Books / Reviews

'Asia's Reckoning': Australian journalist sheds light on Asia's fraught and complex ties

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Wittingly or otherwise, Japan, the United States and China — Asia’s top powers — all have their guns simultaneously trained on each other, in what Australian journalist Richard McGregor likens to a geopolitical Mexican standoff in his new book, “Asia’s Reckoning.”

Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century, by Richard McGregor.
416 pages
VIKING, Nonfiction.

“Each of the three … at different times has tried to use one of the others to gain an ascendancy in regional diplomacy in the last century,” McGregor writes. “Each at different times has felt betrayed by the others. All have tried to leverage their relations with one of the others at the expense of the third.”

While this kind of statement may not jive with the image today of Japan as the United States’ top ally in Asia, McGregor’s tome seeks to shed light on the three nations’ fraught and complex ties, how and why they ended up where they are today and what this could tell us about their future, and in turn, the future of Asia.

A deft storyteller and former Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times, McGregor deploys interviews with heavy hitters from all three countries and cites extensive archival research to provide readers with a comprehensive look at this often misunderstood trilateral relationship.

Whether it’s Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong thanking Tokyo for its invasion of his country, or Japan’s fears of being replaced by China as America’s top partner in Asia, or Henry Kissinger’s intense distaste for Tokyo’s droll diplomats, McGregor mixes in one little-known anecdote after another to pull readers through his narrative.

This narrative? Despite numerous contrivances, the three countries are bound together, for better or worse.

“I like to think that this is history hoovered up by good old-fashioned journalism,” McGregor told The Japan Times. “The fact that I am an outsider (Australian) who had lived and reported in all three countries was crucial in getting a fresh perspective.”

Starting off in the years after World War II and the U.S. Occupation of Japan, the book reveals a number of startling facts that, against the backdrop of today’s history wars, serve as reminders that the complex situation in Asia has long shifted with the geopolitical winds.

McGregor details how, in the mid-1950s, Mao, determined not to let history stand in the way of luring Tokyo into Beijing’s orbit, told a visiting Japanese parliamentary delegation that their country “cannot be asked to apologize everyday.”

Such an utterance from current Chinese President Xi Jinping would likely render many Chinese, who have been raised on a steady stream of propaganda, apoplectic with rage.

McGregor chronicles the history of political machinations in sordid detail, describing how U.S. President Richard Nixon urged Kissinger, his chief foreign policy adviser, to play into Beijing’s fears of a remilitarized Tokyo to “scare the bejeezus out of [China] on Japan.” As a result, the only thing that had prevented the rearming of Tokyo, McGregor quotes Kissinger as telling Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, was the U.S. not quitting Japan.

Such events hold particular relevance today, as Beijing seeks to match and eventually surpass Washington as the dominant Pacific power, and as Japan works to build the strongest security ties it has ever had with the U.S. under the administration of President Donald Trump.

The release of this book last month was timely, as events in Northeast Asia continue to hold the globe’s attention amid North Korea’s ramped-up missile and nuclear tests and its war of words with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The book also comes just ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s once-every-five-years conclave, at which a leadership shuffle is expected, on Oct. 18.

On Abe’s Japan and its relationship with the U.S. and China, McGregor makes special note of the Japanese leader’s commitment to working ever-more closely with Washington, something that, he writes, stands “in stark contrast with the hurly-burly elsewhere in Asia.”

Reflecting his take on Abe in “Asia’s Reckoning,” McGregor also told The Japan Times that, while he remains “very critical” of Abe on history issues, “On defense and national security, I think he has been a transformative leader at a moment when Japan needed one.”

But the book sounds an ominous note for Japan in its conclusion, which deals with Trump’s ascendance to the White House. The final page offers a stark warning of the still entirely plausible fate that may await Tokyo: the mercurial American president may yet choose for the U.S. to leave Japan on its own — something he often mentioned on the campaign trail.

Balanced and insightful, the book goes the extra mile to delve into the minutiae of the relationships, taking readers beyond mere Japanese peculiarities, Chinese propaganda and American stereotypes.

McGregor undertook the book project in early 2015, and owing to timing, many of Trump’s recent missives are absent, including his “fire and fury” rhetoric and threats to “totally destroy” North Korea.

Nevertheless, this is an astute take on the three nations’ modern ties, serving up a much-needed and often overlooked helping of the context necessary for making sense of Asia complexities.