The End of the Asian Century by Michael Auslin – strategic games
An examination of the rise of China and the future role of the US in the región

by Lucy Hornby 

No sooner had we got used to thinking of ourselves as living in the “Asian century” than it might be all over. So argues Michael Auslin in The End of the Asian Century: “We are on the cusp of a change in the global zeitgeist, from celebrating a strong and growing Asia to worrying about a weak and dangerous Asia.”

One early outcome of Donald Trump’s presidency has been a shake-up in assumptions about America’s strategic role in Asia. The message from this book is ultimately one that supports maintaining a US presence in the face of a strengthening China. It is, though, a product of pre-Trumpian Washington, when the Obama/Clinton “pivot to Asia” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership dominated the agenda.

This book will bring readers up to speed on recent history: “We in the west have not yet caught up mentally with the way globalisation has transformed the Asia-Pacific,” Auslin writes. But there’s little insight into how Asians view China’s re-emergence, America’s presence or the region’s future. The book is a crash course on the risks in Asia, without exploring the solutions Asians can offer.

The author, a Japan expert at the American Enterprise Institute, attacks the idea that Asia (read China) will continue booming, resulting in that elusive crown of “global leadership”.

Many in the US do buy into this without understanding China’s limitations, so it is a useful starting point: “Western observers assumed in the 1980s that Japan would continue to grow forever; a similar assumption still dominates many discussions of China,” he says. The analogy isn’t lost on Chinese scholars and policymakers, who worry about the future costs of China’s serial asset bubbles.

China’s spectacular growth is indeed slowing, but Auslin doesn’t delve deep into how that plays out. Historically, when China is at peace, the sheer size of its economy sucks littoral states into its orbit. Cambodia and Laos are under Beijing’s sway; Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand and North Korea have struggled against China’s gravity.

Ironically, a sharply slowing China also creates problems for the region. Debt from white elephant projects and infrastructure orientated towards a shrinking market, combined with a corrupted pro-China elite, could sour into popular discontent.

This scenario might tempt China to intervene abroad, and ethnic tolerance could turn into racial tension. Then there’s the appeal of Middle Eastern fundamentalism in Asia’s diverse Muslim communities.

Auslin is on more familiar ground with the arms race around the South China Sea, which leads to a proposal for “concentric triangles” of American alliances to contain China. By focusing on potential flashpoints, however, he underestimates how much the multi-faceted Sino-American relationship has served as ballast, allowing China’s “peaceful rise”.

Auslin laments Asia’s lack of a “security architecture”, a theme that dominated a recent security conference in Beijing. As Chinese participants pointedly remarked, Nato in Europe was founded with a common enemy in mind. Would China be the enemy of an Asian Nato? China’s importance makes that undesirable for every Asian state and most American interest groups.

Rather than clear lines dividing allies and baddies, strategy in Asia involves webs of relationships, allowing frequent recalibration based on relative strengths and weaknesses. Think of Go, the game where a strategic build-up of pieces allows the winner suddenly to flip the board.

China is gaining ground in the South China Sea and probing US willingness to defend Taiwan, even as many Chinese technocrats (and quite possibly Xi Jinping himself) doubt the abilities of their boastful military. Others worry that foreign (including Taiwanese) investment in China would decamp, poleaxing the economy and dooming China. Meanwhile, a brittle impasse between the US and North Korea is frozen by Washington politics that prevent directly engaging Pyongyang, an approach that would shift the board.

Does the US presence in the region enable the Asian century, or hinder it? Washington needs to figure out what Asians want, and what it wants, before losing its balance.

The reviewer is the FT’s deputy bureau chief in Beijing

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