THE END OF THE ASIAN CENTURY: WAR, STAGNATION, AND THE RISKS TO THE WORLD’S MOST DYNAMIC REGION
By Michael R. Auslin
Yale, $30, 279 pages
On many occasions during half a century of involvement in — and commentary on — world affairs, I have found myself worrying about what’s going to become of the poor old U.S.A. So many symptoms of decline, decay and demoralization, so many wrong turns, failed policies and discredited leaders: surely the end is near. But then I look at the rest of the world. The realization quickly dawns that, despite our many real flaws and often clueless leadership, America still occupies a relatively safe and secure place in an increasingly insecure, unsafe world.
Through no fault of our own, one might add. Luck — or providence — placed us in a uniquely advantageous geographical and historical position. We still occupy it in spite of the folly and fecklessness of many of our cultural and political elites. Nor does the backsliding end with our elites. We see it in many of our local communities: growing illegitimacy rates, widespread drug abuse, declining public schools, failing industries and the fragmenting of our society into separate, often alienated ethnic, religious, linguistic, sexual and generational subgroups, each with their own cynical set of pandering politicians.
All these things represent serious problems for our country. But, looking beyond our borders, they seem to be taking an even greater toll almost everywhere else. To cite only one of many indicators, the demographic time bomb of fewer newborns and more and more aging seniors may be ticking away in America, but in most of the European Union, populations are actually beginning to decline and are expected to do so more steeply in coming years. This is even more the case in Japan and China, the two major economic engines that were supposed to drive what, at the turn of the millennium, many scholars and futurists had heralded as the dawning “Asian Century.”
Well, they just don’t make centuries like they used to. In “The End of the Asian Century,” Michael R. Auslin, a former Yale University history professor and current resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, presents a plausible, meticulously documented analysis of the deep fissures that divide the individual nations and cultures of the Asian Pacific and portend trouble ahead — economically, politically and diplomatically. He also points up stress points that could lead to dangerous confrontations if America is seen to step back from its role as guarantor of freedom of the seas in the region. The fact that a debt-ridden, still far-from-fully-modernized China may be entering an extended economic slowdown — with an attendant increase in popular discontent — could actually provide an additional incentive for the Party leadership to pursue an increasingly aggressive, jingoistic foreign policy. That is exactly what we have already seen Vladimir Putin do in Eastern Europe.
India, a subcontinent under a single flag but plagued by linguistic, cultural, religious, regional and racial divisions that have always made it a fragile polity, is emerging as a regional superpower but is still, in many ways, an impoverished, socially hemorrhaging society. Nevertheless, Mr. Auslin, maintains, as a flawed but functioning democracy, India can be a major force for stability and peaceful progress in the region. Just as the post-World War II democratic order — in combination with a strong American strategic partnership — brought peace, growing prosperity and collective security to Western Europe, Mr, Auslin believes that, “[m]any things can be done to nurture democracy in Asia. First, the region’s leading liberal states, Japan, India, and South Korea, along with Taiwan, should take the lead in self-consciously promoting liberal ideas.” This is important because “[l]ong-term domestic stability and prosperity can be encouraged by the regional spread of democratic norms, including civil rights, rule of law, gender equality, and a free press.”
All quite true, especially when, as Mr. Auslin advocates, such efforts are accompanied by strengthened, mutually advantageous trade relations and the credible deterrent of American military might. As long as China, constantly poking and testing, remains convinced that we have both the power and the will to use it, regional tensions are far more likely to stay under control. Into the foreseeable future, maintaining sufficient — and credible — force in the Asian Pacific will be the best way to avoid having to use it.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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