Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Warning Shots on the Eastern Front

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Warning Shots on the Eastern Front

Article excerpt

The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation and the Risks to the World's Most Dynamic Region

Michael R Auslin

Yale University Press, 304pp. 20 [pounds sterling]

Rewatching the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, based on J G Ballard's novel, one gets a sense of how astonishing the pace of change can be in Asia and how loose the Western foothold there has always been. The film begins by depicting the grandeur of early-1940s expat life in Shanghai, where British merchants and bankers enjoy a privileged status, seemingly cocooned from the war that raged across much of the world. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops, who have been occupying much of eastern China since 1937, begin to flood the International Settlement, storming through the streets, scooping up British and American citizens as prisoners of war while requisitioning their mansions and goods. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a spoiled young English public-school boy who is separated from his parents and sent to a Japanese internment camp for the duration of the war. Before their world falls apart, the English in Shanghai are portrayed as marvellously smug, snorting at the warnings of a Japanese merchant who calmly informs them that the time of Western dominance is nearing its end.

After the war against Nazi Germany had been won, it took the dropping of two atomic bombs for the Japanese finally to end their imperial ambitions. Yet within just two decades of the war, a very different Japan was rising, gleaning the benefits of an economic miracle that many thought, by the 1980s, would enable the country to overtake the United States as the world's leading power. It turned out that Japan's rise was overhyped. A stagnant nation has long since been overtaken in terms of growth by China and India, pursued closely by other emerging Asian dynamos such as Indonesia.

In this impressive book, Michael Auslin pleads for us not to fall for the latest simplistic narratives about the so-called Asian century. On the one hand, he stresses the complexity of a region where more than 3,500 languages are spoken. On the other, he suggests that if one thing characterises the Indo-Pacific, it is the potential for grave instability. Having experienced breakneck modernisation and a population explosion unprecedented in world history, the region faces a series of "contiguous risks" from which we in the West are far from immune.

Does this entail the beginning of "the end of the Asian century"? Not necessarily, despite the rather provocative title of the book. There is no denying the growing power of Asia. The countries of the Indo-Pacific account for over 51 per cent of the planet's population and the World Bank estimates that the economies of Asia already produce half of all the world's goods. While authoritarian regimes have ridden the wave, there have been signs of political modernisation, too. Since the 1980s, democracy has spread to (or been restored in) Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Mongolia and Indonesia. Throughout the region, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. The achievements are astonishing. Nonetheless, the author's intention is to warn us that Asia is heading for a bumpy ride and that we in the West should start preparing for the shock waves.

Auslin identifies five main challenges on his "risk map" of the Indo-Pacific: the failure of economic reform (in which many states are now engaging to fight slowdown and stagnation); unfinished political revolutions in states that are still "works in progress" (the one-party China foremost among them); huge demographic imbalances to which governments are struggling to adjust their policies; the lack of viable international structures in the region to soothe relations between states; and, ultimately, the threat of regional war.

History casts a long shadow over Asian geopolitics. Despite the end of the Cold War, the region is still bristling with territorial disputes, racial divisions and political and religious radicalism. …

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