Nicholas Gordon interviews Gideon Rachman, author of Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline From Obama to Trump and Beyond.
I think we’re coming to the end of about 500 years of Western domination of world affairs.
Could I ask you to quickly summarize the argument of your book? What is Easternization as a phenomenon?
I think we’re coming to the end of about 500 years of Western domination of world affairs. It begins with the European Imperial Age in the late 1400s with Columbus, Vasco de Gama and the other big names of exploration and probably peaks in European terms at the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the European empires were at their peak. It continues throughout the Twentieth Century when America takes over as the dominant power after 1945. Even the Soviet Union, which was their competitor, is a European power. The whole world outside the West, outside Europe and the United States, finds itself shaped by the West’s actions. That’s the era of Westernization, when the West is economically, politically and culturally dominant.
We’re coming to the end of that era. There are many causes, but I think the most important of them is the very dramatic economic growth in Asia, which was significant enough when it took place just in Japan, South Korea or Southeast Asia. But when it reaches gigantic countries like China and India, it’s a game-changer for not just the world economy, but also increasingly for international politics. Just as how the world Westernized in the era of maximum Western power, I think that, at least politically and I think in time culturally, you will see much more power coming out of Asia.
That’s what I mean by Easternization. The world will adapt and be shaped by events in this part of the world, in the same way that places in this part of the world were shaped by events in the West.
Americans, because they’re very attached to their superpower status, are in denial about what’s going on.
The target reader for Easternization seems to me to be a Western reader, perhaps one that doesn’t know what is happening out here, or maybe thinks that Asia’s rise will not ultimately threaten America’s or the West’s preeminence. What should readers in this part of the world, who experience the events you’re talking about first-hand, think about this phenomenon?
To pick up on your first point: it may seem very self-evident here, but I think a lot of people—certainly Americans, because they’re very attached to their superpower status—are in denial about what’s going on. I was very interested in the reviews in America which, by and large, were not hostile. But, for example, Jessica Mathews in the New York Review of Books essentially said “he’s wrong, this isn’t happening, Western dominance is going to continue forever” and she’s the head of one of their major think tanks. That’s a characteristic Western reaction. There’s a kind of comprehension gap between East and West, and what seems self-evident here is still denied there. It’s quite interesting.
I think readers here in Asia will have very different reactions. I think a whole new world of opportunities, and potentially dangerous challenges, are opening up for countries here. I think countries like India and China, which probably are the emergent countries because they’re so vast, are understandably also quite inward-looking. It’s a big country syndrome: it’s also true of the United States. They’ve got so many challenges at home and so much politics to pre-occupy themselves with, so they, outside of a fairly select circle, don’t think very much about their country’s global role.
But I think that certainly among the Chinese leadership, there’s a slightly impressive, at times chilling, deliberateness about the way they’re proceeding. At an elite level, they have thought quite hard about how to manage the rise of China without provoking conflict with the West, while still keeping a steady trajectory towards what Xi calls the “Great Resurgence of the Chinese people”. I think Xi’s view of that is often focused on living standards, but it also has a fairly distinct external aspect.
I think one of the interesting things about Easternization and the rise of the East is that there isn’t a single “East”, so the rise of China is challenging to India and Japan, perhaps more than it is to the United States. I think in the near-term a lot of the Asian powers are going to be thinking less about achieving some sort of global standing and more about how they manage their internal disputes. It’s worth noting that the era of European pre-eminence was also marked by endless wars between the European powers—and ultimately ended by wars between the European powers.
The Americans have no intentions of retreating.
Most discussions of US-China relations seem to flit between two extremes. Either it’s going to be conflict or Cold War, or a complete American retreat from East Asia and China taking its place. Are there any plausible scenarios, any peaceful (though not necessarily stable) configurations between those two?
I actually think the most plausible scenario is somewhere in between. Both sides are not naïve about the dangers of the atom bomb in the nuclear age, so they will try very hard to avoid the “war” scenario.
I also think the Americans have no intentions of retreating. Even Donald Trump, who is in some ways the most isolationist President they’ve ever had, like most Americans of his generation has an instinctive sense that America has to be the pre-eminent power, including in the Pacific because they understand the significance of this part of the world to the global economy. I think what you’ll probably get—something that would suit China and may even suit the Americans in some ways—is a gradual accretion of power towards China without there ever being a decisive moment where you think America’s out, or on its way out.
There have been moments where people think that things are changing. We’ve had a couple quite recently. In the tail-end of the Obama years, the way in which China could expand its islands in the South China Sea and turn them into essentially military bases without an effective American military response was noticed all over the world. You saw the Filipinos reacting to that and moving towards China afterwards. I also think China’s successful effort to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite American efforts to essentially block it is important. And I think Trump’s action in pulling America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the major trade deal that Obama had spent so long working on with Shinzo Abe and others—was taken as evidence in this part of the world of America pulling back, in retreat. You’ll probably get more such events which gradually over time (or maybe not so gradually) create the impression of where power’s going.
But it’s also worth remembering that a lot of the world-changing events in the last thirty years that reshaped people’s views of things were unexpected, so there could be a big surprise. Nobody was predicting the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11, six months beforehand.
There could be some internal political event in China that reshapes perceptions. But my view is that even though China is probably unstable, that won’t block its rise.
In terms of China’s attempts to reshape the global order: one can think of “weak” and “strong” forms of this, where the weak form suggests that China wants to have a greater say in the current world order, and the “strong” form is that China wants to wholly replace or remake it. Which is one of these at this point seems more likely?
I would imagine there’s a debate going on in China. There was a kind of “internationalist” school in China, which was quite close to the American school pioneered by an American political scientist called John Ikenberry, who argued that the current world order, although created by the Americans, was conducive to China’s rise. The current order sponsored China’s rise, so why would they act to overturn it? Professor Wang Jisi at Peking University was perhaps one of the most prominent proponents of that.
I think that school is losing ground in China, as far as I understand it. Some of these institutions—the WTO and so on—are ones that China strongly supports, but China certainly would want to remake other forms of the global architecture. I don’t think China looks at the network of American alliances in the Pacific, which they see as increasingly blocking its rise, as something that’s good. They also see Western-backed financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which are based in Washington, and hence something like the Beijing-based AIIB is of interest to them.
I think to some extent it depends on the institutions in question. Because they’re pragmatic, the Chinese won’t just say they’re going to rip everything up in a “Global Cultural Revolution” where it’s Year Zero. I think they will say that they still like some of the global order, and some of it needs to change.
In an earlier answer, you mentioned that America is not looking to wholly retreat from East Asia. America’s presence not just here, but globally, seems to be somewhat stickier than the Trump Administration believed, despite everything they’re saying. Ian Buruma in the New Yorker review of your book and a few others suggested that perhaps America is stuck. It must stay in East Asia because its allies aren’t ready to do things themselves, but they will never be ready so long as America stays. Does the current security framework perhaps prevent progress towards some hypothetically better system?
I think we won’t know if it’s progress until it’s replaced and we see whether it works. But I think there’s a number of things that prevent progress.
You’re right about the security framework, but it reflects other things: it reflects history, it reflects continuing interests. For example, for historical reasons Japan still has big issues over the use of force. It’s very difficult to rewrite the Constitution. America’s commitment to the US-Japan Alliance reflects the sort of stickiness you referred to. So even if Trump at some level thinks that “the Japanese are exploiting us, they’re being defended for free”, it’d be very hard to imagine that America would actually rip up the Japan-America security alliance. It’s been around a long time. Similarly, Korea’s reliance on America reflects the division on the Korean Peninsula.
There is now with the North Korean crisis and this background sense that America may be on its way out a re-opening of these debates, but in really quite a tentative way, with Abe’s attempt to rewrite the Constitution. There’s now some discussion that maybe Korea and Japan might go nuclear in response to North Korea’s nuclear program, but I think that’s still a long way off.
Could be famous last words!
Power’s often about belief, isn’t it?
People have often over-estimated the actual ability and power of superpowers. This was true of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. People both outside and inside America definitely over-estimate the power of the United States. Do we run the risk of over-estimating the ability of China and perhaps other rising Asian powers to project power and effect change?
I think that power’s often about belief, isn’t it? America is powerful because people believe it’s powerful. I mean, obviously there’s back-up to it, but it’s why Americans talk about credibility.
For China: North Korea’s a good example. Can they really change North Korea? They probably could collapse the regime if they were really intent on doing that, but it would be such a dangerous action it’s really a non-option. They’re limited in what they can do. But their power is growing, there’s no doubt about that.
I think the Chinese are very adept at using economic power — partly because they’re so blunt about it. They will make it very clear that Chinese investment and largesse can be turned on or off depending on your political relationship with China, in a way that Western powers tend not to do. If the West has a collapse in a relationship – like with Iran, for example – you will have sanctions and so on. But economic leverage is not used to mold a kind of normal relationship in saying “we’ll just withdraw from this contract, or we won’t see you for a couple of years, if you see the Dalai Lama.” The Chinese use it as an incentive very effectively, as with One Belt, One Road. Economic leverage has become quite an effective main instrument of Chinese power in its use of the sheer power of the Chinese economy.
There’s a lot of hype and discussion around One Belt, One Road. China likes to present it as their way to change the game in Central Asia. Is this hype justified or is this a lot of good money being thrown after bad?
Well, we’ll see over the course of the next decade. But I think, as your question suggests, something can be both over-hyped and important. There’s clearly a sense that because Xi Jinping himself has closely identified with it, and because he’s such a dominant figure in Chinese discourse, they will hype it at every opportunity. It’s his thing.
I think it is potentially a significant turning point in a number of ways. One, it underlines the extent to which China is now becoming an exporter of capital and investment, after having grown in its early years as an importer of foreign direct investment and foreign capital. There is also this whole question of surplus capacity and whether China feels the need to export in a rather classic way. I think it was Lenin’s theory of imperialism that argued that countries developed too much capacity at home and therefore had to expand abroad. I’m not suggesting it’s an empire, but maybe it’s an informal version.
Also, the geopolitical implications of OBOR are very obvious, and quite concerning to the Indians, for example, who quite noticeably did not send a top representative to Beijing. I think they feel—as maybe the Russians probably feel to some extent—that China is expanding into their hinterland.
China’s investments abroad have been sometimes unflatteringly labeled as “neo-colonialism”. Is that a label that is justified, or is it exaggerated? Do China’s recent investments abroad fit into an existing historical pattern?
It probably is unhelpful. It’s obviously a loaded term, and one the Chinese resist for understandable reasons. It’s not colonial in the sense that there is no formal attempt to colonize. The Chinese would just say “it’s just foreign investment.” It’s no more colonial than, say, American investments in Asia.
But there also comes a point where investment is so powerful that it leads to political power. It creates a desire for some sort of power to protect the investment, and I think China has reached that stage in Africa. It’s quite noticeable that China’s first overseas naval base is in Africa, in Djibouti. It’s probably not for power projection, but nonetheless it tells you something about China’s growing power.
There’s an anecdote I quite like because it’s symbolic of what’s going on. When Obama, a President with African origins, goes to speak to the Organization of African Unity in Addis Adaba, he understandably makes a big fuss over his African heritage. The OAU hall that he was speaking in was built by the Chinese. I thought it was a rather keen illustration of the power of money versus the power of symbolism.
The Chinese have some fairly acid responses to Western accusations of imperialism.
Perhaps it’s that Chinese investments are no worse than Western investments, but also no better?
The Chinese have some fairly acid responses to Western accusations of imperialism. I’ve seen them. They’d say, “You’ve enslaved these countries, colonized them, and now you accuse us of exploiting them?” To some extent it’s a fair response.
But you have seen a backlash in parts of Africa against Chinese investment, partly focused on how China often in construction projects bring in Chinese workers [as opposed to using local labor]. Or partly because the Chinese way of doing business is to not really care about things like the political character of the government, nor to try to enforce governance reforms. This is very much in line with their non-interference doctrine as applied to their own domestic state. That might mean that they’re very popular with the government of Sudan or Ethiopia, but not with the democratic positions.
In this region, we’ve seen Cambodia and Thailand turn towards China. Myanmar is still flitting back and forth depending on the situation. The argument is that authoritarian countries are turning to China as a “no-strings-attached” source of investment and capital. How reliable will these countries be as allies to China? And from the Western perspective, should the West change its approach towards supporting democracies and pushing back against authoritarian states or, perhaps, double-down on it?
I’m not sure what the right policy from the Western point of view is. I’ve seen it argued either way. I’ve seen Western officials say “Look, we’re pushing Thailand into the arms of the Chinese by being so hardline about the restoration of democracy there.” That we end up repelling the people currently running Thailand when we denounce them.
The alternative is that, if you take a long-term view, you potentially alienate people in the country if you back a regime that may not have staying power and has a bad reputation among the people. To take a European analogy, America is still paying the price in Greece for having backed the colonels in the 70s which set up a long-term anti-American sentiment there.
I don’t think there is a simple right answer to it.
And how reliable will these countries be as allies to China?
Not totally. Something I’d like to go back and look at more closely is what happened in Sri Lanka. The Chinese were very much in with the Rajapaksas, who were the dominant political family—very corrupt, pretty violent. They eventually lose power in an election to a group that runs against China, and probably gets some help from India (who is a little upset by the expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka). But then, from what I understand, the new government fairly quickly found it impractical to kick the Chinese out of the port they built, and that they needed the Chinese money. They then come to an accommodation with China and don’t adopt the radically anti-Chinese policies that they’d hinted at.
That maybe suggests that everyone’s going to have to accommodate China to some extent. They may have been unhappy with how China has behaved in the past in their own countries, but because of the sheer power of the Chinese economy they can’t afford to have a very negative relationship.
Being in Hong Kong, we’re very focused on China. China would very much like to be seen as the vanguard of this new Asian Century. But where do other Asian countries fit in this model? What wiggle room do other Asian powers, and smaller regional powers—say Vietnam or Indonesia—have?
I think the only other power who is large enough to aspire to be a great power and believes that it will be one in the 21st century is India. In particular, backers of Modi have an almost Chinese sense of destiny about what’s going to happen in the next century and confidence in the future.
The intermediate powers all have slightly different situations. For the Japanese, the outcome is quite alarming, with their historical antagonism with China and their shrinking population. Similarly, for Vietnam: their historic rival is actually not the United States, but China. How do they respond to that? They seem to have gone backwards and forwards, and so there’s not a clear answer.
I think most of the intermediate powers are at a stage now where, at some level, they would like the United States to hang around as a balancer. It’s the only plausible balancer to China at the moment. But they’re not really confident that will always be the case, so they’re hedging their bets. They’re trying to encourage an American presence but in the back of their minds they are thinking that they can’t antagonize China too much.
Given the unknowability of the future, that’s the probably the only sensible strategy.
One can make an argument that before, say, ten years ago, the Anglo-American narrative of history explained things pretty well. Industrialization and capitalism led to more mass democracy which then led to globalization, internationalism, multilateralism. And then Asia’s rise seems to challenge this narrative. Japan and South Korea developed in different ways than the West. China obviously challenges the narrative. I think India does to some extent as well. What might we have missed in trying to apply a history based on Western experiences to this part of the world?
A lot. I think that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the West entered a very understandable period of triumphalism, because they had triumphed. But they missed that, in the background, there was this Asian economic development that was undermining Western power even in its moment of triumph.
To the extent that they did notice it in the 1990s, they told themselves a story derived from what had just happened in Eastern Europe about how economic development was linked to democracy. Maybe in the first stage countries could grow very fast without a democratic system, but in the long run a sophisticated modern economy would have to become democratic.
This story was applied to China, saying that we could relax about the rise of China because they were going to have to make a choice. They would probably choose economic development and democracy and therefore would lead to a kind of convergence. This meant that the rise of China would not be that threatening to us.
There is a sense in Asia of a historical balance being readjusted
I think they missed a couple of things. First of all, they were overconfident about the extent to which China will change politically. China had a very different 1989. People missed the extent to which China and other Asian countries’ view of their own history would to some extent inevitably place them at odds with the established powers in the West—whatever kind of government was in place—because their interpretation of history is they were exploited by the West. China has its “Century of Humiliation”. Even the Indians, who are still in a democratic system, are very conscious of colonialism and imperialism. Modi has at times (and not very seriously) suggested that Britain should pay reparations to India for imperialism.
There is a sense in Asia of a historical balance being readjusted, and that creates all sorts of questions, both about the West’s rather rosy view of its own role in world history and about the durability of the West’s period of dominance. I think those questions are perhaps now being asked, but they weren’t asked for about twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.