Book Review: The New Asian Power Game

It is not often these days that the author of a new book on foreign policy opens with a tribute to President George W Bush. Bill Emmott begins his new book on emerging Asian power dynamics by describing Bush’s initiative to establish closer ties with India.

Even at this writing it is unclear whether or not the nuclear deal that Washington negotiated with New Delhi will be ratified. India agreed to place the commercial part of its nuclear program under international safeguards. In return, Washington agreed to lift bans on nuclear power exports in place since India detonated its first atomic bomb in 1974.

The deal has been hung up in the Indian parliament for months due to knee-jerk left-wing opposition of the government’s coalition partners. But even if the specific deal should collapse, this new sense that the two countries share more interests in common and that India is needed to balance a growing China is set on an irreversible course.

The administration displayed the kind of audacity in overturning years of conventional wisdom that former President Richard Nixon showed when he went to China in 1972. It also displayed a keen strategic sense. In the “new Asian power game,” to use Emmott’s phrase, there are now three powers – rivals, if you will – Japan, China and India.

Of course, the US has had a strong alliance with Japan for many decades. In the past 35 years since Nixon’s trip to Beijing it has nurtured a fruitful relationship with China. Now Washington has begun a rapprochement with the third big power in Asia.

Most people know about China’s extraordinary economic development over the past 30 years. It is on track to displace Germany as the world’s third largest economy after the U.S. and Japan. Not so many people understand that India’s economy now is growing at almost the same breakneck pace.

This is the first time that there have been three powerful and prospering nations in Asia, like three large tectonic plates grinding up against each other. How this rivalry plays out in the coming years will determine to a large degree the future of Asia, and by extension, the future of the world. “The rise of Asia is not going to pit Asia against the West. It is going to pit Asians against Asians,” he writes.

Bill Emmott undoubtedly understands the underlying dynamics of the evolving power rivals in Asia as well as anyone, first from his perch as Japan bureau chief of the Economist magazine in the 1980s, where he wrote the prescient book, on Japan’s coming decade of stagnation, The Sun Also Sets, and later as editor of The Economist from 1993 to 2006.

There are numerous books with titles ranging from Japan Inc. to China Inc., from Japan, the Fragile Superpower to China, the Fragile Superpower, that examine these countries individually. The value of the Rivals: How the Power Struggle between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade, lies Emmott’s knowledgeable examination of the three “rivals” and the interplay of their competing interests.

For the most part, China kept its head down during the 30 years after Deng Xiaoping opened the country to outside influences, concentrating overwhelmingly on its own economic development. This low profile is no longer feasible as China continues to develop, and more pressure is brought to bear on China to use its influence positively in places like Myanmar, Sudan and North Korea.

But these countries are on the periphery, compared with China’s interactions with the other Asian big two, its rivals for supremacy in Asia, especially Japan. The author reminds us that China and Japan have, of course, been rivals for generations stretching back into the mists of history. It is easy for us who grew up in the anomalous post World War years to forget that.

The two countries have issues going back to the war and beyond, but for the moment anyway, they are have been papered over to present a friendly face to each other. President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Japan in May, the first by a Chinese president in a decade, was one of the friendliest on record.

There were even hints of a deal in the making over one of their flashpoints. That would be possible joint exploitation of the gas fields that lie within their conflicting economic zones in the East China Sea. The recent devastating earthquake was another opportunity for more interchange, although Beijing had second thoughts about allowing Japanese emergency aid to be delivered in Air Self Defense Force cargo aircraft, a sign of the memories that still linger.

Nevertheless, Emmott writes, the natural, historical relationship between the two countries is one of tension and rivalry for influence that requires constant diplomatic amelioration. It is is possible that the Chinese are being unusually accommodating in these summer months preceding the Olympic Games, with Beijing fearful that anti-Japanese demonstrations might ruin the good will of the games in which it has invested an enormous amount of prestige.

Emmott sees Asia as a single unit, which may seem like stating the obvious, but it has not always been the case. However, the region still lacks the unifying institutions that have helped Europe to manage its disputes. So for the foreseeable future Asia will remain an arena for balance-of-power politics, as shown by the Bush administration’s overtures to India, even at the expense of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The most important thing for the immediate future, he says, is to ensure that the emerging big three of Asia have a voice in international organizations commensurate with their new status. Otherwise, resentment will build up between themselves and with other countries in the world.

While the presumptive Republican nominee for president John McCain talks about booting Russia out of the G-8 summit and forming a vague “League of Democracies,” Emmott would expel Canada and Italy from the G-8. Nothing personal, you understand. It’s just that they don’t have the economic and political clout of China and India. He also advocates a veto for India and Japan on the U.N. Security Council.

Emmott sees two broad outcomes of the rivalry. The most pessimistic would see China bungling its rapid economic development, becoming even more nationalistic with increasing tensions with the US, India and Japan. “The warm glow of the Olympic Games would then be remembered only through the thick smog of tension.”

The more benign outcome sees China making a transition to a more pluralistic, if not outright democratic society and India lifting millions of people in the subcontinent out of poverty. The self-confidence would make it easier for the three main powers to work together in relative harmony.