Two books on the rise of Asia—one of them also a shrill attack on the west—agree on economics but disagree about the politicsby Charles Grant / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East
by Kishore Mahbubani (PublicAffairs, £15.99)
Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan will Shape our Next Decade
by Bill Emmott (Allen Lane, £20)
Power is shifting from the west to Asia. But is Asia anything more than a geographical term? Arguably the only century in which a significant number of Asians shared a single political identity was the 13th, when Genghis Khan conquered much of the continent. About 100 years ago, writers such as Kakuzo Okakura in Japan and Rabindranath Tagore in India, and politicians such as Sun Yat-Sen in China, developed pan-Asianist ideas. They thought the Asians had much in common, as victims of colonialism, and as people who, compared with westerners, were less materialistic and more spiritual. But such ideas never spread far.
That may be changing, according to Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat who now runs the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His book argues that a truly continental identity is emerging from Asia’s economic success, and that Asians will start to dominate the world in the way Europeans have for the past 500 years. Bill Emmott, a former Economist editor, agrees about Asia’s economic integration but does not see it transferring to politics. His book analyses the rivalries and fears that separate China, India and Japan.
Mahbubani argues that many westerners have not yet woken up to the power of Asia. “The reluctance of western minds to acknowledge the unsustainability of western global domination presents a great danger to the world. Western societies will have to choose whether they will defend western values or interests in the 21st century.” He likes western values but thinks that Americans and Europeans are forgetting them as they pursue their selfish interests.
He is merciless on the west’s many hypocrisies and castigates westerners for their incompetent handling of global challenges like climate change, terrorism and proliferation. But much of his critique is shrill—there is “no strategic thinking in the west”—or based on colonial-era westerners who patronised Asia. He never mentions the west’s many pro-Asian thinkers—nor indeed the anti-western ethos that prevails in some European and American universities.
Mahbubani’s hostility towards the EU is vicious and, sometimes, inaccurate. He is right to criticise the “Barcelona process,” through which the EU seeks to aid Mediterranean countries, as ineffective. But he then chides the union for not offering free trade to its Mediterranean or Balkan neighbours, when in fact it gives them almost complete free access to its markets. He criticises the EU for not following China’s example and establishing partnerships with its neighbours—but the EU has constructed a series of substantive agreements with them, covering trade, aid and political co-operation.
Mahbubani urges the EU to emulate China and trade with the world. Yet the EU is the world’s biggest importer, taking, for example, 70 per cent of the exports of the world’s poorest countries. One measure of the EU’s openness is its $235bn trade deficit with China in 2007.
Mahbubani is least plausible of all when he asserts that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “is a superpower while the EU is a minipower.” The EU has many faults, but it has transformed much of its neighbourhood for the better, while Asean lacks a single market or a trade policy and cannot even persuade one of its members, Burma, to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Mahbubani also blames the EU for the UN’s failure to reform the security council. But while it is true that the Europeans have been divided over which countries should become permanent members, Mahbubani does not mention that China blocked Japan from joining. On reading his book, I was left thinking that Mahbubani must have suffered an awful slight from an EU official at some point in his distinguished diplomatic career.
The book’s fundamental weakness is that it assumes Asia is a coherent entity. Mahbubani believes that Asians have, like Europeans, banished war and adopted a culture of peace. That is not always how it looks on the Korean peninsula, across the Taiwan strait or indeed on the India-Pakistan border, let alone in Sri Lanka. While Mahbubani rightly criticises the west for being reluctant to reform international institutions so that Asians are better represented, he never chides Asians for failing to build effective multilateral institutions of the sort that Europeans have created.
Emmott’s book is a good antidote to Mahbubani’s weaknesses. Emmott argues convincingly that rivalry among the Asian powers, rather than between the west and Asia, will drive 21st-century geopolitics. For the first time in its history, Emmott observes, Asia contains three powerful and assertive states at the same time: “a new power game is under way, in which all must seek to be as friendly as possible to all, for fear of the consequences if they are not, but in which the friendship is only skin-deep.”
That analysis explains much of what is now happening in Asia. Thus India supports Burma’s junta to prevent Chinese hegemony in the country; China makes ever more assertive territorial claims on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh; and Japan befriends India as a counterweight to China. Meanwhile, China, India and Japan are playing a great game in pursuit of resources and influence in Africa and southeast Asia. Each of them has a fast-rising defence budget and is pursuing ambitious space programmes. Nationalism, too, is an increasingly potent force in China and Japan, and perhaps in India.
Emmott is very cautious in predicting China’s future. On Japan—about which he has written several books—he is more confident. He believes that Japan is overcoming many of its problems, thanks to a “stealth revolution” of quiet reforms that are inspired partly by fear of China. On India, Emmott describes well the huge difficulties the country faces as it tries to modernise, and he does not think its economy can catch up with China’s.
Emmott’s geopolitical analysis would have been stronger if he had not ignored Russia as an Asian power. Some Indians see their friendship with Russia as an important part of their strategy for containing China. And although Moscow and Beijing currently enjoy quite warm relations, many Russians fear Chinese encroachment on their sparsely populated Asian territory, while many Chinese are contemptuous of the Russians and their (relatively) small economy. Emmott also says little about the US’s role as an Asian power. A lot of Asians hope that it remains actively involved in east Asia, knowing that an American withdrawal would only sharpen regional tensions.
But in his final section of recommendations, Emmott does include the Americans. He tells them to overcome their hostility to regional clubs from which they have been excluded, such as the East Asia Summit. He makes an interesting comparison with Europe: the US never joined the EU but nevertheless gave it much support.
Emmott’s advice to the other powers is similarly sensible. India should make peace with its neighbours and increase economic ties with them. Japan should establish a commission to consider compensation for wartime slave labour and forced prostitution, while the state should kick the extreme nationalists out of the Yasukuni shrine (pictured, above right). China should become much more transparent about its armed forces.
Of the two, Mahbubani’s book is more provocative, but its attack on the west is undermined by hyperbole. Emmott’s clearly written book shows that the ideas of Okakura, Tagore and Sun Yat-Sen are far from being fulfilled.