By Benjamin Herst
When Michael Auslin first set out a write a book about Asia, he planned to write the story of a powerful region on the rise. “We’ve had one story about Asia since the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he recently told the Paulson Institute’s Contemporary China Speakers Series. He intended to write that America should abandon its “Atlantic-ist” mindset and embrace an Asian future, focusing attention and resources on developing the American role in Asia.
But after embarking on research, Auslin realized that there was a very different narrative taking place on the ground. At all rungs of society, people across Asia expressed myriad concerns—about risks that he argues the West was not realizing. From India to China to Southeast Asia to the Korean peninsula, undercurrents were bubbling up that threatened to derail the so-called “Asian Century,” a term used by scholars to describe the shifting political and economic center of gravity to Asia in the 21st century.
Auslin’s new book, The End of the Asian Century, published this month, comes at a noteworthy time, as a new American administration forms its Asia policy. Only one week into its term, Auslin said, the Trump administration has sent conflicting signals with its initial moves. On one hand, dropping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) signals a stepping-back from the region, opening an opportunity for China and others to step up in the economic sphere. On the other hand, statements from the administration about possibly denying access in the South China Sea signal expanded engagement in the region.
Auslin reiterated that he seeks to be diagnostic in his book, not predictive. Failed economic reform, unfinished political revolutions, lack of political community, demographic risk, and the threat of war across the continent are all forces that could hamper Asia’s rising power, he explained. The threat of war, he noted, is the one “that D.C. really focuses on.” This threat runs counter to traditional narratives of modernization and the common expectation that as countries get wealthier and build political and economic relations among each other, they will resist clashing over issues such as maritime rights or border disputes. Asia, Auslin argues, seems not to have transcended its historical rivalries, and its countries have doubled down on their claims and developed their military capabilities. Hardened lines in the South and East China Seas, a volatile Korean peninsula, and China-India border tensions are all potential problems. “Arguably, Asia is closer today to some type of armed conflict—by accident or miscalculation or willfulness—than it was five or ten years ago,” said Auslin, a Resident Scholar and Director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
From a policy perspective, the book is Auslin’s plea for the United States to “pay attention to Asia before it’s too late.” His suggestions for Washington? In short, the United States must lead on the TPP or a comparable trade protocol; must use American engagement to reach out and support countries in the region; and must keep a robust American military presence that Asian allies can depend on. In the end, while Auslin’s preconceptions about the Asian Century may have flipped from his original project, his ultimate U.S. policy proposal turns out to be remarkably similar to his original recommendations: stronger American engagement in Asia.