Asia rising, Asia falling?
July-September 2017
By: Andrew Phelan

Excising the wealthy city-state of Singapore from the rest of the group, there are unfinished revolutions everywhere. Most of Asean is stuck in the middle-income trap and characterized, with the possible exception of Malaysia, as having a small super-rich ruling and business elite, and a very large, very young poor class with little capital or education. Indonesia, far and away Asean’s largest member, has what I like to call the “merdeka mentality.” Indonesia’s struggle for independence from the Dutch after 1945 was supported by its southern neighbor, Australia, but like India it has a similar “Nonaligned Movement” way of thinking of the past, characterized by anti-Western rhetoric designed for domestic political consumption. Indonesia’s founding president, Soekarno, was famous for fist-shaking rhetoric, but he also tore up Jakarta’s only tram tracks while its neighbor Singapore was getting on with the job of building world-class infrastructure with the best suppliers in the world.

The threat of war

At the close of World War II,  American military power and aid was as close the region had to any glue. Indeed, the United States has been the Indo- Pacific’s trusted security guarantor for the last 70 years, and its presence in the background has provided a platform for economic success, particularly in Northeast Asia.

In more recent times, the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a bout of American triumphalism that, as Hugh White, the prominent Australian defense analyst, has just gently reminded us 25 years on, prompted Francis Fukuyama to produce “The End of History and the Last Man.” The rest of the world was then supposed to fall into this new, US-led world order, one where the institutions and rules of the game, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and so forth, were American-created and dominated. China, as we now all know, has other ideas. The former diplomat and intelligence official Michael Pillsbury, who is a fluent Mandarin speaker, prefaces his excellent book “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower” with a quote from Confucius: “There cannot be two suns in the sky, nor two emperors on the earth.”

If my review, and Auslin’s book, has been a little too China-centric, it now shadows the region. China is the main talking point. It’s impossible to cover such ambitious subject material in a book – let alone a book review. In my view, China’s rise and its strategic rivalry with the United States is the story of our time. Still, what Auslin has done is provide the handbook on the state of play and the real risks in the vast and diverse Indo-Pacific region, and where it’s likely headed. As such, it is essential reading.

Please login to leave a comment