/ Published November 29, 2019
The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region (paperback edition) by Michael R. Auslin. Yale University Press, 2018, 279 pp.
Michael Auslin, most recently a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, takes a critical look at the risks in Asia in an effort to help illuminate the question, Is the “Asian Century” ending or just beginning? Additionally, his experience as an associate professor of history at Yale and the University of Tokyo allows him to bring a historical perspective to current affairs in Asia. It has also helped him make an important contribution to the growing body of literature regarding developments in this dynamic region.
The thesis of The End of the Asian Century is that “while dynamic and peaceful on the surface, the continent is riddled with unseen threats, from economic stagnation to political unrest and growing military tensions” (xv). Auslin categorizes the risk along five broad areas: (1) economic, (2) demographic, (3) domestic political turmoil spillover into international politics, (4) unproductive competition between Asian states, and (5) the possibility for war. He devotes one chapter to each risk area, plus a preface and chapters for the introduction and conclusion. His conclusion includes recommendations for managing risk in Asia. The paperback edition has a preface to account for developments (e.g., the inauguration of President Trump) that took place since the book’s initial publication in January 2017.
Overall, Auslin’s argument is well supported and well documented. He draws from books, news articles, think tank publications, international agency reports, and government reports. He also interviewed government and business leaders. Quotes from his conversations add color to the book, giving the reader a feel for what leaders around the region might be thinking. They are, however, understandably not always attributed, thus limiting the impact of these quotes on Auslin’s overall argument. That said, his argument never rests alone on quotes from unnamed sources, and they give the book a more personal feel. Similarly, the book includes some minor errors—like a map indicating that Taiwan is included in the East Asia Summit (it isn’t)—but they are hardly substantive.
More difficult to overlook are some of the contradictions that emerge regarding Auslin’s recommendations for mitigating risk in Asia, especially when dealing with China. He observes that “China often acts as though regional politics were a zero-sum game” (149). At the same time, Auslin advocates an alliance system of liberal democracies in Asia, stating that such a strategy could be pursued without threatening China or making other countries feel that they must choose between the US and China. It is hard to see how China—with its zero-sum mentality—would acquiesce to a powerful, American-centered alliance system. The specifics of the alliance system also seem to potentially increase risk. Auslin calls for the US to focus on “concentric triangles,” where the larger triangle includes India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and the smaller (inner) triangle, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, which would unite liberalizing forces on China’s doorstep. Yet Auslin clearly also believes that China sees liberalization as a threat, so it is hard to see how China might accept a more tightly aligned block of liberal democracies in Asia. Finally, Auslin is certain that the PRC is determined to minimize and eventually eliminate any possibility that Taiwan could be independent. However, when drawn on a map, the larger concentric triangle clearly has Taiwan well within its geometric outline. Auslin attempts to square the potentially escalatory nature of his recommendations by saying that “we may hope that China’s leaders will come to appreciate the benefits of constructive engagement” (200). It is not that Auslin’s recommendations are bad, but they deserve more depth; indeed, they could be the subject of a separate book.
That being said, the vast majority of the book is clear-eyed. On the subject of Taiwan, for example, Auslin recognizes that “Taiwan’s decaying ability to defend itself may perversely reduce the chance of military conflict”—ostensibly by reducing the chances that Taiwan will feel powerful enough to declare independence. Concurrently, he values the island’s economy and liberal democracy. It is in picking up on nuance and detail like this where Auslin is at his best. He distills risk areas in Asia and aptly describes the reasons for them. Fortunately, most of the book resembles his perceptive view of Taiwan’s status.
Overall, the clarity and detail in The End of the Asian Century make it a useful book. Military officers and others in the defense industry should find the discussion of economics, demographics, and politics especially beneficial. However, they may find the discussions about armed conflict lacking military detail, which is more than forgivable since Auslin is trying to assess risk across a wide range of areas. He is also evaluating risk across the globe—from India to Japan to Australia. This scope reduces the depth of his analysis for any specific country. He gives China excellent treatment, but officers or officials with recent experience in Korea may find little new about Korea itself. Nevertheless, they may find much to agree with, lending credibility to the author’s discussion of other areas. The sections on Indonesia or India were extremely helpful.
While the book was first published in 2017 (10 days before the inauguration of Donald Trump), the trends seem largely unchanged. It is valuable for anyone looking for an overview of potential flashpoints—militarily, economically, politically, or demographically—in the world’s most dynamic region.
Lt Col Matthew Tuzel, USAF
National Security Affairs Fellow, Hoover Institution
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."