Drawing on lessons from history, Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning explores the complex relationship between China, the US and Japan – and how it might evolve peacefully, or tragically.
Joyce Lau reports: Demonstrators who regularly gather outside Exchange Square, home of the Hong Kong stock exchange, aren’t protesting against capitalist greed, or the gap between rich and poor. Instead, they shout into megaphones about atrocities committed by Japan during the second world war, which ended more than 70 years ago.
“Trade and tourism may run smoothly between the two pragmatic, business-minded nations, but deep, mutual dislike simmers under the surface.”
Their broadcasts – in Cantonese, Putonghua and English – are largely ignored by office workers rushing by. This is Hong Kong, after all, and business goes on as usual. But their nationalist anger remains as background noise in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan financial centres.
In his latest book, Asia’s Reckoning, Richard McGregor warns against underestimating the historic tensions between China and Japan. Trade and tourism may run smoothly between the two pragmatic, business-minded nations, but deep, mutual dislike simmers under the surface. McGregor says it would not take much of a trigger to disrupt the region’s tentative peace.
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McGregor describes China and Japan as “global powers, with the world’s second- and third-largest economies, backed by robust, advanced militaries”. Completing the triangle is the United States, the world’s largest economy and the traditional guardian of “Pax Americana” in Asia.
But the situation has been destabilised by the election of Donald Trump as US president and recent threats from North Korea. It is in this context that Asia’s Reckoning looks at the political, business and military ties between China, Japan and the US, from the post-war era to today.
McGregor is an author and journalist by trade, not a policy wonk, so Asia’s Reckoning is filled with colourful anecdotes and behind-the-scenes intrigue.
There are great descriptions of Chinese and American leaders putting on acts for each other. McGregor describes Deng Xiaoping as a “diminutive, Mao-suited vice-premier” who “donned an oversized cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo” in 1979. McGregor talks about the time Jiang Zemin recited Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address for Bill Clinton as a “party trick” in the 1990s.
In 2013, then US president Barack Obama invited Chinese President Xi Jinping for a private dinner at a California resort, and a casual stroll through the Sunnylands estate. The idea was to get Xi out of his usual meetings in Washington and Beijing, and past his pre-scripted speeches.
According to transcripts, Xi kept up his polite but stony-faced manner, and only became agitated when Japan was discussed. “The US president raised his hands over his head like a stop sign, as if he were a schoolteacher,” McGregor writes … (read more)