An Eye on Asia

Asia’s New Geopolitics is Michael R. Auslin’s second collection of essays on the subject. Reviewing the first for Law and Liberty five years ago, I demurred at the author’s confidence that the United States government still had much ability to influence trends in Asia for the better. In this work, Auslin comes across as less sanguine and more conscious of the limits to American power. His awareness has grown, but unfortunately not as fast as the situation has deteriorated. It is only fair to note that much of the deterioration has occurred in the short time since these pieces were written.

There are articles about Korea’s nukes, India’s women, and Japan’s isolationism, but the topic of greatest interest to me and probably most readers is China’s increasingly truculent, and increasingly well-armed, foreign policy.

In “The New China Rules,” Auslin describes how China’s stance toward the West has grown more—or more obviously—antagonistic. Though the subtitle is “The Sources of Chinese Behavior,” he devotes at least as much space to analyzing American illusions and miscalculations as to explaining China’s drive for dominance. He never says it explicitly, but one could infer that America’s political and corporate leadership bears much responsibility for what China has become. There is a rich irony here, for our elites’ original mistake (what Auslin calls “the bet of the century”) was to think they could change China by mean of “positive reinforcement in the form of diplomatic respect, earnest attempts at cooperation, and avoidance of topics like human rights.” They could and did: but the change they effected was very different from the change they desired.

Rather than opening a space for mutual understanding, American accommodation seems to have fostered China’s ambition to control discourse about itself throughout the world. Instruments of that control have ranged from accusations of racism (about which upper-class Americans seem prone to a reflexive guilt) to withholding market access to pressuring American firms to fire individual employees for expressing opinions to (in the most extreme cases) hostage-taking. And for every incident in which the pressure is made explicit, it is safe to assume there are a hundred where it never needs to be expressed: in some professions, self-censorship has become the norm.

The inability of Western institutions to uphold such norms as freedom of speech against China’s pressure can be framed more starkly in terms of “elite capture,” the process by which the influential classes of a society shift their loyalties to a foreign power whose values they adopt. Elite capture is a classic phenomenon of imperialism. But it generally occurs in a context of “soft power,” when the values of the hegemon are widely felt to be attractive. Communist China has consistently failed to secure that kind of magnetic influence, nor is it—yet—in a position to dictate to the periphery from an imperial center.

Economic Powers for Political Ends

Auslin attributes China’s success in its quest for influence to its application of economic power to political ends, and he implies it is weakness on the part of Western leaders that has led them to buckle under the pressure. He devotes several good pages to this topic (emphasizing, rightly, the significance of the Party’s United Front Work Department), but I sense that an important aspect of the matter eludes him. In recent decades, an ideology inimical to freedom—one that longs for technocratic rule, and masks class contempt in racial pieties—has seized the commanding heights of American society. Many who wield power in North America do not need to be bribed or menaced to do the CCP’s bidding. They feel a natural kinship, and act on it.

Rather than liberalizing as a result of interchange with the West, China in 2009 returned to what David Shambaugh called “hard authoritarianism.” This turn accelerated when Xi Jinping came to power near the end of 2012. Han nationalism and the triumph of Chinese socialism over the capitalist system became explicit goals. The continued hardening has led Geremie Barmé, not one given to exaggeration, to decry a return to totalitarianism.

Rather than opening a lucrative market for American firms to dominate, China proved a graveyard for many corporate ambitions. Analysts may blame a failure to adapt; but some companies were systematically cheated and robbed.

Auslin cites prominently among China’s new rules the flagrant theft of intellectual property, facilitated by large-scale espionage. But the goal of this spying appears to be more than just economic advantage: China’s most successful known hack, the theft of confidential information on 22 million Americans who had applied for security clearances, would serve few other goals than blackmail, and specifically blackmail for the purpose of gathering intelligence. Moreover, the DoD has ruefully admitted that all its weapons development programs were hacked, which explains why China’s first stealth fighter bears such a strong resemblance to the F-22.

It may be that all countries spy as much as they can, but the Chinese practice is remarkably overt and institutionalized. Auslin cites a 2017 law that requires Chinese companies and individuals “to provide access, cooperation, or support for Beijing’s intelligence-gathering activities.” The book went to press too soon to mention an even more astounding piece of legislation, in which foreign companies doing business in China have been told, in effect, “All your data belong to us.”

China’s wealth and its theft of technology together made possible the most rapid military buildup the world has ever seen. Auslin notes a paradox and explains it:

Despite the world welcoming China’s rise and doing all it can to integrate it into global economic and political systems, Beijing sees enemies all around it and believes it needs an overwhelming military capability to deal with a world intent on containing it. This is traceable directly to the worldview and ideology of the CCP, which must assume a permanent counterrevolutionary vigilance to root out those at home and abroad who would destroy the communist system.

The chief use to which that military capability has been put thus far is the construction of substantial bases on artificial islands which China began constructing in the South China Sea in 2014. The build-up continues apace, and it surely has some practical end in view. Yet in “Asia’s Mediterranean,” which of all these essays gives most attention to developments in the South China Sea, Auslin’s description of China’s likely purpose remains somewhat abstract, using terms such as “hegemony,”’ ”changing the balance of power,” and ”controlling the common maritime/air space.”

Auslin’s scenario is quaintly optimistic; but his realism about the difficulties of waging war at long distance and his sense of Taiwan’s vulnerability keep his essay engaging and valuable.

War with China?

In “The Sino-American Littoral War of 2025: a Future History,” on the other hand, Auslin offers a vivid scenario for a conflict in which China will prevail.

In many respects, it is an astute and helpful analysis. Here’s what he gets right:

  • Long time coming. The future historian (in whose voice the essay is presented) reviews the steady deterioration of the Sino-American relationship, enumerating the times U.S. policymakers met danger signs with passive tolerance. Auslin notes our failure to support the Philippines in 2012 as a major error. Few Americans even know what happened that year.
  • The difficulty of power projection at a distance. Noting the radii within which various aircraft can operate without refueling, and the length of time it takes warships to reach China’s front yard from Yokosuka, Pearl Harbor, and San Diego, Auslin builds into his scenario the difficulties and delays that will hamper a U.S. response to a crisis.
  • Ambivalent allies. Auslin sees the smaller states of East Asia playing one great power against the other to wheedle benefits from both without taking sides. He expects that when the shooting starts, Taiwan and the Philippines will fold quickly, and South Korea will ally with China. He implies that loyalties aren’t much stronger on the US side, either.
  • Minimum deterrence.” So Auslin dubs the American approach: afraid to be provocative and only reacting to China’s escalations. Since proximity enables China to step up its presence in theater much faster than America can, this incremental approach ensures American defeat.

It’s a thoughtful, well-informed exercise. But Auslin’s entire scenario presumes the war will start by accident, the result of too-close encounters in the South China Sea. Now this could happen—thanks to the Chinese penchant for playing “chicken” with foreign planes and ships that enter disputed territory, there have been many near misses in the air and at sea since the Hainan Island incident of 2001. But our author seems to have ruled out the possibility that either side might want a major conflict and initiate it on favorable terms. Once the fighting starts, Auslin envisions Xi Jinping restrained by a fear of “disruption that could mutate into anti-CCP movements” at home, and therefore refraining from missile attacks on US bases and all-out cyberwarfare. In the context of an accidental conflict that erupted suddenly, such restraint is plausible. But a deliberate aggressor might feel that good planning, timing, and execution would minimize domestic disruption.

That one nuclear power would deliberately start a war against another may be unthinkable to you and to me. Is it unthinkable to Xi Jinping?

In a recent essay, I have explained why I think war is not unthinkable to Xi Jinping—why indeed I think he is preparing for one. From my perspective, Auslin’s scenario is quaintly optimistic; but his realism about the difficulties of waging war at long distance and his sense of Taiwan’s vulnerability keep his essay engaging and valuable.


A strength of this collection is its attention to Japan. In “Japan’s Eightfold Fence,” he offers a sympathetic interpretation of what is often called Japanese isolationism. Japan has accepted slower economic growth, an aging demographic profile unrelieved by immigration, and the restraints of a closed and tradition-bound culture. It makes for quite a contrast with Western Europe and the United States. Ever since the eighteenth century our ideas of reform, progress, and modernity have been marked by an eagerness to outgrow the past and a preference for the cosmopolitan over the parochial. Victory over the Third Reich and the Soviet Union then

engendered a hubristic sense that no enemy foreign or domestic could really threaten the West’s survival. Ironically, this sense of security allowed for the internal spread of a cultural and moral relativism that proposed a radically altered conception of the nation and threatened to undermine the very tenets of traditional Western civilization. This relativism [. . .] demanded a nonexclusionary multiculturalism that dramatically changed the demographic composition of most Western nations in just a few decades. The question of national identity [. . .] became [. . .] contentious [. . .] Japan has almost entirely escaped a similar cultural war.

And so he wonders:

. . . maybe Japan has made better national choices since the 1990s than the rest of the world has given it credit for. It has succeeded in providing a stable and secure life for its people, despite significant economic challenges and statistical stagnation. It has done so in part by maintaining cohesion at home and certain barriers against the world. By comparison, America and Europe appear increasingly confounded by their failures to ensure sociocultural integration, keep their economies growing equally for all, and provide security in the heart of their great cities.

He notes, however, that Japan enjoyed a largely benign regional environment after the War, but that this environment “has been growing more threatening since the mid-1990s.” Auslin gives a nuanced account of the Japanese people’s uncertain response to these changes, describing the debate over constitutional revision and noting that in 2015, only 11 percent of those polled said they were willing to fight for their country. This finding raises doubts about how much Japan might assist the United States in a struggle against China. In any event, Japan will be guided by its understanding of its own interests.

Those interests have been shaped by a fraught relationship with China that has evolved over more than a millennium. While it may be highly advisable, America’s continued involvement in Asia is ultimately optional; Japan and China have no choice but to deal with each other. In “China versus Japan: Asia’s Other Great Game,” Auslin tells how the balance of power between them, and the quality of their relationship, has changed repeatedly over time. In our era, he highlights “[the Chinese elite’s] refusal to accept Japan’s legitimacy as a major Asian state,” the remarkable fact that neither country “has any real allies in Asia,” and a military and economic disparity which sets limits to the range of outcomes Japan can achieve: “Tokyo can potentially help disrupt, but not deter, Chinese expansion in Asia.”

This reader came away with a sense that we Americans would be wise to deepen our acquaintance with Japan—not out of an illusion that the Japanese are like us, nor with any hope that they will solve our problems in Asia, but because we can learn something from them, if it is not too late, about how to safeguard core values of our society and promote our interests, realistically defined, in a world of limited resources and growing threats.