the 1900s as the American Century, the 21st century may be seen as the time when Asia comes into its own. A combination of sustained high economic growth, expanding military capabilities and large populations is expected to lead to a rapid rise in economic and political power of China and India.
The National Intelligence Council is an arm of the US Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. What is notable about Mapping the Global Future out to 2020, the report it released this month, is that unlike its previous forecasts, foreign as well as US specialists were extensively consulted.
The focus on China and India - rivals whose relations are gradually improving - is striking. The report finds that the rise of these new powers is a virtual certainty, unless either or both are hit by major internal upheavals or globalisation, which has benefited each of them, goes into abrupt reversal.
The root of their success or failure will be economic. The council believes China and India are well positioned to become technology leaders, with the convergence of advanced nano-, bio-, information and materials technology further bolstering their prospects.
Both countries, the report notes, are investing in basic research in these fields. Meanwhile, Europe risks slipping behind in some of them.
However, the US is still in a position to retain its overall lead, although it must increasingly compete with Asia to retain its edge and may lose significant ground in some sectors.
In the developing world, those left behind may resent the rise of China and India, especially if they feel squeezed by their growing dominance in key sectors of the global marketplace.
China's ambition to gain great status on the world stage will be reflected in its greater economic leverage over countries in the region and elsewhere. The report observes that East Asian states are already adapting to a more powerful China by forging closer ties with Beijing, potentially accommodating themselves to its preferences, particularly on sensitive issues such as Taiwan.
But in reaction, some Southeast Asian countries, Japan and Taiwan may try to band together with the US to counterbalance China's growing influence.
Meanwhile, the council predicts that at home Chinese leaders will face a dilemma over how much to accommodate pluralistic pressures to relax political controls or risk a popular backlash if they do not.
In such a situation, Beijing may pursue an Asian way of democracy, which could involve elections at the local level and a consultative mechanism on the national level, perhaps with the Communist Party retaining control over the central government.
* Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.By Michael Richardson