Currents of History Converge in the Indo-Pacific

A new book by Michael Auslin brings context to the changing geostrategic situation in East Asia

Image credit: KTSDESIGN/Getty Images

When America’s attention turns to a particular region of the world, fortunate is the scholar with a strong track record—and drawerful of available material—on the subject. Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific (Hoover Institution Press, 2020) pulls together much of author Michael Auslin’s recent writing on the changing geostrategic landscape—and seascape—of East Asia and South Asia.

Auslin, who is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, acknowledges in his introduction that the essays he has adapted into chapters provide an “impressionistic” portrait of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region. The foreword by Niall Ferguson, the author’s colleague at the Hoover Institution, sets up the main theme of the book, which is that a rising and assertive China presents challenges that require the United States and its allies to rethink their geostrategic approach to regional security. Not surprisingly, five of the book’s eight core chapters focus on China and its relations with other nations. Three other chapters examine a particular aspect of a single Asian nation: the plight of India’s career-oriented women, Japan’s unique identity, and North Korea’s ability to safeguard its nuclear weapons.

If I have one beef with this otherwise fine volume, it is that these latter three chapters integrate into the book’s geopolitical main thread with varying degrees of success. But this is a relatively minor quibble given the insights offered throughout. While other authors have recently called attention to the fact that the West finds itself in a growing rivalry with China and perhaps has rested on its laurels too long, Auslin brings a historian’s view to the current strategic great game in Asia. China, Japan, and the United States receive extensive historical context to help explain their current policies and actions. This is where the book is most successful and useful.

Rules of the House

Auslin asserts that the rules that China seeks to impose for its vision of a new world order are easily identifiable from the country’s history and philosophy. Indeed, throughout its millennia as a country and a civilization, China has routinely favored a strong central government able to wield authority and sustain order. He also points out that the current source of that authority, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is not only steeped in past practice, but also is Leninist in its approach to relations with other nations and will pursue any means to ensure its own survival.

Auslin has written recently on how this outlook has manifested in the CCP’s conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it has allegedly engaged in misinformation and outright propaganda campaigns to mask its own culpability. In Asia’s New Geopolitics, he pulls no punches about the CCP’s ability and intent to use such means to supplant the US-centric world order with one more to its liking.

China’s goals and actions thus require the US to rethink the way it deals with the country if it wants to maintain its position as the top world power, if not its hegemon. Auslin advocates that America revise its geostrategy for the entire Indo-Pacific region to pursue a more holistic policy rather than serially responding to specific challenges, such as China’s development and militarization of islands in the South China Sea. He points out that US engagement with the region goes back to the late 18th century and the United States’ emergence as an independent nation. This engagement developed in fits and starts, often riding the coattails of more powerful European imperial powers. Scholarly works, such as those from Alfred Thayer Mann in the 19th century and Nicholas John Spykman during World War II, helped define the scope of American sea power and its application in the “rimlands” of East Asia.

Auslin is clearly in his element describing the sweep of history and how it influences modern politics. The United States and China are not the only powers with pieces on the board. Auslin devotes a lot of attention to what he calls “Asia’s other great game,” the competition between China and Japan for regional control. Again, he provides foundation for this rivalry in an insightful description of Japan’s unique civilization, with its seemingly closed, homogenous culture and its internationalist economic outlook. The rivalry between China and Japan is one of the world’s oldest, and Auslin delves deeply into its origins and how the relative power of the two nations has shifted over the centuries.

In a speculative concluding chapter, Auslin chronicles a hypothetical conflict between China and the United States. (Note to self: Where’s my copy of Harpoon?) Whether or not the Sino-American Littoral War of 2025 would evolve along the lines proposed by this future history is beside the point. Auslin uses the encounter to underscore the threat posed by China and the requirement that America and its allies develop a comprehensive approach to meeting it.

Many Threads

The main thread of Asia’s New Geopolitics, that China is challenging the United States and its principal regional ally, Japan, for control of the Indo-Pacific region, is its strongest. However, the book includes other issues not directly tied in with its central theme. While these chapters do indeed examine important issues in Asia, they seem a little out of place. At the same time, they are interesting and valuable as stand-alone essays.

For example, in his chapter on India’s “missing” women, Auslin takes a pointedly journalistic approach to the issue of equal rights for women in the world’s largest democracy. Auslin writes that India is limiting its potential economic, academic, and social development by not incorporating the talents and skills of women in all echelons of life outside the home. Through a series of interviews with educated, middle-class women from different backgrounds, Auslin reveals that the tradition of arranged marriages remains a powerful influence on them, for Hindus and Muslims alike. The young women interviewed all agreed that the opinions of their families—particularly their mothers—were the most important factor in deciding to marry, often at the expense of promising careers.

That the women individually expressed more or less enthusiasm for their arrangements is of secondary importance to the common thread that their mothers effectively wield veto power over their futures, and that this power is passed down through the generations. Despite recent legal and legislative actions to improve women’s access to the workplace and their treatment once they get there, tradition trumps reform, at least for now. At the same time, Auslin notes that women are well represented on college campuses and statistically surpass their male counterparts on exams. Furthermore, this performance typically carries onward into other spheres, such as civil service exams. Yet while middle-class Indian women increasingly may have access to education and career tracks, they essentially remain bound by the wishes of their families.

Is all of this interesting? Yes. What does it have to do with Asia’s geopolitics? Well, it comes down to the received wisdom—at least in the West—that restricting women’s roles to home and family life suppresses the amount of intellectual capital at a society’s disposal. Auslin writes, “The talents of many of the twelve million women enrolled in undergraduate programs may not be put to full use once they’ve graduated, which is a condition facing most women throughout the Indo-Pacific region.” This is almost certainly true. How this affects the sinews of national power in India, and Asia’s geopolitics more broadly, could use some more analysis that would also better connect this chapter with the rest of the book. At the same time, Auslin’s use of interviews and the apparent openness of the interviewees allows engaging personal voices to be heard.

Another interesting outlier is the chapter on the danger posed by North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, such as ballistic missiles. While most analysts focus on what such weapons mean to the regional strategic situation, Auslin discusses whether Pyongyang is up to the task of maintaining them, particularly under the mercurial rule of the Kims. Through a description of some alarming—even Kubrickian—incidents during the Cold War, he illuminates just how difficult and expensive it is to manage what insiders call “the nuclear enterprise.”

For a full-fledged nuclear power, the mere possession of deployable warheads, delivery systems, and the command-and-control networks to use them effectively is only part of the enterprise, the tip of the spear. An immense and ongoing effort must be undertaken to support and safeguard a country’s nuclear capability. This requires meticulously trained scientific, technical, specialist military, and political means that are still subject to the vagaries of human performance, not to mention Murphy’s Law, under the best of circumstances. Auslin catalogues some well-known and obscure accidents, oversights, blunders, and close calls involving nuclear weapons over the decades. If most of these are drawn from the US experience, that’s only because such examples are more widely available. Auslin wonders whether North Korea is equal to the task of providing “nuclear surety” for its particular enterprise.

Good question—probably not. However, this question would have been more relevant in a chapter examining nuclear weapons in Asia. China, India, and Pakistan—not to mention Russia and the United States—are all declared nuclear powers affecting Asia’s geostrategic balance, and presumably they have the resources and infrastructure to maintain nuclear weapons and deliver them effectively on targets of their choosing. The extent and purpose of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities remain unclear. It is quite possible that in Pyongyang’s case, the mere possession of warheads and some means to possibly launch them at somebody is enough to achieve its goals of ensuring the regime’s survival. Extensive analysis of North Korea’s ability to provide nuclear surety, while welcome, seems out of place as the only example of such analysis in a book about Asia’s new geopolitics.

Still, Auslin’s abilities as a historian, analyst, and writer make Asia’s New Geopolitics a thoroughly engaging read that holds together as well as any book formed from a collection of essays. Overall, the book offers original insight and strong historical context for what is arguably the key rivalry in the most important strategic region of the 21st century.

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