East Asia

The west can no longer impose its will on the increasingly powerful and self-confident nations of the developing world

We are but halfway through 2008 yet it has already born witness to a sizeable shift in global power. The default western mindset remains that the western writ rules. That is hardly surprising; it has been true for so long there has been little reason for anyone to question it, least of all the west. The assumption is that might and right are invariably on its side, that it always knows best and that if necessary it will enforce its political wisdom and moral rectitude on others. There is, however, a hitch: the authority of the self-appointed global sheriff is remorselessly eroding.

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As relations warm with both Taiwan and Japan, China is resuming its centuries-old position as the linchpin of east Asia

Observers have long agreed that the two most difficult foreign policy questions that confronted the Chinese leadership were relations with Taiwan and with Japan. The last few years have seen both deteriorate markedly. The election of the nationalist Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000 and his re-election in 2004 was a nadir in the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland. The premiership of Junichiro Koizumi heralded a serious deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations, with Koizumi’s insistence on an annual visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in his official capacity. Such was the growing antagonism between the two nations that in 2005 there was a wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in major Chinese cities. This year, however, there has been an extraordinary turnaround in China’s relations with both Taiwan and Japan which has exceeded all but the most optimistic expectations.

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Governments and the media need to wake up to the fact that east Asia can increasingly look after itself and doesn’t need or want western help

The mood music has changed. David Miliband has fallen silent. The railing of John Humphrys on the Today programme has subsided. The agenda has changed. A week ago it was all blood and thunder, western righteousness and the imperative of some kind of military action.

Then suddenly, on Monday, the penny finally dropped and the bubble of bluster burst. The idea of helicopters from assorted western warships moored off the southern coast of Myanmar (Burma to the Foreign Office and the British media, but few others in the world) dropping aid from a great height over the Irrawaddy delta – dismissed by aid organisations as counter-productive and even dangerous to the local population – died a quiet death.

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The new prime minister’s unrepentant attitude to war crimes could threaten the world’s most important economic zone

The election of Shinzo Abe as the leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party and now prime minister will have profound repercussions for Japan and east Asia. Most western commentary during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi has been concerned with the extent to which Japan has allowed a freer rein to market forces. While that is important, the question that should really detain us is Japan’s growing nationalism. Although Koizumi was not a rightwing nationalist, he was, in a pragmatic way, acutely sensitive to the public mood and, in this context, mindful of a growing nationalist sentiment: his annual visits to the Yasukuni war shrine were one consequence.

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The rise of Shinzo Abe to the premiership of Japan is portent of the growing tension between it and China.

The election of Shinzo Abe as leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) is a portent of growing tensions between Japan and China. The retiring prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who Abe will succeed next Tuesday, has presided over a steady deterioration of relations with China. Abe, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Koizumi was not rooted in Japan’s rightwing nationalist tradition: he was a pragmatist and a populist. Abe, in contrast, is a rightwing nationalist. Unlike Koizumi, for example, he has questioned the validity of the postwar Tokyo trials of Japan’s wartime leaders, which found many of them guilty of war crimes.

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Japan is stuck in its past, and its refusal to come to terms with it threatens to define its future and that of the whole of east Asia

The past year might be described as the moment time of China’s rise. Of course its rise long predates these years, but this fact has suddenly been recognised worldwide, well beyond the global elite. It is now part of the popular common sense, not simply in Europe but everywhere; indeed, Europe has been relatively tardy in this process. The buzz surrounding Hu Jintao’s visit is part of this picture. The phenomenon is even evident in China itself, where the past two years have seen a much wider awareness of both the fact and implications of the country’s rise. In the face of this changed consciousness, it is inevitable that new stances will be adopted and new policy positions struck around the world. This is already happening in Japan, notwithstanding its typically understated tone. Developments there can only be described as ominous. While Europe still thinks of itself as somehow central to the future, east Asia is where the future will be played out. It is in that context that we should see the import of current trends in Japan.

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Japan’s contempt for its own continent has become a liability

Six years ago, when I was last in Japan, the issue of China barely ever featured during conversations. But China now looms large in the Japanese mind. It evokes a complex of emotions, from surprise and confusion to fear and defensiveness. While there is a recognition that China represents a huge economic opportunity – China has suddenly become Japan’s largest trading partner and played a key role in hauling Japan out of its long-running economic malaise – that is far from the dominant emotion. Rather, April’s anti-Japanese demonstrations in China have helped give expression to an intangible but growing sense of concern.

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As Japan has shown, and China will too, the west’s values are not necessarily universal

Not so long ago, Japan was the height of fashion. Then came the post-bubble recession and it rapidly faded into the background, condemned as yesterday’s story. The same happened to the Asian tigers: until 1997 they were the flavour of the month, but with the Asian financial crisis they sank into relative obscurity. No doubt the same fate will befall China in due course, though perhaps a little less dramatically because of its sheer size and import.

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Long-running regional hostilities threaten the stability of east Asia

After being obliged by Tokyo to provide a seemingly endless series of documents, the cheerful official at the Japanese embassy in London eventually informed me that the person who helps to look after my little boy – and who happens to be Filipino – would be granted a visa to join us in Nagoya for four months. Alas, when she arrived at the airport, immigration officials interrogated her for over two hours, told her at one point that she would not be allowed in, and then finally agreed to admit her.

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American dominance is bound to wither as Asia’s confidence grows

In President Bush’s inauguration speech, he pledged to support “the expansion of freedom in all the world”, deploying the words free or freedom no less than 25 times in 20 short minutes. The neoconservative strategy is quite explicit: to bend the world to America’s will; to reshape it according to the interests of a born-again superpower. There is something more than a little chilling about this. Even though the Iraqi occupation has gone seriously awry, the United States still does not recognise the constraints on its own power and ambition.

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Updated and expanded new Chinese edition just released.


Turkish edition just published!

When China Rules the World is the first book to fully conceive of and explain the upheaval that China’s ascendance will cause and the realigned global power structure it will create.

New edition available now from:

Amazon UK
and all good booksellers.

US second edition is available now via: 

Amazon US