Book Review: Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century

A few months after Britain announced a US$40 billion nuclear power deal involving China, hailed as giving the UK a special place in its dealings, Beijing is threatening major damage to relations should Britain’s new prime minister Teresa May put the project permanently on hold. After Brexit, the Brits are into another bungled situation.

Then-finance minister George Osborne was in full grovel mode last year when he visited China to persuade it to focus yuan trading on London. He also talked up a deal which would involve China directly in the building and financing of one 2.4Mw power station and the possibility of two more such plants. President Xi Jinping was given an extravagant state visit to London, including speaking to parliament and a full state dinner with Queen Elizabeth.

But clearly this was all too much for many in the UK. At the time, then-Home Secretary Teresa May opposed the nuclear deal on national security grounds while others opposed it as uneconomic or environmentally damaging. Now that she is prime minister, May has delayed it and will now have to choose between angering the Chinese – and hence making it unlikely an unlikely partner for a special relationship once the Brits have exited the European Union – or ignoring her own views.

Anyone who wants to know why British policy towards China is in such a convoluted mess would do well to scan the pages of the latest work of the chief foreign affairs correspondent of the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman. The British are not alone among westerners in being so obsessed by China that they cannot keep the rest of Asia in perspective. Rachman may be well informed about many issues but when it comes to Asia he is obsessed with China.

The overriding theme of his just-published “Easternisation” is that global power and influence are shifting from the west to the east. This is not exactly a new thesis – Japan defeated Russia in 1905 and the German historian Oswald Spengler published his much read “Decline of the West” in 1918. The 70 years since World War II have seen the rapid relative rise of most of east and some of the rest of Asia. The rise of China has made a difference – but so did the decline of Soviet power and the rise of Korea and Southeast Asia.

But for Rachman almost the only place in the world other than the declining US that seems to count is China. Its relations with the US are the core of the book. Crucial though this issue is, it is so overwhelming for the author that he devoted scant time to the interests of its non-Chinese neighbors, whether the maritime and archipelagic nations whose seas are threatened nor those including Vietnam and Bangladesh concerned about river flows. The possibility that relatively smaller but still populous nations with plenty of pride in their own histories can and will resist Sinicisation is barely noted.

Rachman is on solid enough ground recounting the decline of western influence from the Scarborough Shoal to Syria. But he seems to scarcely query whether China’s own sudden impact is sustainable. This book would have been inconceivable 20 years ago and may well seem knee-jerk journalism 20 years from now. It reads like the Japan as Number One of 1990.

A study of the index will give a flavor of the bias. There are 163 separate references to China, which is mentioned on almost every page. By contrast the total references for the 10 members of ASEAN (total population 600 million) add up to about 40 with Singapore – typical for a visiting western observer – counting for more than Indonesia! Japan figures, mostly as a US ally but Taiwan and South Korea barely get a look-in.

None of this is surprising when one reads the acknowledgments and notes. There are numerous sources from China itself and China experts in the US, Australia and elsewhere, and Rachman’s FT colleagues in Beijing and Washington in particular. India and Japan get some consideration but Rachman’s travels and sources appear to have excluded the whole of southeast Asia other than Singapore where he meets Lee Hsien Loong and otherwise laps up all the city state’s abundant official good news and predictable views.

Indeed, the tenor of the whole is to write off the region as a subset which is naturally dominated by China. His grasp of pre-colonial history seems limited to buying into Chinese myths. Thus he repeats the nonsense that China nine-dash line claims are “linked to patterns of Chinese settlement and maritime exploration that date back to the Han dynasty.” Likewise he proclaims Zheng He as a great explorer by visiting around the Indian ocean and the coast of Africa – something that Malays, Indians and Arabs had been doing for a thousand years already as well as running almost all China’s maritime trade out of Guangzhou and Quanzhou. Zheng He had big fleets and threw his weight around but he discovered nothing. If he does not know his history he should not write as though he did.

So often does he see anti-US forces rising everywhere that he even sees Russians looking to their Asian Mongol past as basis for firming Russian/Chinese accord and dreaming of a Eurasian union. Perhaps he should ask Mongols, Kazakhs and Uighurs for their views on both China and Russian “friendship.” Or ask when it will be that China reclaims those lands ceded to Russia and what is now Kazakhstan by the same 1860 “unequal” treaty, the Convention of Peking, by which Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula was ceded to Britain.

In short such “quickie” journalists’ books do damage both to a journalist’s reputation for coherent analysis of current events in weekly columns. And they distort the perceptions of politicians relying on them for guidance. Fixation on China whether as opportunity or threat is no basis for stable policies framed by national interests in security and free trade. Ask London.

Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century. Published by The Bodley Head, London