By Samir Saran, Senior Fellow and Vice President and Ashok Malik, Senior Fellow, both of the Observer Research Foundation. Part 2 can be found here.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global political and economic architecture has been undergirded largely by one superpower, which set the stage for an unprecedented period of globalisation managed through multilateral institutions and actors. Now that unipolar moment is giving way to an era of diffused powers, with countries like the US, China and Russia each bearing considerable disruptive capacities, and each struggling to stitch together new norms and rules for these rapidly changing times.

This phase, the beginning of which was marked by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and characterised by America's two bruising wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen a vacuum emerge. Many are seeking to fill it, most determinedly China, but with a push back from countries such as Japan and India. Separately, ISIS and radical energies in the Middle East also seek to grab new space. Russia has chosen this very moment to signal its ability to muddy the Eurasian fields and intervene in the Middle East. The fact is, there is not enough room to accommodate all of these ambitions.

A median will have to be arrived at, but who will sacrifice what?

Today's 'multi-power' reality is most visible in Asia and this can be attributed to the lack of a unifying political and security architecture for the Asian region (or regions). The question then arises: Will the Asian century be defined by contestation or cooperation? And how will Asian powers reconcile multipolarity and multilateralism, a process for which there are no handy 20th Century templates? The trans-Atlantic political and economic regimes that were the 'hub' of the liberal international order has no parallel in Asia. And the single guarantor of good behaviour (certainty and/or predictability) is clearly absent.

The quest for global or regional leadership is the quest for control of common spaces. If in the earlier centuries, territorial borders and maritime frontiers were the crown jewels, today's common spaces have been rendered seamless by digital arenas and technology that straddles deep oceans and outer-space. What makes the Asian century unique is the differing conceptions of common spaces by major actors. Continental trade regimes and economic integration will sculpt Asia's future, but these terms are by themselves contested. How can the competing agendas of, for instance, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and One Belt, One Road be reconciled?

On the digital front, is the internet of today the 'Splinternet' of tomorrow? Is cyberspace the new coliseum for digital gladiators? Asian powers and every power engaged with the region is excited by the potential of the digital economy, but many perceive the virtual world through the territorialism of pre-digital politics. Can the internet be a force for collaboration or is it destined to be a contested arena within and between countries, communities and peoples? How can multilateralism sit with this new paradigm where the power of transnational corporations make the equations more complex?

To be sure, the old fault-lines remain active. The Indo-Pacific system is the world's greatest maritime trading zone, but political ambitions, too, sail across its seas and waters. In the absence of an Asian equivalent to the Monroe Doctrine (sole power dominance in the region), sovereignty is being contested everyday on the high seas. Robust military capacities sustain these conflicts in the Indian Ocean and Pacific littorals. Will the waters of Asia connect and empower, or will they divide and devastate? 

Perhaps the most significant policy question for the Asian century is ensuring the realisation of 'human value'. How will demographic realities in Asia translate into economic, and by extension, political transformations? The region hosts the youngest as well as the most rapidly ageing populations in the world, suggesting that demography can both be a dividend and a disaster. Growth models of decades past are being rendered obsolete by technological advancements and digitisation. These cripple the notion of a demographic dividend. What are the livelihood avenues available to 21st Century Asians? Will unemployment continue to fuel the high-octane nationalist and sub-nationalist movements that Asia is witnessing? Does this detract from the ability of Asian actors to 'sacrifice' and 'compromise', something that multilateralism demands?

Asia needs to think through these pressing questions and so does the world. After all, the Asian century is not exclusive to Asia. It is as much about the rise of Asia, Asian actors and Asian institutions as it is about others who engage with the continent. Challenges and transformations in the region will define not just this continent's century, but that of the planet.

Asia will shape the 21st Century as much as the Atlantic consensus shaped the 20th Century, or Europe, the 19th. In Part 2 of this two-part series, we will suggest some possibilities regarding the future political architecture of Asia.

Read part 2 here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thomas.