You can’t escape the past

Asia's Reckoning by Richard McGregorReview of Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Future of US Power in the Pacific Century by Richard McGregor. Viking, 2017. 

“What once seemed impossible and then merely unlikely is no longer unimaginable: that China and Japan could, within coming decades, go to war.” That is the frank assessment with which Richard McGregor opens his new book, “Asia’s Reckoning,” a workmanline telling of the complicated dance between the United States, Japan, and China from the end of World War II through the early days of the Trump administration.

Bringing Japan back into the conversation about the United States and China, McGregor warns, is vitally important. “If China is the key to Asia, then Japan is the key to China, and the United States the key to Japan.” To neglect Japan, he writes, is to ignore the ways in which the American hysteria prompted by Japan’s post-war resurgence served as a “a practical and psychological dress rehearsal” for the rivalry to come with China.

The greatest blow China could strike to pax Americana would be to separate Japan from its strategic dependence on America. McGregor believes few appreciate how serious a possibility this could have been had Beijing responded more favorably to Yukio Hatoyama’s premiership in 2009-10. Instead, it would be another instance of leaders stymied by a powerful institutional logic in all three nations that demands tension to sustain their respective domestic political paradigms.

A master class in east Asian diplomacy, McGregor helps keep straight a history that China especially is keen to distort. China “has a whiff of the Balkans, where many young people have a way of vividly remembering wars they never actually experienced. A sense of revenge, of unfinished business, lingers in the system,” McGregor observes. Its obsessions with Japan’s wartime history fuels the nationalism that sustains Communist rule, despite Mao himself acknowledging that the Japanese “cannot be asked to apologize every day” as early as 1954. McGregor reminds us that the Party’s obsession comes despite the fact that “Mao’s forces did little of the actual fighting against them, leaving the war largely to the Nationalist armies.”

In the hands of a journalist, McGregor’s history vividly brings to life its actors and the deep personal animus that drives them. Complicated issues, such as the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas that inspire full books of their own, are summarized with grace. In his first book, McGregor explored the inner workings of China’s Communist Party. In this effort, he shows that Japan’s clannish politics can be nearly as inscrutable, to the great frustration of its American partners. Kissinger once complained that with Japan, in contrast with China, “we always talk textiles instead of the direction of the next ten years.” Decades later a trade negotiator would anonymously complain that “within a year, everyone would be using the f word when talking about Japanese.”

Japan’s present prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who is on track to win a snap election next Sunday, represents a notable departure in his efforts to revivify Japan from its lost decades, economically and spiritually. He has embraced an unapologetically nationalist politics and is steadfastly pursuing a reinterpretation of the country’s post-war constitution that would allow the country to expand its military. Perhaps unique of any world leader, he has managed effective working relationship with both presidents Obama and, so far, Trump. Abe’s willingness to negotiate on trade appealed to Obama’s internationalist instincts; his desire for Japan to take greater responsibility for its defense serves Trump’s demands for fairness.

For a book blunt in its assessment of the risk of conflict, it is disappointing that McGregor relies overwhelmingly on the force of history alone. In avoiding much in the way of forward-looking analysis, McGregor misses an opportunity to chart a course he is well-placed to envision and define a strategic agenda that sustains peace and prosperity in the region. Early on, he writes that the “about-turn in perceptions of Japan – from a colossus poised for world domination to a nation in seemingly inexorable decline in the space of two decades – has few parallels in modern history.” One wishes McGregor did more to acknowledge the not insignificant possibility that China too could follow this path.

Irrespective of the ambivalence about America’s future in the region, its countries recognize that only through cooperation will they be able to successfully engage China. A “hub and spoke” model of security relationships centered on America is transitioning to multiple coalitions within the region. McGregor takes former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at his word when he says this was “part of the design” of Obama’s Asia policy. Whether that design will survive the Trump era is a question that McGregor answers with an ominous silence.

“As the Chinese often liked to remind their neighbors, the U.S. presence in Asia was a geopolitical choice. China’s presence in Asia, by contrast, was a geopolitical reality,” McGregor writes. It is a choice whose significant costs are readily clear, yet whose far more immense benefits are underappreciated. In a region obsessed with history, America has forgotten the lesson that is most worth remembering.