Here There Be Dragons

Review: Michael R. Auslin, 'The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World's Most Dynamic Region'

Skyline of Puxi, Huangpu River and the Lujiazui Financial District in Shanghai, China / AP

Michael R. Auslin describes his valuable new book as a "bearish" account of the prospects for a forthcoming Asian Century. A decade ago this would also have been a contrarian analysis, but not in 2017. As Auslin notes, "Today the zeitgeist has changed dramatically, and everyone from military planners to business leaders now accepts that the risks to Asia's future are real." Thank goodness for that, on multiple counts. However disconcerting the new forecast for the Indo-Pacific—the term Auslin prefers—we can at least celebrate the diminishment of progressive affection for Asian autocracies, which seemed to be based on the belief that at least they made the high-speed trains run on time.

Dense with useful insights, this volume is an impressive synthesis of research, interviews, and some on-the-ground reporting. At one point Auslin is rolling around Hanoi on the back of a motor scooter at high speed. At another he is crouched in a tunnel dug by North Korea to infiltrate Seoul, staring through a series of barriers into the subterranean reaches of the Hermit Kingdom. Having crouched in the same tunnel myself, I can attest that the experience is an excellent summation of the surreal nature of life in South Korea.

After the tunnel (one among several) was discovered and plugged up, its southern access point near the DMZ was opened to tourists. When I visited, the facility was crowded with high-spirited busloads of visitors. It even has a gift shop. Not many miles to the south, life in very modern, quite wealthy Seoul proceeds, and it is possible to forget for a few hours at a time (much longer for locals, I expect) that its concrete and glass would be pulverized in the opening days of any peninsular conflict by the North's artillery. Thousands of tubes are apparently oriented on the Seoul area. There is no effective countermeasure to massed artillery fire.

A regional war is obviously the most serious risk to Asia's future—and to the world's, as the consequences of such a conflict would be unlikely to remain local. Auslin's account includes a discussion of security flashpoints, but also takes readers on a tour of several other categories of risk, namely: the possibility of an acute economic slowdown; the "Goldilocks problem" in Asian demographics—some countries have too much population growth, others have too little, and China is shifting violently from the former to the latter; domestic political instability in the region's most important states; and the lack of sufficient architecture for regional community on the order of a NATO or European Union.

Few of the problems Auslin outlines are without solutions, but those solutions would require profound shifts in local attitudes—no easy task. For example, it seems obvious to American observers that cooperation among the region's democracies is an obvious first step away from the post-war "hub-and-spoke" system of Pacific security and toward a multilateral, liberal regional order. Then said observers have to confront the fact that large portions of two of the key countries required for any such cooperation—South Korea and Japan—despise each other at least as much as they do their common adversaries. By the same token, the obvious solution to an excess of humanity here, and a shortage there, would seem to be immigration. But the latent (to be kind) xenophobia and racialism in much of the region stands in the way of such an approach. (Though necessity may yet prove to be the mother of attitude adjustment: A senior Japanese official told me last year that, while significant increases in permanent immigration were not on Tokyo's near-term radar, it was much more a topic of discussion than would have been possible only a few years earlier.)

Time will tell whether Auslin's proposals for dealing with all of this have been overcome by events. (The book was written before the November election, the subsequent demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the full manifestation of Rodrigo Duterte's populism, among other relevant developments.) In Auslin's view, the continued prosperity of Asia, or at least the prevention of catastrophe there, is critical to America's own prospects—and America should continue to lead in order to forestall disaster.

Like most right-leaning national security scholars, Auslin is underwhelmed by the Obama administration's "pivot" in practice but supportive of increased engagement in the region. He notes of his own proposals for such that "it is of little use to argue that the goal of this strategy is not to contain China." Auslin would establish two concentric "triangles" of cooperation, the outer consisting of the region's democracies (India, South Korea, Japan, and Australia) and the inner consisting of key maritime players in the region's core (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore, "with participation by Thailand and outreach to Vietnam.")

Such arrangements would not be an "inflexible new alliance system" but a looser "community of interest." The outer group would hold regular summits and divide responsibilities for regional leadership among them. The inner group would have more modest goals, including joint patrols with the U.S. Navy to promote, ahem, "maritime safety."

It all sounds very reasonable, even if complicated by significant obstacles—like the seductive appeal of the Chinese economy to our allies—that will require leadership, investment, and luck to overcome. Of course, in addition to these triangles of security cooperation, Auslin also proposes increased economic liberalization and the encouragement of political liberalization, along with more trade and a loosening of caps on the immigration of high-skilled workers to the United States. I look forward to a new afterword in the paperback edition—or perhaps a long journal article before then—examining how such an approach might have to bend in the wake of this year's profound changes in American politics.