Asia, America and the Transformation of Geopolitics

William H Overholt's book exposes the threat of US politics to the Asian economic miracle.
With journalists trying to simplify things, and academics looking for complexity, itÆs hard to find a writer who has the right balance between the two. In his latest book Asia, America and the Transformation of Geopolitics, Bill Overholt of the Rand Corporation does a brilliant job.

ThatÆs not to say academics wonÆt attack him for his frequent generalisations. But thatÆs a price worth paying for a book that points out so succinctly how recent US-driven developments are threatening the Asian miracle.

Overholt does not believe China is a threat to the international order and he does not believe democracy is always the best solution to Asian problems. On the contrary, he sees China as a pillar of the international order in Asia, and says Japan and India are more likely to cause international friction. He therefore asks why the US is so intent on supporting the "wrong" countries.

Overholt argues that the US has been playing a dangerously destabilising role in Asia since the end of the Cold War. He says the democratic ideologues (in particular) of the younger Bush administration have emphasised politics over economics û despite evidence that democracy initially had only a small role in the economic miracle seen in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and even Japan. On the contrary, countries which adopted democratic conventions too early in their economic development, like the Philippines and India, have done less well than countries that experienced the benefits of economic growth first. Later, cruel and authoritarian states (such as South Korea and Taiwan) saw successful democratic transitions û and he sees no reason why the same should not happen in China.

He believes that whipping up antagonism against ChinaÆs record on human rights is the result of a fossilised Cold War mindset in the US security establishment. Actually, Overholt says there is a disconnect between ChinaÆs easy-to-criticise domestic repressiveness and its immaculate record in international relations: ôChina, prior to 1970 an ideological subverter of most of its neighbours, became a leading promoter of regional stability and by 2006 had resolved all but two of its 14 border conflictsàVietnam followed this change of behaviour.ö

He credits ChinaÆs economic growth with forcing India to see that risking nuclear war with Pakistan would be less productive than following ChinaÆs golden path û ôit seemed possible that South Asia would begin to follow East AsiaÆs lead towards an emphasis on peaceful economic developmentàö - but then adds, in a typical sideswipe against IndiaÆs muddled democracy, that ôthe narrow electoral margins on which continued power depends in a democracy (could) preclude for India the territorial compromises that have stabilised ChinaÆs land borders.ö

Given its bias towards democracy, itÆs not surprising the US is leaning towards Japan to balance China. But pushing Japan to re-assert herself militarily against China (ostensibly as part of the war on terror) has antagonised China and South Korea and scared many of the countries in between. US encouragement of a right-ward shift in Japan pushes former allies away and into each otherÆs arms and, ultimately, will give Japanese nationalists the opportunity to push away the US, too. The resulting posturing makes flashpoints like North Korea and Taiwan far more dangerous.

The successful balance of the later Cold War, whereby the US protected Japan and China from each other, and South Korea from both (while showering economic goodies on all), has thus become seriously skewed.

OverholtÆs book contains a great section on Southeast Asia, where he traces the weakening of US influence to the incompetent ministrations of the International Monetary Fund during the Asian Financial Crisis. That has been exacerbated in Indonesia and Malaysia by the anti-Islamic aspects of the war on terror. He points out that Southeast Asian nations tend to prefer the Chinese to the Japanese since ChinaÆs economy is more open than JapanÆs to Asean goods; Chinese goods, being low-tech, do not threaten regional economies; and China appears less ruthless in imposing its will on the region. And of course, China has no blood on its hands from World War II. Put simply, China is far more in tune with a globalising world than a frustrated and inward-looking Japan.

Unlike Bill EmmottÆs book Rivals, Overholt puts the US at the centre of his argument, rather than assuming that India, China and Japan are already fighting out a pecking order independently. This is clearly the correct approach, and all eyes must now anxiously turn to Washington to see if the harm caused in Asia can be reversed by the next administration.
¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
Share our publication on social media
Share our publication on social media