Sunday, November 26, 2017

Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, & The Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century by Richard McGregor

Hardcover, 416 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Viking, ISBN13: 9780399562679

This deeply researched look at the China, Japan, U.S. triangle of strategic alliances is thickly studded with anecdote and new material uncovered in Freedom of Information requests, document declassifications, on-the-ground observation, and high-level meeting transcripts. Even the Introduction and Afterword are packed with unique material when these areas are more commonly places for overview and summing up. Altogether it is an achievement that will be the backbone for Asia-gazing for years to come.

McGregor looks at the trilateral relationships from the post-WWII period through the election of 2016 when Japan was the first to greet the month-old American president in New York City, not even waiting until Trump reached the White House. “The U.S. withdrawal from T.P.P. was the biggest shock to the alliance since Nixon went to China,” McGregor quotes Japan’s premier foreign policy commentator Yoichi Funabashi. After Abe had time to sit down with Trump in February 2017 and a joint statement drafted by Abe’s team to be delivered from the White House was proffered, Trump only insisted upon one change. “In place of ‘Donald Trump,’ the president said it should read ‘Donald J. Trump.’” So much for substance. “By the way, I love China. I love Japan.” Trump protests too much.

The book is arranged by decade until the “The Twenty-First Century,” a mammoth section encompassing fifteen years of toxic rivalry between the two Asian giants. McGregor has been on the ground in Asia for nearly thirty years and he shares the hopes, dreams, and personalities of leaders in China, Japan and America with the distance and caution good journalists cultivate. Compared with the rest of the world, Asia has been an explosion of good news, economic powerhouses doing what they do best, not waking up each morning, as Obama notes, “thinking about how to kill Americans.” (North Korea aside.)

But American economic and military presence in Asia paradoxically may have kept the Sino-Japan rivalry from resolving, despite their economic bilateral relationship that is among the most valuable in the world. If America packs up and goes home now, forces in Asia could amplify disputes and aggressions unacceptably. In answer to the question posed by Harvard professor Graham Allison whether China and America can avoid Thucydides’ trap, the conflict that arises when an established power (U.S.) is challenged by a rising rival (China), McGregor makes the point that Thucydides also said that as dangerous as it is to build an empire, it is even more dangerous to let it go. It is this second point that I worry about more when looking over the region.

McGregor’s special skill in this terrifically interesting and detailed reference work is humanizing the figures of government leadership and staff. We learn about the mostly men and few women involved in setting policy, their positions in their own governments, the official face of discussions and the more free-flowing and often contradictory attitudes in prep sessions and afterwards. We learn about specific American negotiators and their preparation [or lack of] for their Asia talks, their likes and dislikes, their knowledge and ignorance, and how these came to influence their official attitudes.

Thirty-seven black-and-white photographs punctuate this history, and illustrate the number of leaders each country has churned through in the past half-century of diplomacy. Both Xi Jinping of China and Shinz┼Ź Abe of Japan are long-running formative leaders who will leave deep imprints on their nation’s psyches. DJT’s presidency is a kind of lacuna in American foreign policy, a gap that will be filled with these two Asian powerhouses.

We all lived through the past eight years when Obama was forming relationships with allies in Asia. McGregor makes us feel as though we missed a lot. While I’d thought Obama was warmly received in Asia generally, we learn here that Obama “did not do chemistry… but he learned to do face.” Obama left the stage having made few friends, but he had reassured Japan, negotiated the T.P.P. which would eventually accrue benefit to the U.S., if not necessarily in strictly economic terms.

I hadn’t been aware that Abe had floated the idea that Japan would be willing to form a loose alliance among the Asian democracies (India, Australia, the U.S., and Japan) to promote democracy. None of the other countries was enthusiastic, Australia being resistant to being drawn into the possibility of Sino-Japanese conflict down the line.

McGregor reminds us that “forging, building, managing, and sustaining alliances and other partnerships had been one of America’s greatest skills in the postwar era.” That compliment comes as McGregor recounts the final overseas trip of Ash Carter, Obama’s fourth and last secretary of defense.

Asia had lately been touted as the most important region of the world for the United States, but which had gotten the least amount of attention. Obama had been willing to accommodate China’s regional expectation of dominance to some extent, for which he got unceasing criticism in Japan. Trump’s attitude is that Japan “used to routinely beat China.” Therefore, he is said to reason, why defend Japan at all?

The U.S. willingness to accommodate China’s ascendency, and to encourage Japan’s increase in defensive weaponry and capability, is part and parcel of “letting go” of America’s strong, some might say stabilizing, role in Asia. We’re about to find out which is the more dangerous route, and for whom.

This book is available as a Penguin Random House audiobook, beautifully read by Steve West. The audiobook is a wonderful choice to make progress on the book when other obligations are pressing. However, I still liked having the hardcopy to refer to: there is a lot of information here, much of it new. You may need access to both vehicles to get the most out of this. It's worth it.





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