Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century by Gideon Rachman - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Orient Express

Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century


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Gideon Rachman’s elegantly written and hugely informed Easternisation is an essential survey of the migration of economic and political power away from the USA and Europe, towards Russia, China and also possibly India in the long term. Will this lead to further examples of the ‘Thucydides trap’, which almost always results in warlike clashes when rising powers confront established ones?

The new order is evident from the ceaseless travels of President Xi Jinping, a relatively imposing Chinese leader who can virtually kill with a disdainful glance and reluctant handshake (see his first encounter with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe). Xi pops up not just in Africa and Latin America, for which China is a more important trading partner than the USA or Europe, but also in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Poland to dole out massive energy and transport contracts. Angela Merkel likes to visit a different Chinese province every year in her annual trips to the country too, for €80 billion of exports are at stake. Earlier this year, Xi was lord of all he surveyed when he visited Britain: so eager was the government to herald a new ‘golden era’ in Anglo-Chinese relations that it set heads in Washington wondering what had happened to the ‘special relationship’.

One constant theme in Rachman’s book is how many countries are hedging their bets to accommodate new global realities. Take Australia and Singapore. There is still a lot of quaint talk about an ‘Anglosphere’ and the Five Eyes intelligence network, but Australia now resembles a giant Polo mint, such is the extent of commodity extraction by the Chinese. Although, with great fanfare, US marines are stationed in Darwin, to reflect Australia’s status as the firmest of US allies, this did not prevent the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, from granting a People’s Liberation Army-connected corporation a ninety-nine-year lease on the port at which they are based. The US navy likewise uses a ‘hub’ at Changi in Singapore for ships patrolling the contested South China Sea. However, Singapore’s government also insists that the 75 per cent of its citizens who are ethnically Chinese learn Mandarin as well as English, on the grounds that ‘we know that China will still be our neighbour in 1,000 years. We don’t know if the Americans will still be here in 100 years’ time.’

Singapore is one of ten ASEAN members, though the alliance is less substantive in Asia than NATO is in the North Atlantic theatre. One can see this in its members’ responses to China’s assertion of its right to everything within the ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea, including such maritime features as Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

Assiduous dumping of rock and sand by military engineers in such places has allowed the creation of artificial islands with landing strips, aircraft hangars and radar installations, plus the odd lighthouse to make China’s pop-up land formations seem like exercises in international civic-mindedness. By declaring a two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone around these islands, doubtless with an air defence identification zone akin to the one it already operates unilaterally in the South China Sea, China is staking a claim to valuable fishing grounds (protein for its vast coastal cities) and allegedly huge submarine oil and gas reserves. Responses to this bid for regional hegemony in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have been muted. Cambodia and Laos are perceived to be already in Beijing’s pocket.

That leaves the Philippines and Vietnam in the camp that openly challenges Beijing’s pretensions. Since Vietnam fought China seventeen times in its bid to liberate itself from Han emperors, it is not surprising that Hanoi has intensified naval cooperation with the USA following China’s aggressive planting of an oil rig in May 2014 in waters the Vietnamese call the East Sea. The government of the Philippines has also been plucky in resisting China’s seizure of ‘land’ within the country’s coastal waters. In 1999 the Philippines deliberately wrecked a ship on the Second Thomas Shoal, which they regularly garrison with up to a dozen troops. More recently the country won an international arbitration case against China in The Hague, the judges finding that the nine-dash line has no legal basis. Beijing is furious. After announcing that any fishermen caught in these waters without permission will face a year in jail, China sent bombers and fighters over the disputed ‘islands’.

All this raises the question of how Washington will respond to what it sees as an attempt to reduce American influence in the Asia-Pacific region, through which $5 trillion of trade passes each year. While the USA has spread its vast military tentacles far and wide, the Chinese have a much more regional focus, investing in sophisticated sea-to-sea missiles and orbital weapons to blind US satellites. US high-performance fighters such as the F-22 Raptor may be very advanced, but there are far fewer of them than their Chinese equivalents, which are not so far behind them in technological terms and are not hunting jihadis in pick-up trucks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

The Middle East absorbs 90 per cent of the attention of US policymakers and soldiers. The cost of futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has run into trillions of dollars. There is much hedging going on in the region too: although its Western defenders don’t mention it, Israel has been silent about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin and Netanyahu enjoy very warm relations, while Israel also supplies China with all the agricultural and cyber expertise it can buy. Neither China nor Russia disturbs the mood with talk of Palestinian rights. Nor is Netanyahu alone in his frequent trips to Moscow. Following Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been shopping in Moscow for the sophisticated weapons that have been on display in Ukraine and Syria. Whereas the USA imports only about 8 per cent of its oil from Saudi Arabia nowadays, the Chinese figure is 40 per cent. Beijing is all over the Middle East, bringing in Mossad’s finest as paid advisers on the region. Iran is already in the Russian camp and Turkey is drifting in as well. Recently Putin congratulated Erdoğan, rather than ‘the forces of democracy’ (the US and EU line), for defeating the attempted military coup of 14 July. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter was just a minor blip in the relationship. The two countries trade everything from gas to soft fruit, and tourism is a thriving industry too.

Rather belatedly, the USA has attempted to dispel the insecurity felt by the Baltic and eastern European countries about Russia. Washington does not really regard Russia as a serious menace because of its economic decline and the likely ephemerality of ‘Putinism’. The USA also knows that the Russians have their own cultural and geopolitical anxieties about their Chinese friends, who, when Moscow needed a big gas deal to counter sanctions in Europe, drove a bargain so hard that none of us learned its conditions. Washington takes the longer-term challenge from China much more seriously.

But US alliances in the Asia-Pacific region are problematic and that is before you mention the wild card of a nuclear-armed North Korea (the management of which requires Chinese collaboration) and ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan (notwithstanding the relatively amicable Modi–Sharif relationship). The nationalist Japanese government of Abe is a prisoner of Japan’s past. Abe recently grinned from the cockpit of a Japanese fighter, the serial number of which was 731, a figure notorious in Asia for belonging to the unit that carried out biological- and chemical-warfare experiments on Chinese and Korean prisoners during the Second World War. Calling Japan’s new destroyer Izumo was another PR disaster, since the same name graced a ship that led the invasion of China in the 1930s. Japan’s utility as a US ally is further undermined by its colossal debt (over 200 per cent of GDP), by economic stagnation in the country and by its decrepit population. By 2060, 40 per cent of its population will be over sixty-five. It needs stairlifts and Zimmer frames more than nuclear weapons. Quite apart from the ‘comfort women’ saga, this may be why South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, is also assiduously hedging her bets nowadays.

In search of alternatives, the USA has invested much false hope in India, with whose military the Pentagon is forming closer ties. Partly because of the big Indian lobby in the USA, Washington has fully bought into Modi’s vision of a pulsating ‘democracy’, which, in reality, in everything from indoor sanitation to education to transport, fails miserably when compared with authoritarian China.

Talk of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ future does not conceal where real power lies. Whenever India tries to escape its perennial hyphenation with Pakistan, Beijing beefs up Islamabad. China has also neatly inserted itself into Afghanistan, hosting Taliban delegations recently in the hope of curbing Uyghur terrorist activity and protecting its substantial mining interests. India is encircled by China, which has naval bases that run from Hainan via Chittagong and Colombo to Gwadar in Pakistan. These facilities and overland pipelines will reduce the vulnerability of Chinese energy supplies in the Malacca Straits to US naval interdiction. When Xi paid a state visit to India in September 2014, Chinese troops simultaneously entered Arunachal Pradesh to underline the realities of the relationship, much to his host’s discomfort.

Rachman offers some consolation to Westerners, who still control most major global institutions, from the IMF to SWIFT and ICANN. Rich Britons are not desirous of relocating their fortunes to Beijing and Eritreans and Somalis are not keen to migrate there either. He also notes that China and America are capable of cooperating in fields such as air pollution and counterterrorism. Together (with Russia) they also brokered the recent nuclear deal with Iran. Whether the USA will accept the advent of Chinese primacy is another matter. Rachman, in this cogent and wise book, sees it more as a hope than a likely reality.

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