||The danger in Asia|
Corriere della Sera - January 9th 2007
Europe tends to view Asia as if through one eye at a time. In the 1980s, it consisted of the Japanese threat to European industry. In the 1990s and for much of this decade, it consisted of the Chinese threat to European industry, or was it the Chinese opportunity? For the past couple of years, it has at least become a little broader, as India has been added either to the threat, or the opportunity, as some have come to relish the idea of a Chinese challenge to American “hegemony”, and as a dim awareness has spread that Japan has been recovering from its more-than-decade-long economic stagnation. Yet in truth, something much bigger is emerging in Asia, and it is something Europe needs to be aware of, with both eyes fully open. It involves all three of those great countries: Japan, China and India.
Think about Asia’s history. For hundreds of years, China was the clear top dog in the region. But then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, its imperial system fell into a complacent, inward-looking decay. Its place as top dog was taken by outside powers, either from Europe or from former European colonies: mainly Britain but also the Netherlands, France and eventually America. Japan made an attempt in the mid-20th century to oust the Europeans and become the regional hegemon itself, but it failed, a failure marked symbolically by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Since then, America has been the leading power in Asia.
Look what is now emerging. The one-eyed view, still common both in Europe and America, is that the new Asia is becoming centred on China, that China will re-emerge as the top dog, with the biggest economy, the biggest military force and the biggest population. Yet that view ignores the two other very big economies, both with big military forces, with big ideas about their global and regional roles and, in one case, with a population that is likely to overtake China’s in a few decades’ time. Those countries, of course, are India and Japan. What is emerging in Asia has no historical precedent in that region. It is a situation not with one top dog, or great power, but three.
Many of the things that are happening in Asia become explicable or understandable once this three-way rivalry is brought into view. In December, the new Japanese government forced through parliament a bill requiring schools to teach patriotism and traditional Japanese values. Why? Because fear of being dominated by China is leading right-wing politicians to try to foster more nationalism. A month earlier, when the Chinese and Indian leaders were about to meet for a summit, the Chinese ambassador to Delhi shocked his hosts by stating that China continued to claim sovereignty over the whole of the small Indian mountain state of Arunachal Pradesh, an area over which China and India fought a war in 1962. Why? To show India, which has recently been seeking a greater political influence in East Asia, beyond the Indian Ocean, that China is not to be pushed around.
There is, in other words, a natural rivalry between these three great powers, about which all three are keenly aware. It is not a rivalry that is likely to lead to imminent conflict. China and India both desperately need economic growth first, to lift their populations out of poverty. Yet it is a rivalry that makes the region vulnerable if some other unexpected crisis should occur: a collapse of the regime in North Korea, for example; or a terrorist overthrow of the Pakistani government; or a deep recession in America that brought on an economic crisis in China. For this region has no real structure of treaties and institutions through which to channel disputes. And the political rivalries between the three great powers could easily turn, at such moments, into outright hostility.
What are the implications for Europe, if Europe takes a broad, two-eyed view of Asia? One is opportunist: Europe need not be a supplicant to the emerging power of China; instead it should recognise that it has leverage, for its support and technology and investment is needed by all three rivals. The other is educational: what Asia needs is to find a way to copy the post-war European achievement, of using the European Union as a way to make great-power rivalry constructive rather than destructive. Europe’s great strategic mission should be to show Asia how to copy—and, where necessary, adapt—the European model.