The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region: Seven Essential Quotes

I read this book for debate on the 2015-16 debate topic, and it didn’t disappoint as a resource for some excellent impact cards.

This litany of economic and political risks might be enough to cause observers to alter their long-term assumptions about Asia’s prospects. Yet there is a fifth risk to be mapped, the most dangerous of all: war and peace. How close is Asia to seeing conflict erupt, and where? Not every dispute threatens peace, but today, the Indo-Pacific region is regressing to a nineteenth-century style of power politics in which might makes right. With the world’s largest and most advanced militaries other than the United States, and including four nuclear powers, a conflict in Asia could truly destabilize the global economy and spark a conflagration that might spiral out of control.

China’s dark skies impose staggering demographic costs. As early as the 1990s, respiratory disease was identified as one of the country’s leading causes of death. 49 Chinese environmental activists claim that in some of the most polluted cities, such as Guangzhou, residents’ lungs turn black by the time they are in their forties. A 2007 World Bank study claimed that outdoor air pollution causes up to four hundred thousand premature deaths each year, and polluted air inside homes and factories causes another three hundred thousand. 50 A more recent study put the total number of deaths caused by air pollution at 1.2 million annually. 51 A 2013 study estimated that people in northern China have a nearly six-year drop in life expectancy due to pollution.

China’s demographic risk has another angle that Westerners visiting Beijing rarely see. Get out of the major cities, and you will soon notice that you are surrounded by far more men and boys than women and girls. The practice of selective abortion, intended to give families male children, has left China with a badly skewed sex ratio. Among major nations, only India is worse. Male children traditionally were prized for their ability to work on rural land, and females were seen as an economic drag. Chinese men today outnumber women by thirty-four million. A shrinking population will leave tens of millions of young men unable to find wives or partners. 70 While recent statistics suggest that the gap has narrowed slightly since 2008, the problem will persist for decades. 71 The potential dangers of a large group of young, unmarried, frustrated men are well understood. Petty crime, public disturbances, the spread of prostitution, and social alienation are all possible side effects, raising yet more risk of social instability. Governments throughout history have turned to foreign adventurism as a way to relieve social pressure at home. Doing this would pit China against its neighbors, a security risk that is mapped out in chapter 6.

It would be a mistake to think that only the dispossessed are unhappy with CCP rule. Though the party has tried to co-opt social and economic elites over the past decades by giving them preferential treatment and allowing them to amass enormous fortunes, it remains distrusted by the privileged, even more so as Xi cracks down on any type of dissent. Both the middle class and the rich make their dissatisfaction felt in different ways. Numerous media outlets have reported, for example, that the overwhelming majority of China’s rich, including members of the elite National People’s Congress, hold foreign passports for themselves and their families. 27 The same elites send their children to foreign schools, often in America and Great Britain, where many choose to buy residences and live at least part-time.

Yet unlike Japan, South Korea confronts one of the most dangerous security challenges in the entire region, a risk that dominates its domestic political discussions. The six-decade-long division of the Korean peninsula has made it one of the world’s hotspots. The secretive and absolute rule of the Kim family in North Korea has surprised decades of observers who long ago assumed that Pyongyang’s totalitarian system would collapse under its own weight. 66 And it might have, if not for support first from the Soviet Union and then from China. With that help, the Kim regime has maintained its hold on power, positioned itself as a constant menace to regional stability, and remained an unsolvable irritant to its neighbors and the United States. The death of North Korea’s second dictator, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, led many to hope for a “Pyongyang Spring.” 67 Instead, his successor, the young Kim Jong-un, rapidly consolidated his hold on power, bloodily purged some of his father’s closest supporters including his own uncle, and conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests that unnerved the region.

As the outcry over Yasukuni Shrine showed, no small part of Tokyo’s difficulties is tied to Japan’s wartime atrocities in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s and the resulting mistrust of Japanese intentions. Seven decades after its unconditional surrender, Japan has not shaken off the ghosts of World War II. 12 In particular, Japan’s relationship with South Korea, a country that should be its most natural democratic ally in Asia, is continually haunted by ghosts of the past. Despite a historic apology in December 2015 for Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” during World War II, other ambiguous statements by Abe or those close to him about sexual slavery and Japan’s war guilt have cast doubt on his sincerity. The visits by Abe and other Japanese leaders to Yasukuni continue to strain relations abroad, especially in South Korea. Similarly, the long-running dispute over public school textbooks that appear to whitewash Japan’s imperial past continue to poison foreign relations.
“Until Japan fully accepts its war responsibility,” a Korean politician told me, “it cannot be a leader in Asia.” This attitude is reflected in the comments of senior Korean leaders, including President Park Geun-hye, who has called for Tokyo to make a “courageous decision” to fully acknowledge its responsibility for past actions. 13 This lingering anger makes it difficult for Asia’s most developed democracy to exert leadership in a rapidly changing environment.

Almost all of America’s senior China watchers, from both sides of the political spectrum, argue that the United States can and should do more to engage with ordinary Chinese. The same approach toward promoting democratic liberalization in the Indo-Pacific region can also be taken with mainland China. Private NGOs from the Indo-Pacific and the West should enhance their contact, and the trend in student exchanges should be continued, along with media exchanges, business links, and even local legislator programs. In each case, the liberal side must demand full and free conversation and resist any type of official or self-censorship. The goal is to share or make available liberal ideas and viewpoints that ordinary Chinese normally do not experience. No one expects miracles from such an approach, but that does not make it any less important. As the hoary Chinese proverb puts it, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.