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The world has never seen economic development as rapid or significant as Asia’s during recent decades. Home to three-fifths of the global population, this restless continent will soon produce more than half of the world’s economic output and consume more energy than the rest of the world combined. All but three of the planet’s current and nascent nuclear powers are Asian, and it has the greatest growth in weapons spending of any other region. Yet, surprisingly little has been written about the future of Asia.
Restless Continent is the first book to examine the economic, social, political, and strategic trends across the world’s largest continent, providing the necessary framework for thinking about the future of Asia—and the world.
A professor of international affairs at Australian National University, Michael Wesley looks at the psychology of Asian countries becoming newly rich and powerful. He explores the geography and politics of conflict, and offers persuasive ideas about how to avert dispute, or even war.
Written for general readers and policy specialists alike, Restless Continent is an agenda-shaping book about international affairs in the twenty-first century.
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Dawn broke clear and still over Saigon on the last day of April 1975. A helicopter settled carefully onto the rooftop of the American embassy, whipping up the tear gas in harried tendrils, making the marines cough and their eyes stream. They were the last of the 200 Americans who had retreated upwards from the ground floor, locking doors behind them with steel bars, dumping furniture and tear-gas grenades into the stairways and lift wells. Below them, hundreds of Vietnamese, many of them employees at the embassy, were pleading to be evacuated, some lifting their children and imploring the Americans to take them. But their fate had been decided by messages carried in on two helicopters. One, handwritten, from CINCPAC – the commander-in-chief of American forces in the Pacific – arrived at 3.15 am: 'On the basis of the reported total of 726 refugees, CINCPAC is authorized to send 19 helicopters and no more' – the last two words underlined twice. Then, at 4.42 am came a presidential order: only Americans are to be evacuated.
The mortar blasts were crumping closer as the last marine, Juan Valdez, clambered into the belly of the helicopter. It lifted off at 7.53 am and flew towards the rising sun, flanked by two Cobra combat helicopters. As the convoy flew over the coastline, the marines cheered and took pictures. Awaiting their arrival on the USS Blue Ridge, the last American ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, Graham Martin, read three congratulatory cables – from President Gerald Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Operation Frequent Wind – the evacuation of the last Americans and Vietnamese refugees from South Vietnam between 28 and 30 April 1975 – was a remarkable achievement – a modern-day Dunkirk. Marine pilots had flown for an average of thirteen hours a day, and some for eighteen hours straight. The evacuation helicopters flew 689 sorties, 160 of them at night. They evacuated 2,206 people, including 1,373 Americans, from the United States embassy. The eight ships of the evacuation fleet took aboard a total of 29,783 refugees.
That there were no losses or crashes was in large part due to the decision by the North Vietnamese Army and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in South Vietnam to let the evacuees leave unmolested, while pressing ahead with their occupation of Saigon. As the last helicopter lifted off the embassy roof, North Vietnamese tanks and troops sped through streets festooned with PRG banners and white flags, and strewn with discarded fatigues, boots, helmets and cartridge belts of the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. At 12.15 pm, Tank 879 of the 203rd Brigade, driven by Bui Duc Mai, roared down Thong Nhut Boulevard, momentarily overshooting the entrance to the American embassy. It made a three-point turn and smashed through the heavy iron gates. Squadron commander Bui Quang Than scaled the facade to tear down the Republic of Vietnam flag and replace it with that of the PRG.
Thirteen days earlier, a thousand miles to the west, the communist forces of the Khmer Rouge had taken the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. In three months' time, the communist Pathet Lao would take Vientiane, to complete their triumph in Laos. Communist rule had come to Indochina, despite the deaths of 58,209 Americans that resulted from trying to prevent it. The most powerful country in human history had been beaten for the first time. The Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell proclaimed the end of American exceptionalism in the journal The Public Interest: 'There is no longer Manifest Destiny or Mission [for America]. We have not been immune from the corruption of power. We have not been the exception ... our mortality now lies before us.'
The Triumph of Pragmatism
Retreat from Saigon brought to an end the era of universalism in American foreign policy: the belief that the United States had to act to turn back communism whenever and wherever it threatened to escape its boundaries in the heart of Eurasia; the belief that a victory for communism anywhere was a mortal blow to the free world; the belief that America had such vast power it could – and should – lead the defence of freedom everywhere. As the embodiment of a young, confident America, President John F. Kennedy had pledged in his inaugural address that the United States would 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty'. It was the man Kennedy beat narrowly in the presidential race of 1960, the man who would ultimately prevail in the race for the presidency eight years later, who would quietly dismantle American universalism in Asia.
The Richard Nixon who entered the White House in January 1969 was a different man from the ranting anti-communist who had been plucked from obscurity to be Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice-president in 1952. He had spent the years following his defeat in the 1960 presidential race thinking hard about how the world worked: travelling, reading widely, questioning the leaders and diplomats he met closely. In Henry Kissinger, his pudgy, owlish national security adviser, he found a kindred mind. Nixon and Kissinger believed that, since the end of the Second World War, power, the very currency of international affairs, had changed: diffusing out of the hands of the superpowers towards smaller countries and even stateless movements, as well as fracturing into various forms – military, political, economic – that worked differently and even could contradict each other. Consequently, the overriding goal Nixon had so fervently believed in as Eisenhower's vice-president – the containment and rollback of communism – had been displaced in Nixon's mind by a new foreign policy talisman: stability. No longer was it an all-or-nothing fight against communism; given the diffused and fractured nature of power, a setback in one region could be compensated for by gains elsewhere. Stability and détente between the nuclear-armed superpowers could be built by seeking stability in each of the world's regions and subregions.
For all of their new thinking, Nixon and Kissinger faced a very real world problem: the United States was stuck in the agonising trap of the Vietnam War. While they had jettisoned the belief that a setback in Vietnam would be a mortal blow to the free world, they had replaced it with a different neurosis: that a humiliating withdrawal would corrode America's reputation among its allies and embolden world communism. And yet, every month the marines fought on in Vietnam deepened the immobility of American diplomacy elsewhere, isolating it from its closest allies, stripping it of moral capital and giving leverage to its competitors. At home the war was tearing American society apart. Knowing this, the North Vietnamese Politburo remained stubbornly reluctant to entertain any overtures for peace talks.
Nixon's solution to the war in Vietnam, and his formula for American foreign policy after the end of universalism, emerged in the unlikely setting of a balmy evening in the 'Top o' the Mar' officers' mess in the American base on Guam. Nixon and his entourage had stopped at Guam on the way to his first presidential visit to Asia, in part to coincide with the splashdown of the first Apollo moon mission. Speaking off the record to the travelling media pack, Nixon observed:
As we look at Asia, it poses, in my view, over the long haul, looking down to the end of the century, the greatest threat to the peace of the world, and, for that reason the United States should continue to play a significant role. It also poses, it seems to me, the greatest hope for progress in the world – progress in the world because of the ability, the resources, the ability of the people, the resources physically that are available in this part of the world. And for these reasons, I think we need policies that will see that we play a part and a part that is appropriate to the conditions that we will find.
That part, the president continued, would see America, while maintaining its treaty commitments, playing a supporting rather than a leading role: 'as far as the problems of internal security are concerned, as far as the problems of military defense, except for the threat of a major power involving nuclear weapons, that the United States is going to encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves'. This doctrine, which came to bear Nixon's name, was to be emphatically restated in a presidential message the following February: 'America cannot – and will not – conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest'.
The Nixon Doctrine saw American troop numbers reduced in Vietnam, while a policy of 'Vietnamisation', channelling American military and development aid to Saigon, enabled South Vietnam to amass the fourth-largest armed forces on earth. But still Nixon and Kissinger could find no way to end America's intervention without what they believed would be a crippling loss of credibility. Hanoi remained unprepared to compromise, while Nixon worried that if he escalated the war to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, it could provoke Chinese intervention, and he'd have another version of the Korean War on his hands. The solution to his predicament lay in the unlikeliest of places.
As Zhou Enlai stood on the tarmac of Beijing airport on a cold grey morning on 21 February 1972, it was arguably one of the most dangerous moments of his perilous life. That Zhou, the premier of China, had survived thus far the ravages of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution against 'bourgeois elements' in Chinese society and purges of other senior leaders was nothing short of extraordinary. Zhou had worked quietly behind the scenes to curb the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, including persuading Mao not to raze the Forbidden City. Dag Hammarskjold, the urbane Swedish United Nations Secretary-General, had remarked on meeting Zhou that for the first time in his life he had felt uncivilised in the presence of a civilised man – not exactly a trait that was valued by the marauding gangs of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Now Zhou was awaiting the arrival of Air Force One, carrying President Nixon, a man who had once fulminated against the 'loss of China' to the communists. It was during Nixon's vice-presidency that the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had refused to shake Zhou's proffered hand at an earlier peace conference on Vietnam in Geneva.
Zhou Enlai was a pragmatist. He was welcoming Nixon not because he wanted to dismantle the Chinese communist revolution but because he wanted to save it. Rarely had China been so isolated and threatened as in the early 1970s. It had been shut out of the United Nations. Japan and most of Southeast Asia refused to recognise it diplomatically. Its developing influence in Indonesia had ended in the blood-drenched overthrow of the Beijing-friendly President Sukarno and the massacre of tens of thousands of Indonesian Communist Party members and ethnic Chinese. India, its non-aligned partner of the 1950s, watched it with bruised hostility across the Himalayan mountain passes after a sharp border war in 1962. The enduring hostility of the United States and deep isolation abroad were complemented internally by the fanatical orgy of the Cultural Revolution, which had suffocated economic growth, persecuted hundreds of millions and killed between one and three million people.
Most alarmingly, communist China's one significant alliance, with the Soviet Union, had broken down into deep antagonism amid mutual accusations of ideological betrayal, nuclear bad faith and conflicting territorial claims. Red Guards had attacked the Soviet embassy, placing it under virtual siege in 1967 and renaming the road outside 'Anti-Revisionism Street'. In 1968, Zhou told a visiting Albanian delegation that there had been over 2000 violations of the Chinese border territories by the Soviet Union. Moscow had begun a massive troop build-up: from seventeen divisions the Red Army would grow to fifty-four divisions along their mutual border. When a clash occurred in March 1969 on a disputed island in the Ussuri River called Zhenbao by the Chinese and Damansky by the Russians, the Soviet side responded with its biggest artillery barrage since the Second World War. Beijing had watched Soviet tanks stream into Prague in 1968 in the name of 'socialist orthodoxy', and wondered whether the focus of the Brezhnev Doctrine would soon turn to the east.
To the south, Beijing worried that the war in Vietnam would draw it into yet another catastrophic conflict with the United States. Beijing feared another Korean War as much as Washington did. Chinese leaders also fretted that the United States would retaliate against China's support of North Vietnam by backing efforts by Chinese nationalist forces on Taiwan to overthrow the Communist Party on the mainland. Zhou had been gently pressing Hanoi to rely less on Chinese assistance and to begin to compromise with the Americans; the North Vietnamese had reacted angrily, pointedly praising Moscow's 'selfless' intervention in Czechoslovakia in defence of socialist orthodoxy and solidarity. As Hanoi gravitated towards Moscow and India signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union, Beijing's sense of isolation deepened.
As President Nixon left the steps of Air Force One and, in front of a People's Liberation Army honour guard and a small crowd of onlookers, firmly shook Zhou Enlai's hand, the elements of a tacit agreement between the United States and China were already in place. Henry Kissinger had made a series of visits to China, beginning with a dramatic secret visit in July 1971. Zhou and Kissinger had agreed on some groundbreaking compromises: China and the United States needed to cooperate to contain an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union; Washington would not support any attempt from Taiwan to overthrow the government of the mainland; Beijing would tacitly accept the need for an American tactical escalation of the Vietnam War as a way of bringing about a strategic retreat. As Moscow tried to isolate it in Asia and the Communist bloc, China needed to end its isolation; Chairman Mao had told Kissinger, 'we should draw a horizontal line [through] the United States, Japan, China, Pakistan, Turkey and Europe' against the Soviet Union's intrigues.
Nixon's visit to China culminated in the issue of one of the most remarkable documents in diplomatic history. The 'Shanghai Communiqué', signed on 28 February 1972, presented to the world a clear statement of the great differences between the United States and China, as each side included separate passages setting out its position on regional security issues, from Vietnam to the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and the subcontinent. Zhou had insisted the communiqué not try to massage away the substantial divergences between Beijing and Washington, in large part to assuage domestic critics on both sides as well as to reassure allies. But despite the differences, the communiqué established three key points of agreement: the need to normalise Sino-American relations, the need to reduce the threat of military conflict, and Beijing's and Washington's shared opposition to any attempt at 'hegemony' in Asia.
It was not until 16 December 1978 that China and the United States reached final agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations. When Nixon's successor Gerald Ford visited Beijing in late 1975 to push normalisation negotiations along, Zhou was in hospital battling terminal cancer and Deng Xiaoping had taken over as Ford's negotiating partner. Deng had just been rehabilitated after being purged during the Cultural Revolution and was aware that he was being watched with suspicion by the extremist 'Gang of Four' who had taken power from an ailing Mao Zedong. Despite his hardline negotiating style, Deng believed in the inevitability of Sino-American rapprochement. He urged the Americans not to be too impatient and force a suboptimal compromise. 'It should always be possible to find a way to solve problems,' he told George Bush, the head of the American Liaison Office in China in November 1974, 'we may wait if the conditions are not right.' Deng was convinced that normalisation of China's relations with the United States was necessary to the reform and opening up of the Chinese economy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Restless Continent"
Copyright © 2015 Michael Wesley.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
MAP: ASIA'S STRATEGIC GEOGRAPHY,
1 Peace Dividends,
2 Significant Others,
3 Compulsive Ambition,
4 Restless Souls,
5 Fateful Terrains,
6 Asia and the World,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,