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Uncertain times, a changing order

Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century by Gideon Rachman (The Bodley Head, 255pp), $22.50

At an Asia-Pacific gathering in Vietnam in 2010, China’s then-foreign minister told assembled diplomats they should watch their step when it came to their territorial disputes with Beijing.

“China,” Yang Ziechi told them bluntly, “is a big country. And you are all small countries. And that is a fact.”

Yang’s brusque warning marked a distinct departure from China’s previous stance in how it dealt with the outside world, which was defined decades earlier by Deng Xiaoping in his famous “hide and bide” phrase: “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.”

As Gideon Rachman points out in his superb new book Easternisation, Yang’s words felt to some diplomats “like the moment when China’s mask had finally slipped. ‘Hide and bide’ was giving way to something much tougher.”

Events over the past six years have served only to cement that impression. Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan – to say nothing of Taiwan – are among those that have felt the impact of a more forceful China. Other nations, particularly those in strategic locations (Pakistan and Sri Lanka), those at the heart of regional groupings (Cambodia within ASEAN, for instance), or those with valuable resources have seen a more generous and engaging Beijing.

What all of these countries are seeing – some for better, some for worse – is a China that is reaching out into the world as it hasn’t done in centuries. Yet, Rachman says, that should come as little surprise.

“Given China’s history, size and economic dynamism,” he writes, “it was always likely that the policy of ‘hide and bide’ would give way to something much more assertive.”

When it comes to global current affairs, few journalists have Rachman’s breadth of experience. A foreign correspondent for the Economist for 15 years in Bangkok, Brussels and Washington, DC, he is now the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times.

His book covers far more than the standard “China rising” narrative: it couples this with a West in (relative) decline after centuries of political, military and economic dominance. And it assesses the threats and opportunities that this global rebalancing could have on nations in Asia and beyond – masterfully weaving in the decline of European power; the appearance of a more assertive, eastward-looking Russia; the increasing importance of Africa, which has received significant investment from China in the past decade; and, not least, the collapse of countries in the Middle East, a situation that continues to undermine the US’s so-called “pivot to Asia”.

“The fate of the Middle East in the Obama years illustrated an important point about Easternisation,” he writes. “America’s relative decline is just part of a bigger phenomenon – which is the relative decline of Western power as a whole.”

As Rachman points out, the West still holds some key advantages, including legal, trade and banking institutions that cannot easily be replicated. But these will not last forever, he warns, particularly if the West’s slippage continues.

Although Rachman is the first to admit that the future is impossible to predict, his analyses are sober, wide-ranging and well thought-out. And, as you might expect from a journalist with his pedigree, his book manages to be both succinct and comprehensive. Easternisation is an intelligent, well-written book aimed at a general readership that will interest anyone keen to glimpse what the 21st century might hold.

Easternisation will be available at Monument Books from September 30.



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