Asia's Three Potential Powerhouses

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China, India and Japan are on the rise and the West is watching. Bill Emmott, former editor in chief of The Economist magazine, says the U.S. would benefit from treating the region as a region.

GUY RAZ, Host:

You might chalk it up to early 21st-century anxiety, but it seems there are a lot of new books out about the emergence of Asia and the fall of the West. Check out Amazon, and you'll find titles like "The Chinese Century" or "China Shakes the World."

O: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade." Bill Emmott's at the BBC in London. Welcome.

BILL EMMOTT: Great to be with you, Guy.

RAZ: You can tell a lot from the title. This is not another book about the relationship between the U.S. and China. It's actually about the complicated relationship between these three countries in Asia.

EMMOTT: That's right. I think that we, in Europe and in America, make the mistake, often, of thinking of these countries only insofar as they relate to us. That's understandable, but it misses what I think is the biggest story that's underway in Asia, which is the development of three great powers in the same region that are in competition with one another, politically, economically, and I think really over the next decade or more, the relationship, the conflicts, perhaps, in all sorts of senses, between them are in fact going to be at least as important, probably more important, than their individual relationships with us.

RAZ: Why is that?

EMMOTT: Because each of them thinks that they should be running the show in Asia, at least certainly India and China do. They see each other as, both of them, as great civilizations with the world's biggest populations, a billion people each. If only they can develop economically, they feel, then they can take their rightful position as global leaders, but also very importantly as regional leaders.

Japan has been the regional leader, pretty much since the 1950s. Now it feels challenged, particularly by China, in its neighborhood, and it feels worried and threatened even.

RAZ: And you actually write about the potential for actual regional warfare. What would it be over, and which countries would be involved?

EMMOTT: Well, the thing about Asia is that it has an extraordinary number of unresolved disputes: border disputes, territorial disputes and disputes over the status of nations.

Think of North Korea, still with the Demilitarized Zone between it and South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War. We don't know what's going to happen there. Taiwan, the status of Taiwan always uncertain. Between India and China, two huge border disputes through the Himalayas involving territory the size of countries like Hungary or Portugal. There's an undersea territorial dispute between Japan and China over valuable oil and gas resources.

I think these are the likeliest causes of conflict, combined with there's the fact that out of natural suspicion of one another, all three countries are seeking to strengthen their militaries.

RAZ: Right, and of course that is a cause for concern among some national security policymakers in the United States. But the argument you make is that the United States actually needs to stop focusing so much particularly on its relationship with China as the only thing that counts and sort of develop a foreign policy that sees China as part of this region with a distinct set of internal dynamics, relationships and histories.

EMMOTT: That's right. I think that while the bilateral emphasis is understandable, it misses a trick. It fails to see that what's developing is, in a way, the creation of a continent. The creation of Asia, an area which really didn't exist before because it was so divided up into small regions of influence of different countries, now these countries are looking across the whole of the region, all as one military and economic space, and the United States has the opportunity of treating the region as a region and trying to balance the powers against each other, a process which it has begun to do through its developing relationship with India under both Bill Clinton and, much more strongly, under George W. Bush.

RAZ: You compare George Bush's 2006 trip to India to President Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972. You've got to be the only person who's ever made that comparison.

EMMOTT: Well, it's a striking one, isn't it? Of course, George Bush's visit and his deal was not as revolutionary as Nixon's visit to China, but it was a major strategic move of the same magnitude in that what Nixon was doing was getting China into a relationship with the United States in which it could be a balance against the Soviet Union.

In George Bush's case, he did a deal with India of a nuclear energy cooperation and a defense framework, which was aimed to bring India into a position in its relationship with the United States so that in the future, it too could be a balance against China.

So it had the same kind of intent as the Nixon visit, even if it wasn't as revolutionary.

RAZ: It's fascinating because it's a largely forgotten trip, of course even here in the United States.

EMMOTT: Also actually because unusually, the Bush administration chose not to make a great fanfare about it, and the reason for that is because it is, essentially, anti-China. It is a containment move. But the Bush administration, understandably and sensibly, did not want to antagonize China as it was doing it. It sees this as part of a long-term strategy to get India as a card against China and doesn't want to cause Chinese opposition and criticism and stir up a fuss with the first major move.

RAZ: Bill Emmott, if the 20th century was the American century, is it a fait accompli that the 21st century will be the Asian century?

EMMOTT: No it certainly isn't partly because nothing is a fait accompli. They are really only at the start of a process of lifting themselves out of centuries of failure, centuries of poverty, to become developed nations. But we should recognize that they are really not somehow towards the end of it.

RAZ: Bill Emmott is the former editor in chief of The Economist and author of the book "Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade." Bill Emmott, thanks so much.

EMMOTT: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: And before we let you go, one last question. When you were the editor in chief of The Economist, did you guys kick it old school?

EMMOTT: Can you say that again? Sorry. Did we kick it old school?

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