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Captivating Narrative of the Rise of Asia

Deepshikha Shahi

his book is a significant contribution to the rapidly swelling corpus of literature on the “Asian Century”. However, it is less prospective and more retrospective in its orientation. In other words, it forecasts little about the probable impact of rising Asia on contemporary international relations. It rather focuses more on the historical evolution of Asia as an increasingly consequential region in world politics. The book takes the second world war as the starting point and the end of the cold war as a turning point for generating a narrative of the historical rise of Asia. But what is the need for a narrative history of Asia? How can the “narrative” methodology be applied for the investigation of Asian international relations? And why is the second world war a natural starting point and the end of the cold war a crucial turning point? Need and Methodology Alice Lyman Miller and Richard Wich notice the transformation of Asia from a mere western geographical expression at the end of the second world war to a progressively influential region by the turn of the new millennium, so much so that some observers dub the 21st century as the Asian century. Despite the intense debate on the prospects of an Asian century, Miller and Wich lament the absence of an integrated, comprehensive and systemic approach to comprehend the complexities of transforming Asian international relations. They aim at filling in the lacuna by co-authoring this book based on “narrative” methodology,1 though the methodology is not overtly spelled out in this way by the authors. In their drive to construct a holistic narrative of rising Asia, Miller and Wich raise the following fundamental questions: (i) How did Asia become a region of
Economic & Political Weekly EPW


book reviewS
Becoming Asia: Change and Continuity in Asian International Relations Since World War II by Alice Lyman Miller and Richard Wich (Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp 314, Rs 995.

increasingly consequential nation states? (ii) What are the altered trends in contemporary Asian politics that have shifted the global centre of gravity towards the region? (iii) Despite the obvious transformation in political trends, what are the deep-seated continuities in Asian politics that remain at the top of the international agenda? Miller and Wich look for the answers to these pertinent questions not only in the domestic politics of Asian nation states, but also in the interactions between Asian nation states at the regional level, and the exchanges between Asian nation states and the rest of the world at the global level. In line with the narrative methodology, they set out to examine the mind-sets and policy choices of various Asian and non-Asian protagonists through the critical reading of certain “key documents” – the Cairo Declaration, the Yalta Secret Protocol, the Postdam Proclamation, Geneva Accords, the Shanghai Communiqué, the ASEAN Charter, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Declaration, the Taiwan Relations Act, the National Security Strategy of the US and so on. Besides the international agreements and secret policy assessments, Miller and Wich also analyse the talks, speeches, and statements of nationalistic leaders/policymakers with an objective to evaluate their anticipated goals and actual outcomes, which ultimately went on to shape the historical trajectory of Asia as a region in world politics. The authors outline two major narrative themes underlying the historical
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trajectory of Asia: (i) the effect of the cold war, and (ii) the upshot of the nationalist undercurrent (p 2). Asia happened to be one of the principal arenas of the cold war between the two superpowers of the post-second world war period, namely, the US and the Soviet Union. Asia witnessed the onset of the waves of nationalism after the second world war under the guidance of some charismatic leaders who in many cases were the products of Western education and were primarily concerned with the consolidation of nationhood and the jealous safeguarding of the Westphalian concept of sovereignty in a dangerous international context. In both the interweaving narrative themes, the second world war surfaces as the preliminary explanatory factor. But how do Miller and Wich perceive the origin of the second world war in Asia? They reject two popular perspectives on the origin of the second world war in Asia: (i) the outbreak of the war in Asia as an outgrowth of the Japanese expansionism, and (ii) the initiation of the war in Asia as a collision between two rising Asian-Pacific powers – Japan and the US – as the relative power of Britain, the region’s traditional hegemon, declined (p 7). Miller and Wich reject these narratives as they either conform to the moralism of wartime propaganda or fail to encompass all the actors and events that led to the war. In their search for a more comprehensive and systemic approach, they consider the rise and decline of the “Washington treaty system” in the 1920s and 1930s as the prime propellers behind the dynamics of the second world war on Asian battleground. How do they justify the war as a valid opening for the narrative of rising Asia? Opening of the Narrative Miller and Wich pick the second world war as “a natural starting point” for explaining the historical rise of Asia because of three reasons: (i) the aftermath of the war altered the cast of major political powers in world politics in general and in Asian politics in particular; (ii) the experience of the war reformed the approaches and ideas of the leaders across

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The weakening and the gradual dissolution of the European. Pakistan. Cambodia. Vietnam. the People’s Republic of China pursued a “tortuous” path. Burma (now Myanmar). The two-way tussle between the nationalistic leaders and superpowers proved extremely volatile in the case of three “divided states” that the cold war produced in Asia – Korea. the choices they made more often than not skewed the strategic competition between the two superpowers. and Japanese empires in Asia after the end of the second world war created room for the emergence of fresh Asian sovereign nation states – India. the Asian nationalistic leaders. While most of the Asian nationalistic leaders made a clear choice. While the Asian landscape witnessed the formation or restoration of sovereign nation states at the end of the second world war. While the Vietnam conflict was settled in 1975 after a prolonged and costly clash. The bipolar struggle for power between the US-led capitalist bloc and the Soviet Union-led communist bloc during the cold war was ironically complemented with a parallel commitment towards the Westphalian notion of sovereignty. initially opting for alignment. could either choose to align with one of the superpowers or remain neutral and non-aligned. and finally taking an independent stance while adopting the neo-liberal road to liberalisation and high growth. the Japanese during the second world war. The ideological differences between these superpowers immediately led to the onset of the cold war during which they competed with each other to enlist the newly formed Asian nation states as “assets” in their respective power blocs. American.BOOK REVIEW the globe. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The Republic of China presented itself as yet another peculiar case by not encountering any downright colonisation and securing the end of the treaty-port system in 1943 that had hindered full Chinese sovereignty for a century. the US and the Soviet Union emerged as the rival superpowers on the global landscape. who confronted the daunting challenge to protect their hard-won sovereignty from colonial shackles and to ensure socio-economic development. later remaining non-aligned during the period of deep isolation. 2013 vol xlviII no 52 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . Miller and Wich observe that Thailand escaped absolute colonisation by bandwagoning with the hegemonic powers – the British in the mid-19th century. Miller and Wich point out that the Korean and the China-Taiwan disputes remain unresolved even after the end of the cold war that had acted as a powerful external catalyst in guiding the Asian international relations over the preceding decades. Against the backdrop of these paradoxical tendencies. While Singapore and the sultanate of Brunei emerged much later. Malaysia. Laos and Indonesia. and (iii) the outcomes of the war determined the features of the international relations in the next century. China and Vietnam. While the cold war between the superpowers presented somewhat restrictive choices before the Asian nation states. Twist in the Narrative The end of the cold war proved to be a dramatic turning point in the narrative of rising Asia as it terminated the bipolar 30 DECember 28. and the US after it.

Brazil. North Korea and Indochina (except for Cambodia) remained integral. the rise of Japan along with an integrated Europe as alternative poles of power. the Asian international relations followed a renewed course marked by the following events: a substantial reduction in the geopolitical tensions. India and China (BASIC) and India. they demonstrate that it ended in Asia in a much less sweeping manner than in Europe and it had a less decisive impact in east Asia as compared to other parts of Asia (p 251). Highlighting the problems arising Permission for Reproduction of Articles Published in EPW No article published in EPW or part thereof should be reproduced in any form without prior permission of the author(s). the US-People’s Republic of China rapprochement. 31 DECember 28. Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) wherein the Asian major powers like China and India intermingle with their Latin American and African counterparts in their united struggle for empowerment. and a steady advance in Asian multilateralism on regional and broader issues. and the failure to translate the economic strength into an enhancement in the region’s geopolitical power. Miller and Wich have produced a highly meticulous work by innovatively carving a fascinating narrative of the historical rise of Asia. Miller and Wich fail to foreground their theoretical approach. India. While they devote separate chapters to interlock the stories of these three cases. a problem that has further magnified due to the threat of nuclear proliferation. Miller and Wich discuss the multilateral forums such as ASEAN and SCO for evaluating Asia’s potential for embracing regional integration. it does not satisfactorily analyse the political developments in one of the most volatile areas of south and central Asia – Afghanistan. (ii) overcome seemingly unending economic rivalry. assertive Asia” (Preface). the spectacular rise of China as a sophisticated player in global affairs despite uncertain beginnings under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Beginning with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. the communist dominoes were swept off the board in all of Eurasia except in east Asia where the communist regimes in China. Nonetheless. they dedicate only a couple of paragraphs to do a cursory analysis of Afghanistan that happened to be one of the major venues of the new cold war and continues to be a land of “war without end” with profound repercussions for Asian as well as global politics (Hiro 2002). the democratisation of authoritarian regimes in South Korea. (iii) rise above ideological differences. The equations between China and India in these multilateral forums largely hold a clue to the future course of Asia in the 21st century. Though Miller and Wich visualise these dramatic shifts in Asian political trends as an offshoot of the culmination of the cold war. From the methodological viewpoint. the book shows considerable scope for qualitative improvement on two grounds: (i) analytical and (ii) methodological. Taiwan and the south-east Asian tigers. (iv) resolve territorial and nationalistic conflicts. Among the conflict zones wherein the vol xlviII no 52 superpowers “helped to create and support a contender for national power from among the national elites” (p 5) Miller and Wich select only three cases – Korea. These trends are: the problem of profound disparity in economic fortunes between Economic & Political Weekly EPW North and South Korea. the evolution of India as a major power in the Indian ocean. they ignore the analysis of relatively new multilateral forums such as Brazil. With the evaporation of the pressures unleashed by the bipolar struggle of the cold war. an unprecedented economic resilience with political stability. One of the declared objectives of the book is “to integrate developments in South and Central Asia along with East Asia into the story of how the region developed from extensive colonial development into the vibrant. the intensification of the Kashmir dispute with the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan. however. the increasing salience of transnational issues such as terrorism. Miller and Wich conclude that the “assertive” incarnation of Asia in the contemporary world certainly testifies its rise from a mere western construct to a region full of unpredictable possibilities. EPW can be contacted for help. 2013 . Against the backdrop of these unceasing political trends. Russia. Though these challenges loom large on the Asian horizon. the end of the Vietnam War. South Africa. Though the book meets this objective to a great extent. and (v) find an alternative to the security structure erected by Washington as the ultimate guarantor of regional stability (p 277). Taiwan and Indonesia. China and Vietnam. A soft/hard copy of the author(s)’s approval should be sent to EPW. the inability to match the upsurge in free-trade agreements with a proportionate increase in intra-regional trade. Miller and Wich opine that the sustainability of the notion of the “Asian Century” would largely depend on the capacity of the Asian nation states to tackle specific challenges: (i) erode rigid adherence to the Westphalian system. In cases where the email address of the author has not been published along with the articles. What are the other political trends that continue to influence Asian politics in “unmistakable” ways despite the end of the cold war? And how do these continuities affect the prospects of an Asian century? Entering the Asian Century Apart from the ongoing “divided-country conflicts” on the Korean peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait.BOOK REVIEW struggle that had acted as a compelling external stimulus in moulding the behaviour of Asian nation states in the post-second world war decades. China and South Africa (BRICS). Miller and Wich trace certain “residual” trends that according to them seem to be “unintelligible” without reference to the cold war. the perpetuation of the American security networks and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation the persisting dilemmas regarding trade and exportled development strategies. Though they briefly explain the arguments of the idealists and the realists in the context of the two world wars (p 11) they do not clearly outline the theoretical underpinnings of their own Asian narrative in terms of the frameworks of the International Relations Theory. the economic take off of South Korea. Furthermore.

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson comments: While the recent proliferation in philosophical discussions in International Relations indicates a welcome increase in the discipline’s conceptual sophistication. Dilip (2002): War without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response. Review of International Studies. and IR Theory”. organised. stories require the consequential linking of events and ideas. Monism. 2013 vol xlviII no 52 EPW Economic & Political Weekly .shahi@gmail. pp 129-53. connected. Jackson. January. Riessman (2007) states that the narrative shaping involves the imposition of a meaningful pattern on what would otherwise be random and disconnected. and evaluated in order to make sense to a particular audience. All the narratives work with contingent sequences. Apart from this commonality. the narrative method is applied differently. References Hiro. Deepshikha Shahi (deepshikha. Catherine Kohler (2007): Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. Patrick Thaddeus (2008): “Foregrounding Ontology: Dualism. events are selected. Riessman. Sage. Whatever the content. there is a wide range of definitions of “narrative”. often related to the discipline. The relationship between the observers and their observed object remains unexplained in this book. While there remains an urge to get supplementary details on some analytical and methodological Note 1 Among serious scholars working in the social sciences.BOOK REVIEW from the lack of theoretical clarity. The 32 DECember 28. Volume 34. com) is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University. Routledge. issues the book is undoubtedly a commendable effort to bring back to centre stage the growing importance of Asia in the 21st century. Issue 01. a central issue has gone relatively unremarked: the question of how to understand the relationship between scholarly observers and their obser ved objects (Jackson 2008).