Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, The US And The Struggle For Global Power by Richard McGregor

The Blurb On The Back:

The dramatic story of the relationship between the world’s three largest economies, by one of the foremost experts on East Asia. 

For more than half a century, American power in the Pacific has successfully kept the peace.  But it has also cemented the toxic rivalry between China and Japan, consumed with endless history wars and entrenched political dynasties.  Now, the combination of these forces with Donald Trump’s unpredictable impulses and disdain for America’s old alliances threatens to upend the region.  If the United States helped lay the post-war foundations for modern Asia, Asia’s Reckoning will reveal how that structure is now crumbling.

With unrivalled access to US and Asian archives, as well as many of the major players in all three countries, Richard McGregor shows how the confrontational course on which China and Japan have increasingly set themselves is no simple spat between neighbours.  And the fallout would be a political and economic tsunami for all of us.  

You can order Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, The US And The Struggle For Global Power by Richard McGregor from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Richard McGregor is the former Chief of the Financial Times’s Washington Bureau and Fellow at Washington’s Wilson Center.  In this highly informative book he takes a linear approach to the region’s history but avoids making predictions as he explains the shifting tensions in the relationship between China, Japan and the USA since World War II to show how each reached its current position while emphasising the stakes should relationships break down.

McGregor focuses on the relationship between China, Japan and the USA since post World War II but given how much history informs the current tensions between Japan and China in particular, he also draws on pre-World War II events as well to give context where required (something that’s particularly important when looking at China’s stance towards Japan given the government’s citing of history as a large reason for its grievances).  McGregor clearly has good access to people with knowledge of the political and trade positions within each of the three nations, citing interviews and reporting on discussions that took place at conferences and top level meetings, all of which offers insight into why certain positions were taken and how subsequent events were shaped by them.  

Prior to reading this book, my only knowledge of the region comes from what I had read in the newspapers and what I could remember from my GCSE history course (which had covered the rise of the Communist Party in China and its struggles with the Kuomintang) and starting this book, I was a little worried that I’d not be able to keep track of what happened when and why.  Fortunately, McGregor’s journalistic background means that he’s very good at breaking down the complicated interplay between international and domestic politics with trade negotiations and defence/national security concerns in a way that’s easy to follow and understand.  You do get a huge amount of information within this book but I never felt overwhelmed by it and the linear approach made it easy to keep track of how different factors feed into and influence each other.  

Also good is the way that McGregor admits what he does not and cannot know – notably the interplays at work at the top of the Chinese Communist Party where you can see the results of decisions or appointments, but not know the compromises or struggles that got them there.  He’s pretty even handed in his analysis – no one comes out covered in plaudits or unfairly beaten with brickbats – although it does seem that Japan in particular was slow to realise what was happening with China while its domestic politics meant that it was tone deaf at critical points where it needed to be more conciliatory and aware.  

I would have liked slightly more analysis of the impact of Taiwan, South Korea and North Korea on each country’s policies – especially North Korea, whose chaotic actions could yet tip the balance within the region because McGregor really doesn’t go into how China views its neighbour or how that relationship may influence its approach to the region, e.g. in the event that Trump makes good on a threat to Kim Jong Un.  The fact that this book was published so early in Trump’s presidency also represents another weakness of the book in that events have in some respects, superseded it – especially with regard to North Korea – and while McGregor points to Trump’s antipathy towards Japan and torpedoing of TTP, he doesn’t cover much of Trump’s view of China or how it heralded tit-for-tat tariffs and the on-going Huawei dispute.    

What does come through in the book is how both Japan and China are both straightjacketed by their history when it comes to dealing with each other and that China, now that its in the economic ascendancy, is fully prepared to flex its strength with its neighbours when it doesn’t do what it wants them to do.  I was particularly interested in the way China can galvanise and direct public opinion through propaganda and through the way it drew up its education policy to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment when it needs it and the question did occur as to what happens when the Communist Party needs to put that popular fire back in the bottle and finds that it can’t?  Does it mean that the Communist Party could find itself at the mercy of public opinion when it no longer wishes to be and what would be the consequence of that if the public get really angry?

Ultimately, I came away from this book feeling that I knew more about the region and these key players than I did before I started and it’s made me interested in reading more about the topic, which I think is the mark of a good book.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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