Three's a Crowd

Is a collision among Asia's rising powers inevitable?

Reviewed by Nayan Chanda
Sunday, June 29, 2008; Page BW04


How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade

By Bill Emmott

Harcourt. 342 pp. $26

Asia's re-emergence has been a long time coming. Before the industrial revolution, India and China accounted for nearly half of the world's output of manufactured goods. After a long hiatus scarred by colonial rule, two bloody world wars, civil strife and revolutionary upheavals, the continent began its painful crawl back to the forefront of the world economy. Japan had already emerged from the ashes of war to become a leading economic power by the 1980s, at which point Deng Xiaoping set China on its amazing trajectory. In 1991, with national bankruptcy looming, India also undertook free-market reforms.

Numerous books, from William H. Overholt's The Rise of China (1993) to Peter Engardio's Chindia: How China and India are Revolutionizing Global Business (2006), have expressed breathless enthusiasm over Asia's rising powers. Yet others, such as Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro's The Coming Conflict with China (1997), have foreseen disasters just around the corner, from regional conflict to environmental catastrophe to war with the United States. In Rivals, Bill Emmott splits the difference, offering a sober, nuanced assessment of the opportunities and dangers that Asia's rise presents. Two-handed economists -- those who relentlessly deliver optimistic and pessimistic scenarios about everything -- are boring. But because so much writing about Asia is either celebratory or alarmist, this cautious, hedging, not-sure-how-it-will-turn-out book is refreshing.

Emmott, a former Tokyo correspondent and editor of the Economist, starts by noting an important U.S. foreign policy achievement that has been overlooked in the general dismay over the war in Iraq. He credits the Bush administration for spotting the shifting regional balance produced by China's phenomenal economic growth and for embracing India as a counterweight. Though lacking the drama of Nixon's 1972 visit to China, the (yet to be implemented) U.S.-India nuclear agreement, he says, was "an act of grand strategic importance."

Emmott proceeds to explore the dynamics of economic and demographic change in China, Japan and India. In his view, ancient rivalries and mutual suspicions among the Asian powers, aggravated by their expanding populations, could spoil the happy march toward prosperity. Although Asia may not be in a full-fledged arms race, he says, it is certainly in a "strategic-insurance-policy race," in which China's military spending has been rising 18 percent a year and India's has been going up 8 percent. "It will be quite a surprise if China does not have aircraft carriers by 2020 or so," he notes, "and India has already announced that it will have at least three."

Japan, too, would be building up its military insurance policy if it did not have constitutional constraints on its armed forces and a close military alliance with the United States. But "the main problem in Asia," Emmott concludes, "is fear and suspicion of China. It is not going to go away." So what should be done to avoid conflict?

Emmott offers a series of recommendations for the United States, the European Union and the rising Asian powers, some of which may strike readers as worthy goals that have little practical chance of attainment. The next U.S. administration, he says, should negotiate a new nuclear non-proliferation treaty -- "one that India, Pakistan and Israel can be persuaded to sign." Also, the United States and the European Union should urgently "scrap or reform all the top organizations of global governance in which China, India and Japan are not properly and fully represented," including the Group of Eight leading industrial countries, the U.N. Security Council, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Japan, with help from its former enemies, should leave behind its bitter history and acknowledge its wartime atrocities. India should rise above its suspicion of its neighbors and develop cooperative relations. China's "main weakness is its authoritarian, unaccountable and sometimes brutal political system," he says, "but it would waste space to recommend that that system be changed." Instead, Emmott urges Beijing to be more transparent about its decisions because "by keeping so much secret . . . China encourages other countries to believe it has a lot to hide."

Emblematic of the fine balance of this book is Emmott's observation that armed conflict among Asia's rivals is "not inevitable but nor is it inconceivable." Sketching a "plausibly pessimistic" scenario, he suggests that an economic downturn and popular discontent could lead the Chinese Communist Party to wrap itself in the flag of nationalism and slide into conflict with neighbors over Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, Tibet or Pakistan. But he thinks there is also reason for "credible optimism." With encouragement from the rest of the world, the Asian powers could lift millions more people out of poverty with their dynamism, innovation and faith in a unifying religion: money. ยท

Nayan Chanda is the author of "Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company