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An outline of the future

This century is Asia's but unresolved historical legacies can slow down the rise of Asian super-powers, says Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2006 17:55 IST

Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan
Author: Brahma Chellaney
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 395
Pages: 277

As Mao lay dying on the night of September 8, 1976, his doctors injected shengmai san, a traditional Chinese herbal medicine consisting mainly of ginseng, in a last attempt to revive the Great Helmsman. It did not work and Mao died the next day. With him, a whole epoch died. Inevitably a, vicious struggle for power ensued and Deng Xiaoping, earlier politically sacrificed by Mao in April that year, emerged on top of the heap.

An astute man, Deng knew that an archaic political doctrine was incapable of giving people happiness and that adherence to this doctrine would eventually deprive the Party of political power. A new economic doctrine — ‘never mind if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice’ — that would give some people complete economic freedom and others less so, would ensure continued political control by the Party and the People’s Liberation Army China’s economic reforms began with typical Chinese single-mindedness in 1978. Twenty years later, China had become one of the world’s major powers.

The rise of one major power invariably causes upheavals, but as Brahma Chellaney says in his latest book, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan, the rise of all three simultaneously will cause tectonic shifts. Almost everyone talks of the rise of India and wonders if India will catch up with China. Very few have paid attention to the new Japan described as becoming a ‘normal’ country capable of flexing its military muscle and no longer content with only economic supremacy.

Chellaney has argued convincingly that Japan will be an important country for India’s rise in Asia as an effective counter-weight to China. He has also suggested that India needs to play the Taiwan card with China to break out of the multiple grid-lock that China wishes to impose on India in the sub-continent. It is possible that the Chinese will get hysterical, but then they have not shied away from promoting their interests by proliferating nuclear weapons in our neighbourhood.

The underlying theme of the book is that though the 21st century belongs to Asia, there are unresolved historical legacies that could slow the process. “In the coming years, given the tangled Japan-China and India-China relationships, the competitive pride and rivalries among Asia’s three biggest powers are likely to greatly influence the continent’s geo-politics,” says the author quite early in the book and then goes on to describe the problems and opportunities that lie ahead. Inevitably the roles of the US and Russia also feature in this well-balanced book that makes a smooth transition from one chapter to an other- not always an easy thing to do.

Diplomacy in Disguise:Jawaharlal Nehru (L) celebrates New Year's Eve with Chou En Lai (R) on a special train during the Chinese premier's goodwill tour to India in 1957. Photo credit: Roli Books

The book really warms up in Chapter 3. Titled ‘Asian Geopolitics of Energy’, it looks at China as a big league player while we occupy the reserve bench surrounded by neighbours who sit on energy reserves and block trade routes but are unwilling to deal with us.

It is in this context that Iran’s importance both as a source of energy and a transit route for Central Asia and Russia has to be understood. Then there are the much-talked-of triangular strategic relationships — China-India-Japan or China-India-Russia. Each of these countries will continue to value its friendship with the US and would not jeopardise this friendship for the triangle. American pre-eminence will not be diminished by anything each of these countries do in the years ahead; it will happen only by the policies that the Americans devise for themselves and choose to follow.

While discussing China’s attitude towards India, Chellaney says, “Indeed, Beijing treats India as a potential peer rival to be put down, with calibrated Chinese pres sure and intimidation designed to keep it in check. China’s friendship diplomacy has always sought to underpin a win-win posture with India — engagement with containment.” The more China exerts along this route, the greater the chances that India will move towards multi-polarity with the US, Japan and Russia.

Looking ahead in the context of major strategic rivalries that will emerge, Chellaney says that the central challenge would be to stabilise major power relationships in Asia and promote cooperative approaches that can tackle security, energy, territorial, environmental and historical issues. This is not going to be easy and will depend on a genuine thaw in India-China and China-Japan relations.

Even so, Asian Juggernaut is a complete and a very contemporary book; it is also not a massive tome that weighs heavily on the reader. Considering that President Hu Jintao will be in India next week, the ambience is right for reading this book.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.

First Published: Nov 20, 2006 17:55 IST