The new Eastern Question


War and Peace in the Asian Century

Gideon Rachman

Random House India

Rs 699; 288 pages


If the rise of China in the last two decades had created major theses about the relative decline of the West — such as in the works of Martin Jacques and others — this trend in scholarship is strengthening with the prospects for growth of India, Indonesia and other countries increasing. Gideon Rachman’s work under review follows this recent familiar pattern that the East is inexorably asserting itself in economic, technological, military and strategic arenas to a near crumbling West. However, while broad-basing his analysis to include other emerging countries in the region, Mr Rachman points to the pitfalls of a withdrawing West and argues for “managing” this easternisation process. The work is timely, written in the twilight of the Obama Administration and the onset of Donald Trump.


While the initial scholarship was much tuned to how China is knocking at the gates of international power, with its “new normal” of relative decline in growth rates from double digits to single digit figures recently, it has shifted the discourse towards the other new emerging countries such as India and others. For the West, beginning with the oft-repeated quote of Napoleon on not waking up the dragon, the East primarily meant China, with the rest of Asia only playing second fiddle. Mr Rachman offers a corrective to this general direction of obsession with China.


However, Mr Rachman’s thesis goes beyond the initial romanticisation of the Cathay or the Oriental and the unitary system of the Asiatic Mode of Production of Karl Marx and Karl Wittfogel. Grounded firmly in a journalistic eye for detail and keen observation of the main mega-trends at the global and regional levels, Mr Rachman outlines the emerging problems in the western economies and the lack of resolve of the respective leaderships in the United States and Europe. While the shale gas revolution had lessened the dependence of the US on West Asian oil, Mr Rachman argued that this will have long-term consequences for the gradual drawdown of US forces from the region, with a possible enhancement in the role of China. While Mr Rachman cited Joseph Nye’s observation that the US has over 60 treaty allies (compared to only one for China, i.e. with North Korea), it is pertinent to point out that when China floated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, more than 50 countries joined the initiative, including US allies UK, Germany and France.


The decline of the West, according to Mr Rachman, lay in the seeming shirking of responsibilities by the US to protect the global and regional order that it had helped form in the aftermath of the World War II. This is exemplified in its inability to take a clear-cut position on the Hague tribunal verdict on South China Sea and back up such a position in the Scarborough Shoal. Also, the Obama Administration, despite the “rebalance” strategy towards the Asia-Pacific, dilly-dallied on the Ukrainian and Syrian issues, thus letting down its allies and friends in the international system. Mr Rachman also suggests that the relative decline in the defence budgetary allocations of the US and European countries — in conjunction with their relative decline in economic indicators — slackened their resolve and, thus, led to the spread of “easternisation” phenomenon.


While easternisation, as such, was not defined in any concrete terms nor any solutions offered to counter this trend (except to “manage” this phenomenon), Mr Rachman suggests a gradual trend recently of Asian countries assertion in the economic, diplomatic and military terms, both at the global and regional levels. In other words, he outlines the shifting balance of power — mainly in the economic sphere but also of late in the military domains — towards the East. Instead of the focus only on China — as previous studies outlined — Mr Rachman focuses on other emerging countries and trends in the region.


Though many studies before have argued for a unitary and unifying entity of Asia in its value systems or the widespread phenomenon of under-development, Mr Rachman is aware of the deeper schisms in the region. The fault lines are many – with no major economic integration, no consensus on any major contentious issue that is affecting the region, no single multilateral institution to address the existing or emerging security problems and the like. China is the largest economy in the region, with a strong military back-up, but it has never been showcased as the panacea for the region. While China had been assertive in  recent times, there are also several limitations posed to its unbridled rise by the resistance of Japan and to an extent by India, Vietnam and Indonesia.


Over and above, Rachman’s book is timely and relevant in the backdrop of an ever assertive China and the “power vacuum” that is engulfing the Asian and other regions. Rachman scoffs at the idea of a democratic China — the unfulfilled agenda of the “engagement” school of Henry Kissinger and others in the West — adjusting to the rules of the international system by arguing that China today is becoming more nationalistic to the chagrin of its neighbours.

 The reviewer is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU

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