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Three’s company

Two books that underline the fact that China, India and Japan are more comfortable working with the US than they are with each other, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

books Updated: Aug 27, 2008 15:25 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The rise of Asia is now a geopolitical fairytale. The story goes like this: the hard-working peasant family, descen dants of royalty who fell on hard times, are suddenly set to reclaim their throne from pale-skinned usurpers. The assumption is that the peasant family — the rising Asian powers — are going to live in harmony ever after. Going by present trends, argues Bill Emmott, Asia is more likely to be a continent divided.

“The rise of Asia is not just, or even mainly, going to pit Asia against the West, shifting power from the latter to the former. It is going to pit Asians against Asians,” he writes in Rivals.

Asia will, for the first time in recent history, be simultaneously home to three Great Powers: China, Japan and India. This wouldn’t matter if they were politically or culturally in tune with each other.

But they aren’t. If anything, they’re more comfortable working with the US than they are with each other.

Emmott is not one of those who argues that 21st century Asia is destined to follow the bloody path of 19th century Europe. There are too many nuclear weapons around and economic growth has become the region’s ‘common religion’. But don’t hold your breath waiting for an Asian Union. Too much his- tory gets in the way of China and Japan, argues Emmott. Too much ambition gets in the way of China and India.

He quotes a senior Indian diplomat: “Both of us.. think the future belongs to us. We can’t both be right.” This Great Power rivalry is already manifest today The most obvious is the strain in Sino-Japan- ese relations. Tokyo and Beijing seem to take this for granted: 'We’ve hated each other for a millennium, what else is new?'

Emmott is among the few Western au- thors who have noticed that one Japanese response has been to build up India’s standing in Asia. Another sign is the Indo-US nu- clear deal, which he sees as an attempt by Asia’s non-Asian power to bolster the only possible counterweight to China. And then there’s the region’s slow motion arms race. This continental rivalry is not red in tooth and claw. In the Asian power game “all must seek to be as friendly as possible to all, for fear of consequences if they are, but in which friendship is only skin-deep”.

The weakness of Emmott’s book is that while his big picture appeals to the eye, it lacks the smaller brushstrokes needed to make it art. Anyone looking for the geopolitical detail to substantiate his position will have to look elsewhere.

One can agree with the conclusion: "...the chief responsibility for what Chinese officials lament as ‘the Chinese threat theory’ lies with China itself and its lack of transparency”. But no real evidence is provided to connect this with the policy responses of Japan and India. The book is thinnest on India, where there is little understanding of how much the country’s foreign policy is a work in progress.

Perhaps because he was former editor of The Economist, Emmott provides excellent sketches of the macro-economies of Asia’s powers. The lack of a similar felicity with their foreign policies is striking.

Some of the missing bricks and mortar can be found in the essays in Asian Security Dynamics. Takechi Yuzawa dissects how the Asian Regional Forum has been hamstrung by the differing concerns of China vs Japan and the West. Takako Hirose provides a detailed explanation of the push-and-pull forces that led to the shift in post-Cold War Japanese foreign policy

In contrast, the Chinese and Indian contributors are tellingly unable to produce a coherent account of their respective country’s geopolitical vision. Emmott would find encouragement for this thesis in Zhang Guifeng’s heroic attempt to find something in the Sino-Indian relationship going beyond trade and summits — and failing.