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The East Moves West; India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East by Geoffrey Kemp (Brookings Institution Press, 2010) Reviewed by John W. Garver

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Kemp provides a solid and comprehensive survey of relations between China, India, and Japan and the countries of the Middle East.  Greatest attention is given to the three major East Asian powers (with Indian being included here in “east”), but summaries  are also provided for policies of South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan. The strength of Kemp’s analysis is that he considers the policies of the three Asian giants (China, India, Japan) side-by-side rather than in isolation.  Kemp provides an encyclopedic account of the elements of this East Asia-West Asia interaction:  China-Saudi Arabian relations;  Japan-Indian ties;  China-Israeli and India-Israeli ties,  South Korean-Iran links;  Iran-Pakistan-India interactions; China’s ties to the small Persian Gulf states; etc. Virtually every conceivable aspect of the East-West Asia relation is at least adumbrated.  Current efforts to develop railways, roads, and pipelines to tie various regions together are also surveyed and placed in the strategic context of efforts by various countries to claim a share of the wealth to be had by bringing Central Asian energy resources to global markets.  Security links of China, India, and Japan with the Middle East countries are surveyed, as is the security policies of each of those three countries toward the Indian Ocean.  The book would work well as a text in a course on Asian international relations.

It will be no surprise that Kemp finds demand and supply of oil and gas to be the key driver of the emerging East Asia-West Asia relation.  The current and projected future energy relation is analyzed in considerable detail, as are the efforts of China, Japan, and India to secure energy from the Persian Gulf region.

The organizing theme of the book is that, driven by the energy imperative, the relation between West and East Asia is growing more important, diverse, and thick, with all three East Asian powers seeking to expand ties with oil rich West Asia.  Kemp’s major analytical concern is prognostication about the future evolution of the China, Japan, India relation toward West Asia/ the Middle East in their mounting struggle for energy.  A premise of Kemp’s argument is that Western influence in the Middle East is declining and will continue to decline as the energy-hungry East Asian powers struggle to meet their energy needs from the Middle East.

A major sub-theme is whether the three East Asian powers will be able to individually or collectively fill a vacuum left by possible U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf.  Kemp argues that the United States is currently in the midst of a debate similar to Britain’s in the late 1960s that led ultimately to withdraw from “east of Suez.”  Now the United States, confronted with lengthy, costly, bloody, and seemingly unwinnable wars and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with mounting domestic demands and fiscal problems, may well decide to withdraw and leave the Persian Gulf region to its own devices.  Kemp does not predict this outcome, but rather speculates about its consequence.

Kemp considers unlikely some sort of China-Japan-Indian concert to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.  Historical memories and current conflict of interests are too great for that.  An “Asian balance of power” between the three with the East Asian powers choosing regional partners and building up positions and capabilities in the regions, is a possibility.

Kemp considers India to be the most likely winner to supplant the United States as a provider of security assistance to the Persian Gulf countries.  India (unlike China) has a long and rich history of security involvement in the Middle East, has historically been viewed as a benevolent and non-interventionist power, and currently is rapidly developing military and security ties with the smaller Persian Gulf states. It is building the force structure and multilateral organizations to give it a preeminent role in the Indian Ocean.  India also enjoys the great advantages of proximity and “expatriate” dominance in the Persian Gulf economies.  If and when the U.S. decides to withdraw from “east of Suez,” Washington (and perhaps Tokyo too) could support India as the new cop on the block, rather like Nixon supported Iran in that role during an earlier era.  Kemp does not discuss this, but one wonders if China’s advocates of multi-polarity would prefer Indian to U.S. domination of the Gulf.  Kemp’s discussion also casts a new and interesting light on the India-Iran-China relation.  In maneuvering for influence in a post-U.S. Gulf, Beijing and New Delhi would recognize Tehran as a major player.  In fact, Beijing’s current policies are probably intended, in part, to build capital in Tehran against that future day.

John Garver is professor of International Relations at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World (Univ. of Washington Press: 2006)

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