Michael Wesley: Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s New Geopolitics

Michael Wesley’s book provides one of the best accounts of our days on the most important trends that define the development of the Asian continent. In the Australian professor’s opinion, there Is a serious struggle going on for the primacy of the Asian continent, the outcomes of which will be determined by the continent’s internal dynamics. These are in the focus of his book explored from the aspects of politics, geostrategy, economy, trade, geography and culture.

About the author

Michael Wesley is one of the world’s leading experts on Asian and international affairs, he is a former head of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and currently Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs (ANU) and Professor at the Australian National University. His articles regularly appear in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Economist. His previous book, There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia, won the 2011 John Button Prize.

Basic assumptions of the book

The central topic of Wesley’s current book is the struggle for the Asian continent’s dominance from the perspective of past, present and future. In his opinion, the future of this process will be determined not only by the behaviour of the United States but also by the internal dynamics of Asia, so he endeavours to analyse primarily these aspects in detail. The author discusses geopolitical correlations, makes conclusions and outlines possible future scenarios from the aspects of economy, trade, geography, military policy and culture, although refrains from making specific forecasts.

“Peace dividents”

The first chapter overviews the major events of Asia’s history from the 1970s, highlighting among others the transformation of American foreign policy after the Vietnam defeat, the end of universalism and the victory of pragmatism, that is, the significance of the possibility of establishing alliance with China. After the wars in the region stretching from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean earlier, the 1970s brought stability, because the strategic ambitions were not achieved, but with the advancement of pragmatism, the possibility of dynamic economic development opened up in the era of peace. The performance of the Asian countries surpassed all expectations, and within a short time East and South-East Asia became the most dynamically developing regions on Earth. The data speak for themselves: earlier Great Britain needed 50 years to double the per capita income, the USA needed minimum 30, while Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore and India achieved this within 10 years. The decrease of poverty is also a world record, because in North-East Asia the proportion of the poor changed from 57.7 per cent in 1975 to 21.2 per cent in 20 years.

The author names three closely related conditions as reasons for this unprecedented economic development. 1. None of the countries was strong enough to establish dominance in Asia while wars generated too high costs, so peaceful cooperation became much more profitable. 2. The foundation of ASEAN also embodied the increasingly popular idea that establishing economic development and stability overrides everything in significance, so disagreements have to be set aside and disputes should be resolved in a peaceful manner. 3. Several multilateral economic and security institutions were established that mutually strengthened each other, facilitated the expansion of economic relationships with America and the utilisation of the advantages of American military defense. As far as the future is concerned, however, the author is not optimistic; he believes that these circumstances have considerably changed by now—primarily due to the rise of China—therefore the peaceful and uninterrupted economic development of Asia in the future is questionable.

Consequences of interdependences

The second chapter dwells on the significance of interdependence between Asian economies, and the consequences of interconnectedness of trade relations and strategic transport routes. European colonisation fundamentally transformed Asia’s economies and also laid the foundations for the disunity of the continent. After 1945 the ideological disagreements perpetuated dissention, the borders drawn by colonisers meant a difficult heritage for the countries gaining independence. By the end of the 20th century the advance of regionalism created conditions for integration with respect to sovereignty. Japan’s attempt failed during the World War II, but after 1945 the cooperation on war reparations served mutual development. Through international investments an increasing number of countries benefited from this process, and in the meantime Asia got to the forefront of the world concerning production sharing. Today more and more countries and companies participate in the production of a certain product, which restructures global economy and promotes the spread of technological developments and facilitates the growth of smaller market operators. As a result of industrialisation, the demand for raw materials in certain regions has increased, which helped build closer relationships with countries with raw material deposits. The strongest economies (China, India, Japan) need to import raw materials, the necessary oil and gas supply is easiest to obtain from West Asia, and smooth communication is of strategic importance. In order to ensure this, several regional initiatives were born that focus mainly on infrastructural developments, and strengthen integration further. Undoubtedly, One Belt, One Road is the most significant among the projects. Since it involves enormous investments, and—although all participants benefit from it—there is a fierce competition among major powers to grab the biggest advantages.

Limitations caused by interdependence

In the following chapter the author presents the problems and possible negative consequences of the economic interdependence of Asian countries. Since globalisation arrived to the Asian countries through colonial empires, after gaining independence the governments supported closed economies in which the state played a significant role. But from the 1970s on, opening up was inevitable, the role of the private sector became more significant and state control moved to the background. As a result of eliminating trade barriers and ensuring the free flow of capital, the Asian countries became an integral part of the global economy by the turn of the millennium. Urbanisation poses a growing challenge for Asian governments causing substantial problems mainly in developing countries. Another worrying phenomenon—that can be observed in the case of China as well—is the structural transformation of the economy, which results in the advancement of the manufacturing and the service sector along with the decline of agriculture in the given country. As a result, the self-sustainability of the economy concerned decreases, the dependence of industrial centres becomes permanent. Urbanisation entails social transformation, which might mean danger for the governing elite in a political sense, because if the leadership is incapable of ensuring expected growth, further reforms (open-up) will be necessary. This may lead to the further erosion of state influence over the economy, while returning to self-sustainability is no longer possible.

In order to obtain markets, raw materials, investments and energy, the Asian countries are dependent on the global economy, but on the basis of their rapid and large-scale development they demand a larger share. So, the larger countries are characterised by a kind of strategic claustrophobia, which is a fear of their development getting stuck, because one of their neighbours takes the necessary assets. In order to balance this, the Asian countries strive to reform regional and global institutions, and try to modify the rules established by the West according to their interests.

Competition of “restless souls”

 The fourth chapter introduces the increased sensitivity of Asian countries toward civilisational hierarchy. In Asian societies hierarchy plays a very important role, it even determines the international relationships of certain countries. China’s supremacy in the region was unquestionable for centuries, but due to European dominance even its neighbours ceased to believe in this by the beginning of the 20th century. The USA and the Europeans considered the population of the colonies inferior, only after World War II did the newly independent countries gain equal status in the international hierarchy. Since the state borders were drawn by the colonists, these countries were characterised by serious ethnic and religious conflicts, so the state did everything to justify its existence. Cultural pride—that dates back to pre-colonisation times—proved to be a productive focus point for several Asian societies in the process of establishing a unified national identity, but at the same time it sowed the seeds of rivalry as well. The Asian societies’ opinion about the external world is still determined by its assumed role in the cultural hierarchy, their understanding of history is affected by numerous stereotypes. Since we are talking mainly about multicultural societies, ethnic heterogeneity also feeds conflicts, the likelihood of which is further increased by nationalism that is nurtured by historical heritage, colonial past, territorial disputes and different levels of economic development. The author believes that there is a deep cultural rivalry among emerging Asian powers, and consequently trust and the willingness to compromise are gradually disappearing, and Asia’s countries will remain “restless souls”.

Geographic constraints

The fifth chapter presents the geographic parameters of the Asian continent, the spatial environment in which the struggle for primacy is taking place. According to Wesley, geography is the same for states as DNA for humans: an unmistakable heritage that determines, shapes and limits our possibilities. In the current global era borders and territorial sovereignty gradually lose significance; as opposed to this, in Asia a new period of territorial disputes has set in and a new security dilemma has arisen: certain countries, in fear of becoming surrounded, build alliances and strengthen defense against their neighbours, who react similarly, because they also fear the same.

To understand the security dynamics, we have to explore Asia’s strategic geography as well. Mountain ranges divide the continent into a northern and a southern belt. The southern part extends from the Persian Gulf to the Korean Peninsula and includes the coastline of South and Southeast Asia. 80 per cent of Asia’s cities are situated in this area and the majority of the industrial and military power is concentrated here. The ocean carries 90 per cent of the world’s trade and can be regarded as the main resource of prosperity. At the same time, it means a source of threat that influenced the shaping of the defense strategy. Beside the traditional development of the navy, nowadays the establishment of asymmetric capabilities has gained increased importance. Parallelly, an arms race has begun involving India, China, Japan and the Southeast Asian states. However, the security paradox can be observed here as well: the stronger a state is, the more vulnerable it feels, while the bigger power it has, the less it is willing to tolerate the obstacles in its way. In a strategic sense the straits, peninsulas and gulfs have exceptional importance, suffice to think about the Bay of Bengal, the strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. This is expressed in several ways in the security strategies of India and China.

The largest plain on planet Earth can be found in the northern belt. It is bounded by mountain ranges in the south and the Arctic in the north. When the nomad threats were over, Russia and China rose to the status of the strongest powers of the region and it is primarily their rivalry that determines the region’s future. The vast space and the low population density offer opportunities and may present dangers alike. The question is whether Beijing is going to pursue its land or maritime ambitions in the future.

Asia and the new world

In the last, sixth chapter the author presents the relationships between Asia and the rest of the world and makes conclusions about the major processes and trends. First he raises the questions why Asia is the most rapidly growing region and why this area will shape world history in the future. In his answers, Wesley identifies four synergistic reasons that differentiate Asia from the other parts of the world: scale, muscle memory (the ideal of the strong state), pride and location.

He thinks that taking social and moral transformation, economic interdependence, and the rivalry among the states into consideration, Asia’s future will not be peaceful, but neither will it fall victim to constant wars. Instead, future international relationships can be formulated as “rivaling interdependence”, because the emerging countries aspire to gain bigger influence, so they consider one another rivals, but at the same time larger wars are less likely because of their interdependence. Since Asian countries are reshaping the current world order, it is possible that this order will be to a certain extent “incoherent”, because Asia’s major powers will build their own spheres of influence beside the USA and Europe. Nevertheless, this would entail serious consequences for the global economy, thus, as Wesley concludes, the other alternative, the intensification of globalisation and the enhancement of integration seems to be a more likely scenario.

Closing thoughts

The book “Restless Continent” is basically founded on secondary sources, but one of its major virtues is that it excellently organises the information available in press and gives an outstanding and worthy summary on the geopolitical struggles of the Asian continent. Being an Australian, the author gives unbiased evaluation on the policies of American and Asian countries, which also contributes to the book’s value among the Western specialised literature on the subject. In general, Michael Wesley’s book is for everyone who is interested in geopolitics and Asia. Its clear and straightforward wording, the narrative enriched with historical examples make it recommended literature for university students as well.


  • WESLEY, Michael: Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s New Geopolitics. Overlook Duckworth, 2016.

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