Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade, by Bill Emmott (Harcourt, 352 pp., $26)

History, Bill Emmott writes, may well remember George W. Bush as the American president who sealed a treaty between the U.S. and the world’s largest democracy: India. This is just one of many fresh and unexpected observations in Emmott’s new book, Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade. The deal that Bush signed in 2006 with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh cast aside 40 years of hostility and suspicion between the two countries, and ended a decade of tension over India’s nuclear tests, by formalizing an agreement to collaborate on civil nuclear energy. Emmott, until recently the editor of The Economist and its longtime Japan correspondent, compares Bush’s trip to India with the opening of relations between the U.S. and China in the early seventies. Time will tell whether Bush and India are someday linked the way Richard Nixon and China are today.

While Emmott concedes the importance of the Middle East, especially after 9/11, he emphasizes that the most important long-term trend in world affairs remains the shift in economic and political power to Asia. This transformation will play out over many presidencies after Bush’s, bringing Asia a much greater say in world affairs. China and India, for example, could overtake the United States as the world’s largest economies between 2020 and 2050, though neither nation will have living standards anywhere near those in the U.S. or Western Europe. Meanwhile, the Japanese have attained wealth on a par with the Americans’ and assume—perhaps optimistically—that they can maintain their standard of living.

On its road to prosperity, Asia could face many stumbling blocks, domestic and international. At the heart of the Asian drama, Emmott writes, is that the region’s three most powerful countries are at odds with one another. The Japanese and Chinese have 1,000 years of hatred between them, and India and China distrust one another. Without the stabilizing effect of America’s military presence in Asia (which Emmott tends to undervalue), these countries probably would be at war. Japan and India—along with smaller countries in the region, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam—feel threatened by the unpredictable Beijing regime. China provides political and economic support to India’s enemies, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, and sells them arms, while the Chinese themselves feel besieged by Japan and India—now both allied with the Americans.

Emmott is a strong believer in reducing international tensions through better communication and trade, following the European model. He sees the World Trade Organization as the best vehicle for boosting economic activity among Asian countries. Communication on political and security issues seems more problematic: no Asian organization compares with the European Union, and no fully functioning security forum exists in Asia. Emmott suggests that the United States help develop the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into an organization that imposes greater obligations on its members. Here again, he believes that Europe offers a good model.

Emmott tempers his optimism, however, by noting Asia’s cultural and political diversity. He freely admits that Asia is a European concept, an abstract unity of very different people who do not necessarily share strong affinities. India, China, and Japan have different political regimes and various domestic uncertainties. The aging of Japan’s population could erase its economic dynamism. India’s weak central government could degenerate into chaos. Above all, the complete lack of transparency of the Chinese political system makes Asia’s future difficult to predict.

Emmott’s elegantly written book is full of colorful anecdotes and vivid characters that help illustrate his broader themes. The author introduces Kishore Mahbubani, for example, the Singapore scholar who conceived of and promotes the concept of “Asian values.” On the darker side, we also meet a Chinese ambassador who is eminently civilized until the subject of Taiwan comes up—upon which he bangs on the table and screams that he is ready to die for the motherland. Rivals is the best synthesis we have of the conflicts among rising powers in Asia; it is recommended reading for Western leaders, scholars, and businesspeople.


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