Michael R. Auslin, The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 304 pp., $30.00.
MICHAEL R. Auslin opens his book with a preface entitled “The Asia that Nobody Sees.” He might better have entitled it “Hiding in Plain Sight.” For far too long, but especially during the Obama years, policymakers chose to focus on Asia’s remarkable economic growth, coupled with an era of relative peace. Too often they overlooked economic, demographic, social, political and military tensions that did not lurk all that far below Asia’s shiny surface.
Barack Obama, who spent part of his formative years in Indonesia, was a leading cheerleader for the concept of the Asian century. He seemed to care little about Europe and preferred to avoid the troubles of the Middle East as much as possible. He embraced the notion of a rising Asia that soon would constitute America’s most vital interests. It was in that spirit, too, that Hillary Clinton announced the “pivot to Asia,” which was meant to refocus American military power and political and economic priorities away from Europe and the Middle East and instead underscore Asia’s importance to the United States.
Of course, much of the Middle East is in Asia; so too are five former Soviet republics; so too is Afghanistan. But when Obama and Hillary Clinton referred to Asia, they generally meant East Asia, though at times they expanded their definition to include South Asia, employing the term “Indo-Pacific.” But their focus was primarily on East and Southeast Asia, and particularly on China, Japan, Korea and five of the eight ASEAN states—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. It is these countries, plus India, that constitute Asia’s economic powerhouses (Brunei is an oil-rich country having more in common economically with the states of the Arabian Gulf than with its ASEAN partners). Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar lag far behind in political and economic development. Auslin likewise pays them far less attention than he does to their more advanced ASEAN partners, though the Obama administration, consistent with its policy of outreach to enemies and other subjects of long-time American sanctions, moved quickly to improve relations with Myanmar when the “Burmese Spring” blossomed in 2010.
Auslin asks what he terms “inconvenient questions,” such as: “How resilient are Asian countries to economic shocks? How adaptable are leading economic sectors and government policies?” Of course, the answers depend on the country in question. But Auslin rightly recognizes that these issues are not unique to any one state in the region and are common to virtually all of them.