The end of Asi­apho­ria

Rather than be­ing ‘Asia’s cen­tury’, his­to­rian Michael Auslin up­ends ac­cepted wis­dom of its 21st cen­tury dom­i­na­tion, in­stead warn­ing of slow­down, war and im­plo­sion, Kapil Komireddi re­ports

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Michael Auslin Yale Univer­sity Press Dh80

In Novem­ber 2013, as the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party pre­pared to re­lease its eco­nomic strat­egy for the next decade, an in­flu­en­tial paper writ­ten by for­mer United States Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Larry Sum­mers and his Har­vard col­league Lant Pritch­ett ques­tioned the preva­lent view that “the global econ­omy will in­creas­ingly be shaped and lifted by the tra­jec­tory” of In­dia and China. For more than a decade, the West, starstruck by the eco­nomic per­for­mance of New Delhi and Beijing, had been telling it­self that the 21st cen­tury would be Asia’s. Books with ti­tles such as When China Rules the World, The Chi­nese Cen­tury and In­dia Ex­press: The Fu­ture of the New Su­per­power ma­te­ri­alised along­side ne­ol­o­gisms like “Chin­dia” and “Chimerica”. Sum­mers and Pritch­ett dis­missed this as “Asi­apho­ria”, and warned against hitch­ing “the cart of the fu­ture global econ­omy to the horse of the Asian giants”.

In The End of the Asian Cen­tury: War, Stag­na­tion, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dy­namic Re­gion, Michael Auslin up­dates the un­remit­tingly pes­simistic out­look of Sum­mers and Pritch­ett. Auslin, a for­mer Yale his­tory pro­fes­sor who now serves as a res­i­dent scholar at the con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, DC, is a dis­tin­guished scholar of Ja­pan. His pre­vi­ous book, Ne­go­ti­at­ing with Im­pe­ri­al­ism, was a ground­break­ing his­tory of Ja­panese diplomacy in the 19th cen­tury.

The End of the Asian Cen­tury, de­spite its provoca­tive ti­tle, is a sober and ac­ces­si­ble work of re­portage and anal­y­sis that seeks to up­end the ac­cu­mu­lated wis­dom about the as­cent of Asia.

Auslin’s Asia is a trun­cated place. It ex­cludes west­ern Asia, and its prin­ci­pal play­ers are China, In­dia and Ja­pan, with oc­ca­sional at­ten­tion paid to the smaller states of Asean (As­so­ci­a­tion of South East Asian Na­tions). Auslin al­ter­nately calls this the “In­doPa­cific re­gion” and “Asia-Pa­cific”.

The West, Auslin writes, has “not yet caught up men­tally with the way glob­al­i­sa­tion has trans­formed the Asia-Pa­cific”. China and In­dia’s in­te­gra­tion into the global econ­omy has lifted mil­lions of peo­ple out of poverty. But glob­al­i­sa­tion has also un­set­tled these so­ci­eties in strange ways. China’s new wealth, for in­stance, has en­abled it to project its power in the re­gion and be­yond. Yet, as Auslin notes, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of China’s rich, frus­trated by the lack of po­lit­i­cal re­form, have ac­quired for­eign cit­i­zen­ship as in­sur­ance. Among those with for­eign pass­ports are chil­dren of mem­bers of the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress.

In just one year (2013-2014), Chi­nese cit­i­zens bought US$22 bil­lion (Dh81 bil­lion) worth of Amer­i­can real es­tate. Large sec­tions of China’s gov­ern­ing elite now ex­ist in splen­did de­tach­ment from their coun­try, ready to aban­don it should things fall apart.

The Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party, hav­ing de­gen­er­ated into a cor­rupt ve­hi­cle for the self-en­rich­ment of its cus­to­di­ans, vi­o­lently sup­presses the voices of the poor whose labour has made China rich. If China’s eco­nomic slow­down deep­ens, an im­plo­sion of some magnitude seems al­most inevitable. As Auslin puts it, “Un­even devel­op­ment, as­set bub­bles, ma­l­in­vest­ment, labour is­sues, and state con­trol over mar­kets are just some of the fea­tures of eco­nomic risk in the Asian-Pa­cific”.

Auslin help­fully draws up a “risk map” – a “user’s guide” to five in­ter­con­nected dan­gers that, if left un­ad­dressed, could halt the re­gion’s growth and even plunge it into conflict: eco­nomic down­turn; de­mo­graph­ics; po­lit­i­cal un­rest in the form of in­sur­gen­cies or un­fin­ished rev­o­lu­tions; ab­sence of a po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity; and the threat of outright war.

Ja­pan and In­dia il­lus­trate the dan­gers of de­mo­graph­ics in dif­fer­ent ways. Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion is age­ing rapidly. Last year, its birth rates, dip­ping below a mil­lion, were the low­est since it be­gan keep­ing records. Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion shrunk by a mil­lion peo­ple be­tween 2010 and 2015. By 2050, half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to be over the age of 52, mak­ing it, ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist, “the old­est so­ci­ety the world has ever known”.

A catas­tro­phe awaits Ja­pan as its work­force dis­ap­pears. In­dia faces a dif­fer­ent but no less daunt­ing chal­lenge: to find work for its surg­ing pop­u­la­tion, which is ex­pected to over­take China’s by 2022.

War is, of course, the great­est dan­ger fac­ing Asia. Auslin’s book looks re­mark­ably pre­scient as Py­ongyang ratch­ets up ten­sions on the Korean penin­sula. Ray­mond Aron, writ­ing about Europe in the 20th cen­tury, called it a “de­nial of the ex­pe­ri­ence of our cen­tury to sup­pose that men will sac­ri­fice their passions to their in­ter­ests”.

That is also Auslin’s mes­sage about Asia in the 21st cen­tury. He warns against the naïve be­lief that “China and Ja­pan will not go to war over dis­puted is­land ter­ri­tory be­cause their eco­nomic ties are too deep, or that North Korea will not launch a nu­clear mis­sile at Seoul or Tokyo be­cause to do so would be sui­ci­dal”.

The fact that Asia at present lacks mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions or ar­chi­tec­ture to de-es­ca­late ten­sions, en­hance co­op­er­a­tion and de­velop col­lec­tive so­lu­tions makes conflict more likely.

Auslin is not a hawk, but his pre­scrip­tion to avert war is mus­cu­lar Amer­i­can en­gage­ment in the re­gion. And this, alas, is where his book fal­ters. The End of the Asian Cen­tury glosses over Asia’s ex­pe­ri­ence of deal­ing with the US. Amer­i­cans may view North Korea as an ir­ra­tional ac­tor, and there is cer­tainly no ex­cuse for the tyranny of the Kim dy­nasty. But North Korea’s fa­nat­i­cal anti-Amer­i­can­ism has been shaped in part by its ex­po­sure to the rough­est edges of US power.

Amer­i­cans barely paid any at­ten­tion to the dev­as­ta­tion caused by their coun­try dur­ing the Korean War. As Dean Rusk, US Sec­re­tary of State be­tween 1961 and 1969 and a ma­jor cham­pion of the war, ad­mit­ted, the US bombed “with con­ven­tional weapons ev­ery­thing that moved in North Korea, every brick stand­ing on top of an­other”. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strate­gic Air Com­mand, was even more blunt: “Over a pe­riod of three years or so, we killed off – what — 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion”.

Amer­ica’s ru­inous in­volve­ment in Viet­nam was ac­com­pa­nied by its abet­ment of West Pak­istan’s geno­ci­dal campaign in what is to­day Bangladesh. Wash­ing­ton in­dulged West Pak­istan gen­er­als be­cause it made it­self de­pen­dent on their as­sis­tance in mak­ing in­roads into Mao’s China.

The fol­low­ing decade, US pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan misled Congress on Pak­istan’s nu­clear weapons pro­gramme in or­der to gain Islamabad’s sup­port in Amer­ica’s ide­o­log­i­cal war against the Sovi­ets in Afghanistan. This not only turned South Asia into a nu­clear flash­point but trans­formed Pak­istan into a catch­ment for ex­trem­ists from across the world.

Af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union, the US locked it­self into a trade re­la­tion­ship with China. This was gov­erned by the lib­eral as­sump­tion that the US was more likely to in­flu­ence China by part­ner­ing with it.

US al­lies in the re­gion paid the po­lit­i­cal costs of this fan­tasy. In 1995, Wash­ing­ton turned a blind eye to China’s seizure of Mischief Reef – claimed by the Philip­pines – so as not to up­set Beijing. US con­ces­sions did not re­sult in the re­ces­sion of Chi­nese bel­liger­ence.

Two decades later, the South China Sea looks like a site of im­pend­ing conflict.

The am­bi­tious “pivot to Asia” pi­o­neered by pres­i­dent Barack Obama be­gan to dis­in­te­grate against the clam­our in Wash­ing­ton for war in the Mid­dle East, even be­fore Obama left of­fice. The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship – the la­bo­ri­ously-ne­go­ti­ated agree­ment that formed the cen­tre­piece of Obama’s pivot to Asia – was junked by his suc­ces­sor, Don­ald Trump, on his first work­ing day in of­fice. The TPP was de­signed to pre­serve and strengthen US dom­i­nance in the Asia-Pa­cific. China is the undis­puted ben­e­fi­ciary of its abrupt ter­mi­na­tion.

It is im­pos­si­ble to ar­gue against Auslin’s con­tention that the “most promis­ing way to re­duce risk is to push for greater lib­er­al­ism and a strength­ened rules­based or­der in the Indo-Pa­cific”. What is harder to ac­cept is the pa­ter­nal­is­tic role Auslin en­vis­ages for the US in bring­ing such a world into be­ing. Auslin’s book was writ­ten be­fore Don­ald Trump was elected to the US pres­i­dency. His claim that “Amer­i­can-style democ­racy … still re­mains an in­spi­ra­tion for those dream­ing of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion” sounds like a hol­low plat­i­tude in the age of Trump. Democ­racy has rarely looked more dis­cred­ited. In­dia, now re­garded in Wash­ing­ton as a demo­cratic “coun­ter­weight” to China, can scarcely play that part as it trans­forms into an ex­clu­sion­ary Hindu-su­prem­a­cist state un­der Naren­dra Modi.

Auslin is the first writer to com­pile in a sin­gle vol­ume the risks that could jeop­ar­dise Asia’s growth; but he is not, con­trary to his claim, the first to iden­tify all of them. Bill Em­mott’s Ri­vals: How the Power Strug­gle Be­tween China, In­dia and Ja­pan Will Shape Our Next Decade (2008) re­mains indis­pens­able to un­der­stand­ing the risks of conflict in an Asia that is be­ing forced for the first time to ac­com­mo­date three ma­jor pow­ers. Brahma Chel­laney’s Wa­ter: Asia’s New Bat­tle­ground (2011) is still the best ar­gu­ment for a gen­uinely rules-based world (as op­posed to a US-led Asia).

Yet, for all its lim­i­ta­tions, The End of the Asian Cen­tury is made essen­tial by virtue of pre­sent­ing a com­pelling coun­ter­ar­gu­ment to Asi­apho­ria.

Dis­count from this book Auslin’s mis­sion­ary view of Amer­ica’s pur­pose in Asia, and what we are left with is a dis­turb­ing warn­ing that needs to be ur­gently heeded by Asians.

Kapil Komireddi is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Review.

Bul­lit Mar­quez / AP Photo

Filipinos protest at the Chi­nese Em­bassy in Manila, ahead of the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion’s rul­ing on a South China Sea ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute with China. The tri­bunal ruled in the Philip­pines’ favour but Michael Auslin warns more conflict is likely...

The End of the Asian Cen­tury

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