Rather than being ‘Asia’s century’, historian Michael Auslin upends accepted wisdom of its 21st century domination, instead warning of slowdown, war and implosion.
Book review: The End of the Asian Century by Michael Auslin
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 “Indo-Pacific 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, however, 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 rules-based 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 urgently needs to be heeded by Asians.
Kapil Komireddi is a regular contributor to The Review.