Saturday, May 31, 2008

A new form of war in Asia

Fareed Zakaria, in his latest book, The Post-American World, denounces the rising American fear of power shifting away from the US to other centres. He maintains that the "rise of the rest" — the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia — should not be looked as a threat to American hegemony, rather "as a multi-polar force that will re-tool the world." In other words, it's not that America is losing its position, it's just that others are gaining theirs.

Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist, and the author of the book under review, would both agree and disagree with Zakaria's contention. So, while he looks at the rise of three Asian countries -- giants, erstwhile and emerging — China, India and Japan, he is categorical about global power shifting away from the West to the rest.

Emmott's inclusion of Japan in considering the rise of Asia rankles. After having wowed the world with its technical prowess over much of the last half century, the asset price bubble of the late eighties exposed the rotten credit policies of Japanese banks.

However, he is fascinated by China's rise, which has contributed to a proliferation of cheap goods in the global marketplace. Even so, he sensibly cautions against the Chinese government's ironic, and dangerous, cocktail of economic reform coupled with political repression. Presciently, he mentions Tibet as a possible flashpoint that may cost China its rightful place in the global pecking order.

Of the trio, the country that Emmott is most intrigued by is India, the most recent star on the global firmament. India's meteoric rise in the post-1991 period is attributed to the rise of an assertive middle class which, attuned to the best that the world has to offer, is demanding more and more from the political class. The governance structure, however, continues to be the albatross around the country's neck.

Emmott's book is of special interest because, unlike other recent tomes on the subject, it also deals with how likely conflicts between these powers may derail the prospect of an "Asian century". It is heartening that the recent visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Japan focussed on working out an arrangement to resolve the dispute surrounding the exploration of natural gas in the East China Sea. This is in marked contrast to the visit of Jiang Zemin in 1998, when the former Chinese President raised a hornet's nest by accusing Japan of not properly apologising for invading China in the 1930s.

China's relationship with India has been equally uneasy. Apart from the long-standing border dispute between the two nations, China's unquestioned support of Pakistan and its growing military might are permanent dangers to India. Emmott also broaches the North Korean angle to the Sino-Indian relationship, with regard to the communist state's underground nuclear activity.

The weakest part of the book pertains to the environmental damage wreaked by the rise of China and India, and what countries must do to contain global warming. To his credit, Emmott is against any binding restrictions on developing countries which may impinge on their growth, and supports US involvement in and contribution to the success of climate treaties. But all this talk rests on the premise that global warming exists and is preventable. Climate, such is its nature, is dynamic and cannot be predicted. What is one to make of recent announcements that globally, temperatures will remain stable for another decade? Emmott will do well not to join the league of apocalypse hunters.

Rivals is an entertaining read, thanks to Emmott's propensity to offer direct, no-words-minced solutions. However, not all his premises are palatable.

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