The Asian century?
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 22, 2007
BY ALL MEANS, take a look at this New York Times article by author and lecturer Robert D. Kaplan called Lost at Sea.
Here’s how it starts:
The ultimate strategic effect of the Iraq war has been to hasten the arrival of the Asian Century.
While the American government has been occupied in Mesopotamia, and our European allies continue to starve their defense programs, Asian militaries–in particular those of China, India, Japan and South Korea–have been quietly modernizing and in some cases enlarging. Asian dynamism is now military as well as economic.
He then cites specific examples of the growing military strength of the region.
China’s military expansion, with a defense budget growing by double digits for the 19th consecutive year, is part of a broader, regional trend. Russia–a Pacific as well as a European nation, we should remember–is right behind the United States and China as the world’s biggest military spender. Japan, with 119 warships, including 20 diesel-electric submarines, boasts a naval force nearly three times larger than Britain’s. (It is soon to be four times larger: 13 to 19 of Britain’s 44 remaining large ships are set to be mothballed by the Labor government.)
The point about Russia is well taken, but one has to wonder how much longer (in geopolitical years) the Russians will be a factor in the region. Demographic trends in the country point sharply downwards, some of their health indicators are at Third World levels, and those people still remaining in the Russian Far East are moving west–lock, stock, and barrel–in growing numbers.
More pertinent is his acceptance of the enervation of Europe, particularly Old Europe, as a fait accompli. (Europeans objected to that phrase because the truth hurts.) Mr. Kaplan notes that in some European countries, soldiers are now seen as civil servants rather than warmakers.
He also sees signs of a growing Chinese effort to improve ties with Japan:
The United States should also be concerned about the alternative possibility of a China-Japan entente. Some of China’s recent diplomatic approaches to Japan have been couched in a new tone of respect and camaraderie, as it attempts to tame Japan’s push toward rearmament and thus to reduce the regional influence of the United States.
The article is not without its flaws, however:
Still, we should be careful about leveraging Japan and India too overtly against China. The Japanese continue to be distrusted throughout Asia, particularly in the Korean Peninsula, because of the horrors of World War II.
This assumes the United States has the power and the ability to leverage Japan against China, which is not a given. The Japanese and the Chinese have been dealing with each other for millenia. There is no question that Japan has a better understanding of its neighbor, from which it inherited so much culturally, than do the Americans. While the U.S. still has the advantage of sharing an open system of free-market democracy with the Japanese, it is they who run the risk of becoming irrelevant in the western Pacific in the future.
Mr. Kaplan is perhaps unaware that China (not to mention both Koreas) is playing a multifaceted game. It may be the case that they are warming up to Japan, but they themselves still leverage Japan’s past to manipulate their own population in the present. Try this recent article by Peter Harmsen about Chinese war museums (note that Yahoo news links don’t stay around forever):
“I feel a lot of hatred towards the Japanese after I’ve seen what they’ve done,” said 20-year-old student Zhao Xiaosui, visiting the museum for the first time with his girlfriend.
If China were interested in a serious alliance with Japan, it wouldn’t be spending so much time and money to build more than 100 of these museums to brainwash 20-year-olds about a political and social entity that no longer exists.
As the years go by, there is a growing sense of urgency, because the events of three generations ago gradually and inexorably fade out of living memory.
“In a few more years, no one will be left who actually remembers the events,” said Jin Hengwei, the museum’s deputy chief of publicity.
“That’s why we are here, to ensure that the memory of these terrible events get passed from generation to generation. History must not be forgotten. If it is, it’s the same as betraying our ancestors.”
In short, the Chinese are getting it backwards on purpose. I would suggest to Mr. Jin that unless historical memories are allowed to fade naturally, he is betraying the younger generation and his descendents.
The Chinese even have a tame American professor on a leash:
“In a way they’re trying to turn to a more positive interpretation of the past to people,” said James Reilly, a scholar from George Washington University who has studied the role of China’s history museums. “That’s sort of riding a tiger in China, trying to stay ahead of people’s nationalist feelings, putting the party in front of it all, and that’s a very tricky game to play…But the message is not so much Japan bashing. It’s more promoting the internal unity under the guidance of the party. And that is the main reason that they have been growing in recent years.”
Prof. Reilly has it backwards, too: It most assuredly is about Japan bashing. He’s ignoring the intent of the Chinese government to exacerbate nationalist feelings as a way to counteract domestic dissent with the regime.
For more on these museums and the Japanese response, try a previous Ampontan post here.
But I digress. Back to Mr. Kaplan:
As for India, as a number of policy experts leaders there told me on a recent visit: India will remain non-aligned, with a tilt toward the United States. But any official alliance would compromise India’s own shaky relationship with China.
This would explain the relatively cool reception soon-to-be former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got in India when he suggested an India-Japan-Australia-U.S. alliance.
“The military trend that is hiding in plain sight is the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake after 60 years of near-total dominance.”
Indeed, Mr. Kaplan could have used a broader brush. There’s no reason to confine oneself to the adjective “military” when speaking of trends in this part of the world.