Asia's Reckoning: The Struggle for Global Dominance by Richard McGregor; The Improbable War: China, the United States & the Logic of Great Power Conflict by Christopher Coker - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Continental Shift

Asia's Reckoning: The Struggle for Global Dominance


Allen Lane 396pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Improbable War: China, the United States & the Logic of Great Power Conflict


Hurst 224pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Richard McGregor is a distinguished journalist who has spent much time in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington, where he was bureau chief for the Financial Times. The Party (2010), his analysis of the Chinese Communist Party, revealed his extraordinary talents; Asia’s Reckoning exceeds the high bar set by that and is undoubtedly the best book I have read all year. It rests on thorough research in the available archives and many interviews with key participants. The writing is economical and never less than gripping. The book describes the displacement in the Asia-Pacific region of Pax Americana by Pax Sinica and a transformation in US relations with Japan and China. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s Americans were obsessed with the all-conquering Honda and Sony, nowadays they are worried by Anhui, Dalian and Wanda, with the difference that China is a strategic competitor rather than an ally, as Japan remains. 

China is a competitor, moreover, that has spent a great deal (officially $144 billion in 2016) on modernising its defence forces, to the extent that it may now lead the USA in cyber and space warfare. It also possesses sufficient conventional weapons – especially hypersonic missiles and submarines – to make the USA wage any war from a considerable distance, as Christopher Coker reminds us in his timely The Improbable War. Coker, a professor of international relations at the LSE and Britain’s most astute commentator on contemporary (and future) warfare, always brings great historical, literary and philosophical erudition to his work. In this book he looks at past examples of great-power competition to assess whether or not China and the US may clash one day, and how such a war would unfold. If the Chinese have their way, they will have won it long before a shot is fire: its 66,000 cyber warfare experts may well have remotely incapacitated the catapults needed by the USA to launch jets from its carriers.

China has also deployed its enormous investment clout to lure into its orbit former US client states, such as Burma, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines. Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, meanwhile, are now hedging their bets after being penetrated by Chinese investment capital. Ironically, apart from India (which is at the periphery of the Asia-Pacific region but has a vast land border with China), communist Vietnam may be America’s most reliable ally, especially if the US failure to restrain North Korea results in Japan and South Korea deciding to make alternative arrangements to relying on the US defence umbrella. No wonder, on his recent results-free tour of Asia, Trump took to using the new term ‘Indo-Pacific region’, in the hope that New Delhi will help check growing Chinese power.

The main strength of McGregor’s account is that it shows how important history has become to relations in the region. Although nowadays China depicts itself as a victim of European, US and above all Japanese imperialism, under Mao the prevailing attitude was to let bygones be bygones. The Communists had in fact welcomed the Japanese invasion because it weakened their opponents, the Kuomintang. ‘You cannot be asked to apologise every day, can you? … It is not good for a nation to feel constantly guilty, and we can understand this point,’ Mao told a visiting Japanese parliamentary delegation in 1954. Following the end of reparations in 1972, Japan ‘compensated’ China instead with investment capital, which Deng Xiaoping, in the 1980s, eagerly solicited for his modernisation of China. No talk of the war then either. Meanwhile, China welcomed the American military presence in Japan as a safeguard against its Soviet enemy.

Relations with Japan deteriorated when the Chinese discovered the possibilities of mobilising anti-Japanese sentiment, which became easier as Japanese nationalists began to baulk at the ‘cultural’ restraints the USA had placed upon them. It does not help that Japanese politics is frequently dynastic, so that the sons and grandsons of wartime figures have rotated through conservative cabinets. Some of these instantly forgettable figures have felt emboldened enough to pay their respects at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to those who have died for their emperor. In 1978 the chief priest enshrined fourteen Class-A war criminals there, adding them to the 2.46 million already commemorated at the site. Emperor Akihito has, as his father did, always given the shrine a wide berth, but not so some of Japan’s conservative politicians, notably Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzō Abe, the former and current prime ministers, who have stoked up nationalist feelings among Japanese incensed at how left-wing teachers’ unions have ensured that a masochistic version of the country’s history is fed to schoolchildren. Tempers worsened when Japanese academics began quibbling about the death toll in the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, the worst mass atrocity of the Sino-Japanese War. The fact that the Taiwanese tend to be nostalgic about the Japanese occupation (they still use Japanese administrative buildings, in contrast to the South Koreans, who tore them down in Seoul) adds to Chinese grievances.

Abe arouses particular feelings of resentment in China because his grandfather was a prominent user of slave labour in Manchukuo and, as a minister in Tōjō’s cabinet in the 1940s, was responsible for the use of slave labour in mines. It does not help either that in 2013 Abe posed smiling and giving a thumbs up in the cockpit of a Japanese fighter, the identifying number of which was the same as that used by a chemical- and germ-warfare unit in the Sino-Japanese War that employed Chinese human subjects for its experiments.

One of the themes of McGregor’s book is that Americans think China is much easier to read than Japan, where they find the corruptly byzantine politics and culture of indirection frustrating. Successive US presidents have been left exasperated by the difficulty Japanese leaders seem to have in saying ‘sorry’, not just to the Chinese for slaughtering some fifteen million of their countrymen, but also to South Korea for the use of ‘comfort women’. Japan’s historical baggage massively complicates an alliance system that is already weakened by huge oceanic distances. Indeed, reading McGregor’s account of the presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama, one could be forgiven for thinking that America’s chief problem in Asia is its Japanese ally, though Trump of course has rushed to embrace Abe, his new golfing partner. The Chinese do not play golf, and indeed have banned party members from playing it since it is a classic locus for corrupt informal dealings. When Xi Jinping finally condescended to meet Abe at a 2014 Pacific Rim summit, he contrived to turn away as he shook Abe’s hand, acting as though he were touching a stinking fish and making Abe reach across himself. When he hosted Trump in Beijing last month it was very noticeable that Xi did not utter a personal word in response to the flattery that Trump laid on with a shovel.

With China having overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010, its government is convinced that an ageing and sclerotic Japan is a declining power, though that is not how China’s many angry nationalists see things. Following disputes about sovereignty over a handful of rocks and reefs (amounting to six square kilometres of land in an ocean of 1.4 million square kilometres) and the detention by Japanese coastguards of a drunken Chinese trawler captain, mobs burned down Panasonic and Sony factories, turning on (and over) police cars in the process. China’s ‘blue army’ (militia members disguised in blue overalls as fishermen) are backed up by a huge coastguard and an even bigger navy hovering nearby. A regional war could erupt if local commanders get carried away; as things stand, such a conflict could escalate into one between China and the USA. As Coker reminds us in his compelling and thoughtful account, in cyberspace that conflict has already begun (indeed, we live in an era in which wars have no easily definable beginning). Whether, psychologically, the USA can cope with its relative decline and whether China can move to a more magnanimous understanding of its role are the questions on which peace and war in the region hinge.

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