It is human nature to project the past into the future. Philosophers tell us so. Florentine scribe Niccolò Machiavelli depicted adapting to changing surroundings as the foremost, and hardest, task of statesmen. For gadfly Nassim Nicholas Taleb, humanity is vulnerable to “black swans” — highly improbable events entailing mammoth consequences — precisely because people think in linear terms. What happened before, assume ordinary folk, will carry on into the indefinite future along more or less straight trend lines.
Except when it doesn’t: Then people have trouble coping. Better to play “What if?” beforehand than be caught flat-footed when the highly improbable happens.
Enter Michael Auslin, the author of The End of the Asian Century. Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent contributor to National Review and the Wall Street Journal. He reports setting out to chronicle how American stewardship helped Asia rise to economic and political dynamism, preparing the way for an “Asian century,” only to take a bleaker view after traveling the region and reviewing the evidence.
Auslin issues a timely warning. It is not fated, he maintains, that Asia’s rise will continue smoothly or inexorably. It’s often joked that Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be. It might be that Asia is the region of the future — and always will be. But if Asian leaders exercise wise leadership, correcting the political, economic, and military problems besetting the region, an Asian century might yet lie in store.
Auslin’s admonition should worry Americans for a host of reasons. The United States’ fortunes are entangled with Asia’s along many axes, meaning that turbulence in Asia ripples eastward across the Pacific Ocean. The author cautions readers not to be too giddy about economic globalization. To borrow from Thucydides, human affairs aren’t solely about cost-benefit calculations or provincial self-interest. Passions — the thirst for honor, or dark impulses such as fear or spite — might overtake ordinary rational calculations.
It’s happened before. Trading partners do sometimes fight trading partners. Globalization couldn’t prevent Europe from marching over the precipice into World War I a century ago. Nor does economic interdependence rule out conflict today over things that Westerners may find whimsical — say, uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, or submerged rocks in the South China Sea. Americans must not blithely dismiss the prospect of a system-shattering cataclysm in Asia. Still less should they discount the possibility of smaller-scale clashes.
And there’s geopolitics. U.S. foreign policy, now as in the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, aims at keeping a domineering power or alliance from overrunning the rimlands of Western Europe and East Asia — and thence constituting a threat to the Americas. It is far, far easier to execute a “balancing” strategy from forward outposts along the rimlands — from Japan, or Korea — than to surge expeditionary forces across the vasty Pacific in times of strife. But a forward strategic posture embroils Washington in regional politics.
Like economics, then, power politics binds America to Asia.
Auslin draws up a “risk map” of topics that could detour or confound Asia’s ascent and uses that map to frame his tour of the region. Failed economic reforms, unfinished political revolutions, the lack of a political community spanning Asia, demographic woes, and the possibility of war are the threats he explores. Let me spotlight three central issues in the book.
First of all, history is alive in Asia, and it shapes Asian politics — biasing the region against the type of integration familiar in Europe. “Beyond a rudimentary sense of ‘Asianness,’” maintains Auslin, “there remains no effective regional political community. There is no NATO, no European Union in Asia that can try to solve common problems in a joint manner.” Why is that? The lack of an Asian NATO is a common subject of conversation at international gatherings. The contest between China and Japan, contends the author, is one central factor preventing an Asian NATO. And so it is.
In her book on the Sino–Japanese War of 1894–95, my Naval War College colleague Sally Paine pointed out that that limited maritime war yielded geopolitical results that were anything but limited: The Imperial Japanese Navy crushed China’s Beiyang (Northern) Fleet and, in the process, upended Asia’s traditional hierarchical order. Japan replaced China atop that order, and China has been vying for 120 years to reverse the outcome of that war and regain its historic supremacy. It remains unclear how would-be founders of an Asian NATO could persuade the two Asian giants to put this trauma behind them, making common cause under the aegis of a standing entente.
Those who ask why there’s no Asian NATO, furthermore, seem to be asking why Asians haven’t founded a NATO as NATO has existed since the Cold War. But could NATO have been founded in Europe as it exists today? Doubtful. The Atlantic Alliance originated not as today’s sprawling arrangement, incorporating former satellites in Eastern Europe and maintaining ties with the former foe in Russia, but as a common defense against a “hegemon,” a deadly adversary bent on conquering Western Europe.
NATO, then, did not unite Europe the way partisans of an Asian NATO want to unite Asia. In effect, the Atlantic Alliance helped divide Europe throughout the Cold War. It rallied one part of the continent dominated by one outside power, the United States, to defend against another part of the continent dominated by another outside power, the Soviet Union. Only after the fall of the Eastern Bloc could the alliance assume its current shape, absorbing erstwhile antagonists to the east.
So if there’s to be an Asian NATO, who will play the part of the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, supplying the adhesive that binds together the alliance? China would be the obvious candidate. Asia’s predominant indigenous power would therefore remain outside any collective-defense arrangement — defeating the purpose of regional cooperation. Asia appears destined to remain fragmented for the foreseeable future.
Second, Auslin is a partisan of the “democratic peace,” insisting that “the most promising way to reduce risk is to push for greater liberalism and a strengthened rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.” To oversimplify, the theory underlying the democratic peace is that nations of shopkeepers are not inclined to fight other nations of shopkeepers. Constitutional republics empower ordinary citizens, and ordinary citizens mainly want to carry on commerce and get rich. They discourage their governments from waging war, which disrupts trade and commerce.
A world populated entirely by constitutional republics would be a peaceful, prosperous world. Auslin is not advocating forcible regime change; he is advocating diplomacy designed to persuade less-than-liberal regimes such as China’s and Vietnam’s to affirm their support for the liberal, U.S.-led order that has served Asia well since Imperial Japan’s downfall in 1945.
And third, while no one would accuse the author of being soft on China, he actually understates China’s challenge in Southeast Asia. In his chapter on prospects for war, Auslin asserts that Beijing seeks “control over all the islands in the South China Sea, and even the waters themselves.” But what China wants in the South China Sea goes far beyond mere control. It claims to own the South China Sea, to the detriment of the rightful claims made by fellow Southeast Asian nations to offshore resources — and to the detriment of the freedom of movement guaranteed to navies and merchant fleets under the law of the sea.
To stake its claim, China cites a Republic of China–era map. A “nine-dashed line” inscribed on the map encloses some 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea, over which area China claims “indisputable sovereignty.” Sovereignty means control of geographic space within frontiers, backed up by what Max Weber termed a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” within those borders. If Beijing gets its way — and it’s worth noting that an international tribunal struck down its claims with extreme prejudice last summer — the Chinese Communist Party will make the rules governing this crucial waterway. It will doubtless bar the military activities about which it constantly complains — other countries’ lawful actions, such as aircraft-carrier flight operations, surveillance flights, and underwater surveys.
And while the leadership has voiced no desire to obstruct commercial shipping, it presumably reserves the right to do so — much as sovereign states reserve the right to deny or restrict passage through their land territory or national airspace. That’s what sovereignty is all about. China’s campaign, consequently, represents an attack not just on the Asian order but also on the rules-based world order that Auslin champions so well. China could throttle the Asian century in its infancy, if it fails to exercise some forbearance, and if the U.S., its allies, and its friends don’t remain resolute about upholding their rights and prerogatives.
To cultivate a realistic view of dangers and opportunities in Asia, Trump-administration officials should read this book — and heed Auslin’s findings. If they do so, they might just keep the trend lines going in a positive direction.
– Mr. Holmes is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and a co-author of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his own.