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

Shanghai skyline at night. GoodFreePhotos.com/Li Yang

An excerpt from Michael Auslin's new book.

Editor’s Note: Excerpted and used by permission of Yale University Press, from The End of The Asian Century by Michael R. Auslin. Copyright © 2017.

I am hunched over, almost on my hands and knees, nearly 250 feet below ground. Behind me is close to a mile of tunnel, hewn through solid rock. In front of me is a steel door set into a concrete barricade. Through its tiny window I can see another barricade and steel door, maybe another one hundred feet ahead. Beyond that lies North Korea.

I have crawled into one of the dozens of “tunnels of aggression” dug by the Pyongyang regime into South Korean territory. Discovered in 1978, it lies only twenty-seven miles from Seoul and was designed to bring waves of North Korean saboteurs and special forces under the heavily defended border to wreak havoc in case of war. It is the only tunnel open to the public, and the tour buses that bring visitors to this no-man’s-land pass by hills that still contain hundreds of land mines aimed at stopping an invasion from the North.

Yet as much as Tunnel Number Three is a reminder that the Korean border, the ironically named “Demilitarized Zone,” remains one of the most dangerous spots on earth, it also is a metaphor for all of Asia. While dynamic and peaceful on the surface, the continent is riddled with unseen threats, from economic stagnation to political unrest and growing military tensions. These risks also threaten the rest of the world, thanks to the extraordinary economic, political, and military growth of Asia over the past decades.

To put it starkly, what we are seeing today may be the beginning of the end of the “Asian Century.” For decades, prominent and knowledgeable observers, from bankers and industrialists to scholars and politicians, have predicted the rise of the Asia-Pacific and an era of unparalleled Asian power, prosperity, and peace. At the same time, many writers assure us that the East is replacing the West, in a great shift of global power that will permanently reshape our world. All those predictions now are themselves at risk.

Such a view remains controversial. Only in recent months have the popular press and casual observers begun to worry about growing risk, from China’s stock market collapse to the danger of armed conflict in the South China Sea. But in a world where headlines continue to focus on the bloody spread of the Islamic State or on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intervention in the Syrian civil war, only cursory attention is being paid to Asia’s dangers.

As this is being written, China’s economy has dramatically slowed, North Korea claims that it has a hydrogen bomb and is widely believed to be able to put nuclear weapons on top of ballistic missiles, Thailand’s military has launched its second coup in a decade, and Chinese newspapers warn that war with America is “inevitable” if Washington does not back down from opposing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. These are just some of the more visible dangers that perturb the Indo-Pacific. We are on the cusp of a change in the global zeitgeist, from celebrating a strong and growing Asia to worrying about a weak and dangerous Asia. For all its undeniable successes and strengths, the broader Indo-Pacific region faces significant, potentially insurmountable challenges.

The rest of us should worry because none of these problems threaten only Asia. Whether one cares about the Indo-Pacific or not, it is half of our world. Today, one out of every three persons on earth is of Chinese or Indian descent, and the countries of the Indo-Pacific account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s population. The World Bank estimates that the economies of Asia produce nearly 40 percent of total global output, and they are central to everything from weaving textiles to crafting the most advanced electronic technology. The militaries of Asia’s countries have grown dramatically, and China, India, and North Korea are nuclear powers. Democracies jostle with authoritarian states as neighbors in the world’s most dynamic region.

But the globalization that we continue to celebrate has its dark side as well. If an economic or security crisis erupted in Asia, it would reverberate around our increasingly interconnected world. Those risks are festering, some visible, others still hidden. The number one priority for the countries of the Asia-Pacific, and the rest of the world, over the coming decade is managing and mitigating the risks that threaten the Asian Century.

To properly conceive of these trends, one must imagine a “risk map” of Asia. Unlike a traditional geographic map, this map is a conceptual tool for identifying the most important trends in the region and assessing their risk. This book maps out five discrete yet interrelated risk regions.

The first such region is the threat to Asia’s growth from the end of its economic miracle and the failure of reform. Thousands of headlines and dozens of books continue to proclaim the economic miracle as if it were destined to last forever. Yet dig beneath the headlines, and you find major problems, many of which national governments are failing to solve.

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