7 September 2017


The long road to ‘Asia’s Reckoning’


An analysis of relations between Japan, China and the US captures subtle shifts and unexpected continuities


Asia’s Reckoning: The Struggle for Global Dominance, by Richard McGregor, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$28, 416 pages


Jeffrey Wasserstrom


Studies of international relations often take what might be called a “bi-capital” approach, toggling between a pair of cities. But sometimes a crisis hits that reminds us of the need to think in terms of the interplay between multiple centres of power, and of the value of books that do not confine themselves to bilateral relations. The current furore over North Korea is one such crisis, and former FT reporter Richard McGregor’s skilfully crafted and well argued Asia’s Reckoning is a good example of the sort of book I have in mind.


When it comes to the dystopian roller-coaster ride set in motion by Kim Jong Un’s nuclear programme, there is widespread agreement that we need to consider a Pyongyang-Beijing-Washington dynamic. It is also obvious, or at least it should be, that Seoul must be brought into the picture. Moscow’s behaviour is important to consider as well. Last but far from least, Tokyo matters — a lot. We get abundant clues as to why in McGregor’s book, which takes a “tri-capital” approach to the western Pacific drawing on the author’s spells as a foreign correspondent based, in turn, in Tokyo, Beijing and Washington.


Asia’s Reckoning has little to say about North Korea but it makes perfect sense of the seemingly strange fact that when Kim carries out weapons tests, the first Asian leader that Donald Trump calls is usually Japan’s Shinzo Abe. The current occupant of the White House loves to break precedents and go to people with whom he feels he has good chemistry. In this case, though, it is easy to imagine a previous president doing the same. This is because, as McGregor stresses, one of the most important threads connecting cold war and post-cold war Pacific history is Japan’s persistent position as America’s most important security partner in the region.


What makes this alliance curious is that it has stayed in place even as other aspects of the US relationship with Japan and China have been turned upside down. In the 1950s and 1960s, most Americans were rooting for a Japanese economic boom, wishing to see their former Axis enemy turned anti-communist ally prosper and grow strong. But by the late 1970s and 1980s, many people in the US expressed outrage at the country’s “unfair” economic policies and distortion of proper capitalist patterns — making charges against Japan that sound just like those that Trump was levelling against Beijing on the campaign trail. The US-Japan security relationship survived these stresses just fine, just as it also endured after the meeting between Nixon and Mao in the early 1970s set the previously antagonistic relationship between Washington and Beijing on a new course.


In a book that seeks to use history to shed light on the current relationship between three Pacific powers, Trump’s election posed a considerable challenge. McGregor meets it effectively, with some astute, if necessarily tentative comments about how things may be different with such an unpredictable figure in the White House, while also encouraging us to keep an eye out for continuities with the past.


The great strength of Asia’s Reckoning, indeed, is that it encourages the reader to look for continuities amid apparent dramatic change, as well as subtle changes amid apparent continuity. McGregor helps us appreciate the areas where leaders of the US, Japan and China find it easiest and hardest to find common ground. He also sensitises us to the complex ways in which the ratcheting up or loosening of tensions between Washington and Tokyo or Beijing inevitably affects the strategies of leaders based in the other east Asian capital.


Among the central themes of Asia’s Reckoning are the tensions over islands that Tokyo and Beijing both claim and the historical events that each views very differently. Here again, a tri-capital perspective yields benefits. In the 1950s and 1960s, McGregor reminds us, Mao sometimes called for China and Japan to focus on their shared position in Asia and possibilities for friendship. Early in the cold war, Chinese propagandists could put more energy into vilifying American imperialism than Japanese militarism, now such a central theme on the Chinese mainland.


Sometimes, McGregor’s interest in the international dynamic can create problems of emphasis. His discussion of the Chinese protests of the mid to late 1980s, for example, offers useful correctives on the role played by attitudes towards Tokyo; it also risks giving these undue prominence beside the purely domestic causes.


Ultimately, however, Asia’s Reckoning is an engaging, timely book that provides a nice complement to important recent studies focusing on two points of the US-China-Japan triangle. It left me eager to see more work in the same vein. What a perfect time this would be for someone to write a comparable book based on reporting stints in Washington, Beijing and Moscow.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author of ‘Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo’ (Penguin)