Peter Tasker

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Review: Asia’s Reckoning


Peter Tasker


Peter Tasker

Published in the Mekong Review November 2017 issue

Asia’s Reckoning: China, the US, Japan and the Struggle for Global Power

by Richard McGregor

Penguin 2017

The current stand-off between North Korea and the United States would be entertaining if it were not so serious. On one side, you have a country of twenty million people with a car-crash of an economy that ranks below Haiti and South Sudan in terms of GDP per head. On the other you have a superpower whose military spending is greater than that of the ten next largest spenders combined.

Yet when U.S President Donald Trump threatens the Kim Jong-un regime with “fire and fury”, North Korea nonchalantly promises to make the U.S. “suffer the greatest pain it ever experienced in its history.”

How did such a state of affairs come to pass? The answer is the attitude of China, North Korea’s key ally and the source of the fuel imports on which it is totally reliant. China could shut the lights off in Pyongyang in a matter of weeks, but chooses not to do so for a number of reasons – not least because the current crisis is very much to its benefit.

If Trump does authorize military action, he will risk mass casualties in South Korea and confirm the worst fears of other Asian countries about American irresponsibility and adventurism. If, on the other hand, he backs down, the contrary impression will stick – that the United States is a “paper tiger” which no longer calls the shots in the region.

There is another alternative. China might co-operate – for example, by sponsoring a more reformist regime in Pyongyang – if it were in its interests to do so. Trump would have to offer a mighty large carrot to make that happen. What would be sufficiently attractive to Beijing? One possibility would be the withdrawal of U.S forces from South Korea. Another would be de facto acceptance of Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The very fact that such scenarios can be mooted speaks volumes about the impact of China’s rise on the balance of power in Asia and the world. The notion that prosperity would make China a more accommodating, helpful and liberal presence on the world stage, as believed by some in Washington in the early years of the century, now seems hopelessly naïve.

In Asia’s Reckoning, Richard McGregor provides a cogent and superbly researched guide to the deep forces that undergird China’s geopolitical strategy and the attempts of two other great powers in the region, the United States and Japan, to deal with it. For make no mistake, it is China that is driving events while the others struggle to respond.

A major turning point comes in 1991. One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years after the bloody crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square, Jiang Zemin issued instructions for a new form of patriotic education. In McGregor’s words, Jiang demanded “a new master-narrative of Chinese history which emphasized China’s bullying and humiliation by foreigners from the mid nineteenth century on”, with a special place in hell reserved for the Japanese.

This narrative has become so familiar by now that it is hard to conceive how transformative (McGregor’s term) it was at the time. From the founding of the People’s Republic onwards, Mao Zedong had presented himself as the victorious communist leader of a victorious communist nation. Its most important enemies were ideological  – Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists in Taiwan, the imperialist United States and, post-1960, the “revisionist” Soviet Union.

As for the Japanese, the game was to entice them away from the clutches of the Americans. Zhou Enlai handled the diplomatic details, but Mao created the framework. In 1954, he told a Japanese delegation “it is not good for a nation to feel constantly guilty and we can understand this point”. In 1960, Mao even thanked a visiting leader of the Japanese Socialist Party for Japan’s invasion of China three decades earlier. In Mao’s formulation, Japan had done “a good thing” by creating the chaotic conditions which would cause the Nationalists to lose credibility and the Communists to gather support.

There was undoubtedly some grim humour in Mao’s mode of expression, but as a true believer in Marx’s scientific socialism, he would have seen nothing strange in the idea that unwitting agents could be instrumental in achieving the “historically inevitable” triumph of communism. Indeed, according to Jung Chang’s biography of Mao, he had believed that “the country must be destroyed and then re-formed” even before he joined the communist party.


From Nanjing to the Senkaku Isles

Mao never mentioned the Nanjing massacre in his writings or speeches. In all likelihood, this was not because he did not know about it, but because it did not register as particularly significant. In the early 1930s, he himself had ordered the deaths – often by public execution or gruesome forms of torture – of tens of thousands of fellow communists whose only crime was to have stood in the way of his ascent to power. The Great Leap Forward, the “classicide” of land-owners, the Cultural Revolution and other purges are believed to have caused 50-80 million deaths.

Chiang Kai Shek never mentioned the Nanjing massacre either, probably for a similar reason. Rana Mitter, Professor of Chinese History at Oxford University, describes Chiang’s tactic of “using water instead of soldiers” by blowing up the Yellow River dykes, thus flooding the surrounding region and impeding the Japanese advance.

“If the Japanese had committed such an act,” Mitter writes. “It would be remembered as the prime atrocity of the war, dwarfing even the Nanjing massacre in the number of people who suffered.”

He estimates that 850,000 died and nearly 7.8 million were left homeless. As a military tactic, it was a complete failure.

Deng Xiao Ping, who opened China to market forces in the post-Mao era, had witnessed all these events. He knew that Mao’s communist economics had been disastrous. If China were to rise again, it would need foreign investment and know-how, which meant friendly relations with rich countries. Japan was especially acceptable because, unlike the United States, it had no interest in proselytizing its cultural and political values

In 1978, several months before visiting the United States and even before the official announcement of his new economic programme, Deng visited Japan. Amongst the eminent figures that he met was Konosuke Matsushita, the legendary founder of the Matsushita (now Panasonic) group.

According to Japanese sources at the meeting, Deng stated “I hear you are known as the god of management. I would like you to help us with the modernization of the Chinese economy.”

“We’d be honoured to help as best we can,” was Matsushita’s response. A year later he met Deng again, this time in China, on the occasion of the opening of Matsushita’s branch office in Beijing. In 1987, Matsushita became the first Japanese company to set up a manufacturing facility in China. Many others followed.

Deng had every reason to feel pleased with the results of his strategy. He told visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone “friendly relations between Japan and China must continue into the 21st century and then 22nd, 23rd, 33rd and 43rd century.”  Nakasone was an ardent nationalist who had commanded Japanese troops in the Philippines and recounted in his autobiography how he had set up a “comfort station” (military brothel) to keep his men from molesting local women. He strongly favoured higher defence spending. None of that mattered a jot to the arch-pragmatist Deng.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century to 2012 and Matsushita’s China factory is in flames, having being targeted by politically-directed rioters protesting Japan’s policy towards the disputed Senkaku Isles, known in China as the Diaoyu. Jiang Zemin’s patriotic education drive has achieved its intended purpose.

Anti-Japan riots in 2012 Anti-Japan riots in 2012

The Present Creates the Past (Not the Other Way Round)

It is dispiriting, but salutary to read McGregor’s scrupulous account of how Chinese journalists and thinkers who took a more nuanced view of contemporary Japan were hounded out of their careers while scurrilous falsehoods peddled by an anti-Japanese mountebank gained currency. An attempt to create a joint Chinese-Japanese modern history research project fell apart when it became clear that the senior Chinese scholar had to toe the party line. There could be no questioning of fake history, such as the notion that Mao’s communist forces had defeated the Japanese when in fact they had barely engaged with them and even, according to Jung Chang, supplied them with vital intelligence.

Almost as dispiriting is the belief of U.S. officials, including George W. Bush, John Kerry and Barack Obama, that regional tensions would relax if Japan became more contrite about its historical misdeeds. In fact, the Senkaku / Diaoyu-related rioting  – the worst anti-Japanese violence in modern times – took place under the administration not of the hawkish Shinzo Abe, but of the China-friendly Democratic Party of Japan.

The take-home from McGregor’s detailed analysis of the dramatic shift in China’s Japan policy is that historical grievances do not create contemporary geopolitical conflicts. Rather, the reverse is true. Contemporary geopolitical conflicts create the historical grievances. McGregor describes encounters with high-level Chinese officials and academics that makes it clear that nothing Japan does short of applying to become a Chinese vassal state will ever suffice.

Three quarters of a century ago Japan invaded a lot of Asian countries and did a lot of damage. Most of them – with the exception of South Korea, which has its own master-narrative –  buried the hatchet long ago. One of the first was the Taiwan of Chiang Kai Shek, whose Nationalist forces actually did the fighting against the Japanese forces in China and incurred terrible losses.

Indonesia dating back to Sukarno, Malaysia dating back to Mahathir, the Philippines, contemporary Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar are amongst the countries that enjoy good relations with Japan with little reference to past transgressions. History is not a given set of facts, but an ever-shifting set of perspectives. Prevailing national interests can change it for the better, as well as for the worse.

In a sense, Jiang was as far-sighted as Deng. He realised that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen student protests, China’s attempt to couple economic reform with communist party control was doomed to the same fate as Gorbachev’s perestroika. A patriotic master-narrative was essential to re-establish party legitimacy. Demonization of Japan, rival in the regional power struggle and key ally of the United States, was an indispensable element.

Richard McGregor’s book is a compelling read for anyone who wants to understand the struggle for hegemony in Asia, which is likely to be the defining geopolitical contest of the next half-century.


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