Rivals

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Bill Emmott, Allen Lane, £20

Bill Emmott was editor of the Economist for many years. He made his name with a prescient book about Japan, The Sun Also Sets, which appeared at a time when many people - especially in the US - were afraid that Japan was going to take over the world. He realised that Japanese capitalism had some serious weaknesses, and when its asset bubble burst, followed by years of stagnation, he was proven correct (though his analysis was in many ways quite superficial).

The timing of Rivals leads clearly to parallels with the present attention on China, and whether its own economic "miracle" can last. Emmott widens the focus, speculating about the geopolitical and economic future of Asia in a global context.

The book contains a great deal that is of interest. After a rather feeble introductory section, Emmott takes the three major subject countries in turn and describes their recent economic and political trajectories. I found the Japanese section particularly interesting in its analysis of the changes that have occurred since the 1990s.

For example, 70 percent of the factory labour force at the electronics company Canon is on "non-regular" terms, ie temporary or part time, compared with just 10 percent in 1995.

The latter part of the book is devoted to assessing the danger points for conflict within the region and between the emerging Asian great powers and the West. Emmott declares his aim (laudably) as being to connect economics and politics. Though he does, for example, link the Tiananmen Square protests with economic problems (emphasising that workers were involved in the protests) and correctly dismisses the notion that a growing middle class equals democracy, he lacks a real theory of how to make this connection.

The weakness of his analysis is especially marked when it comes to understanding the relationship between economic and military competition. He sees no necessity for capitalist states to engage in armed conflict. The latter, in his view, is most likely to arise either from historical enmities or by accident.

In terms of the current situation, the US comes over in the book as a kind of benign onlooker to potential conflicts in Asia. It will face dilemmas over intervention if, for example, China takes over Taiwan, but it is not seen as having its own imperialist interests in the region.

For Emmott, Asia and the rest of the world can achieve peace and prosperity - and overcome global warming - if we only follow the recipe of ever more deregulation and ever more competition.

Though there is a great deal in this book which is useful, anyone who reads the Economist will also recognise some infuriating features: a self-satisfied, smug tone and a completely uncritical approach to capitalism as a system. The causes of any problems suffered by countries and their populations always seem to boil down to their being insufficiently committed to the free market.