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War and Peace in the Asian Century


A Chinese friend here in Beijing was talking the other day about the difference between xifang and dongfang – the West and the East. She said that “of course” Australia, which she hasn’t visited, is a country of xifangren – Westerners – and described their Caucasian physical features. But this stereotype can no longer be applied to Australia, with its many ethnicities, including a million citizens of Chinese heritage.

So is Australia “Western” or “Asian”? Most people would still say Western. But in many aspects, including our economy, culture and sport (Australia in 2015 not only hosted but won the Asian Cup, the premier contest in the region’s premier sport, soccer), we increasingly appear more Asian.

The title of distinguished Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman’s book, Easternisation, therefore raises questions for Australians, for whom “the Orient,” a region in our time zone, has never resonated as it once did in London.

But Rachman’s focus is power relations: “The West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs is now coming to a close. The root cause of this change is the extraordinary economic development in Asia over the last fifty years.” Essentially, he means America’s decline and China’s rise – not a novel theme for Australian readers. It is five years since the Gillard government published the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, and Rachman’s book references Australian academic Hugh White’s The China Choice, also published in 2012.

But the extent to which East Asia’s infrastructure, both physical and online, wildly surpasses that in North America and Europe still surprises many in Australia – where we lack almost any senior figure in politics, business, universities or the public service who has worked and lived in Asia for more than a week or two at a time.

Rachman provides a swag of quotes, anecdotes and data to support his core thesis. Easternisation concludes with Barack Obama’s presidency fading away, and since then, Donald Trump’s presidency has opened the way for President Xi Jinping to grab supremacy as the pinnacle Davos-endorsed “globaliser” – which within China also translates as a modern version of tianxia, “everything under heaven” coming within a world order orchestrated by Beijing.

The author explains that this is not a new cold war, while nevertheless constructing a narrative that contains many echoes of the first Cold War. But today China is immersed in the wider world, and especially in Western countries – including many millions of students, tourists, migrants, investors and traders – in ways that were unthinkable for the old era. And Western business has a heavy strategic involvement within China, in both manufacturing and retail – though Australian investment remains modest, with not a single significant fresh announcement since the free trade agreement came into effect in December 2015.

The economic transformation of China has provided Xi with the platform for generating, Rachman says, “the military, diplomatic and technological resources that translate into international political power” – strong threads indeed, although he underplays the role of “soft power,” which China covets, and where the West continues to dominate. Even within its own East Asian neighbourhood, China’s soft power – its cultural reach from brands to lifestyle products to music, movies and soaps, respect for its academic might and analytical experts, and the influence of its ideas and its form of governance – arguably lags behind that of Japan and South Korea. And attempts to trade on traditions dating back to Confucius are undercut by the scrupulous overlooking of Chinese history by the party-state, which less than fifty years ago ordered the destruction of Confucius’s symbolic “tomb,” and by its recently revived insistence on Marxist education, a nineteenth-century European heritage.

The chief problem with Rachman’s book is that it fails adequately to address the core question for the world as it determines whether or how to limit China’s ambitious leaps: what is the nature of the “China” that is ascending?

Externally, China appears more self-confident than ever – for instance, contemptuously brushing aside the verdict of the international court on its South China Sea annexation with impunity, and despatching People’s Liberation Army forces to exercise as far away as the Baltic, and to establish their first foreign base, in Djibouti. But domestically, the party-state is focused on controlling China’s real and virtual worlds in a stricter and more pervasive manner than seemed imaginable even in the country’s comparatively liberal years – the 1980s up to the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, and the late 1990s through to Xi’s ascension as party chief in 2012.

This indicates a core anxiety about legitimacy, about continuity, and above all about power. After sixty-eight years of one-party rule, and with diminished debate within, is the “China model” one that is set to sweep the world? It has obvious appeal to the leaders of similarly authoritarian regimes such as Russia or Turkey, but less so to the broader world, including other nations in Asia.

But the Beijing regime remains largely opaque. Compared with the power elites of the West, those in China are unapproachable, although not entirely unknowable. Their speeches and statements are from time to time available, but are too often disregarded as “just rhetoric,” or as emanations of a worldview that Westerners find outmoded, irrelevant or simply impossible to understand. The Chinese approach to political life and popularity appears strange – for instance, a lively, anecdote-laden speech would be viewed as dangerously ingratiating, akin to confessing a loss of self-confidence or, worse, of authority. China’s current rhetoric on core domestic issues – rather than that on display at grand global set pieces – does not reflect a broader “Eastern” worldview.

None of China’s neighbours except North Korea, for instance, could consider banning seven topics from educational discussion, as Beijing has done under a Party communiqué: constitutional democracy, civil society, economic liberalisation, media freedom, historical critiques of the Party, challenges to socialism with Chinese characteristics, and universal values. Most of these are pillars of Asian life elsewhere today.

Rachman mentions “discussing the roots of America’s ‘addiction’ to primacy with senior US policymakers.” That he doesn’t apply such scrutiny to China’s ambition is perhaps natural, without any such access to senior figures there.

He views South-East Asia as being “overshadowed” by China. Of course Beijing looms large. It has a great deal to offer. But a reticence remains. The American rise was also accompanied by caveats, but of a different order.

One of the differences between the United States and China, on which Rachman was unable to expand on in this tightly written book of 260 pages, is that the former appears destined to reinvigorate its demographic profile more readily, through immigration. China – like virtually all its “Easternisation” neighbours – resists immigrants. It remains all but impossible for a person who is not ethnically Chinese to become a citizen.

The West also, Rachman points out, appears set to maintain its legal and financial “institutional edge,” although Belt and Road and other initiatives of the Xi era will potentially reduce the gap.

Will we ever see a multipolar world, as diplomatic experts in China itself once advocated, or are those idealistic “borderless” days now vanishing as both terrorism and economic opportunism trigger nationalist pushbacks?

Rachman’s book raises, though without painting detailed scenarios, the prospect of war between the rising and falling powers. But it mentions only in passing Kim Jong-un, known ubiquitously in China as “Jin San Pang” – “Fatty Kim III.” Kim is the joker in the pack most likely to trigger a war, but he hardly fits Rachman’s recipe for “Easternisation.” This is a reminder that books on geopolitics – and this is essentially a good one – need big themes to grab readers’ attention, but risk becoming outflanked by events and people who do not fit them.

Rowan Callick


This is a review from Australian Foreign Affairs 1: The Big Picture. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.