EAST ASIA: From Chinese Predominance to the Rise of the Pacific Rim By Arthur Cotterell (John Murray, $340) ARTHUR Cotterell has written another masterly book following the success of his First Emperor of China. His latest book surveys a vast historical period of 3,600 years and, though necessarily dominated by China, includes all the nations of East Asia. To achieve this daunting task the author has neatly parcelled his subject into three convenient packages. First, he reviews the events of the first Chinese supremacy which lasted about 2,800 years from the Shang era to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. His second period tackles the ascendancy of the Mongols and Manchus whose dominion swayed southwardfrom their northern home, and whose control lasted through the Ming and Ching dynasties and on until 1941. A third and final section maps out the region's renaissance since the end of the Pacific War in 1945. China's civilisation may have been always aloof and somewhat removed but that has not prevented the country from being the single greatest influence in regional history. As Mr Cotterell correctly says China played the roles of both Greece and Rome in the early development of East Asia, being the centre of learning, culture, technology, and the military crafts. When the Chinese found themselves the recipients of foreign ideas, they were remarkably adept at transforming them so that they fitted hand-in-glove with China's own. Such was the case with Buddhism, the individualism of which seemed destined to conflict with the much earlier Confucian emphasis on centralisation. Yet China absorbed Buddhism, so adapting it until it became almost quintessentially Chinese in the popularimagination. Communist China's present adoption of Western capitalism under the slogan of market socialism is just the latest example of this most attractive Chinese trait. This apparent dichotomy in Chinese attitudes, their rigid adherence to the past while absorbing modern ideas has acted like a giant sieve across nearly four millennia. The resultant brew is a heady one. A vast mainly peasant population has been stirred to reveal its ancient and deeply civilised strengths. Rarely can a nation have changed both so little and so much over such a long time span. The earliest Shang oracle bones reveal a China based on filial piety, reverence, propriety and the ethics that Confucius was to praise 1,000 years later. Since then they have spread throughout most of East Asia and in the modern world constitute the essential basis of the sinic-culture nations' rapid economic development. A typical example of China's civilising influence was the establishment of Vietnam during the Han dynasty. A millennium of Chinese rule later the Vietnamese had become so sinicised that their first independent ruler Ngo Quyen almost inevitably continued to follow Chinese ways. What were the special attractions to its neighbours of the early civilisation of China? Civil administration was certainly one but far more important was the introduction of agriculture. Prior to China's arrival an economy like Vietnam's was almost totally dependent on hunting and fishing. The Chinese brought the sciences of irrigation, water-paddies and rice. The 13th century Mongol invasions came as a watershed for the region but often with the result that the oppressed lesser nations found themselves driven into closer ties with a China threatened by the same invader. Even where the Mongols fared less well,such as against the Japanese samurai, the ferocity of their invasion caused the old feudal order to break down. Indonesia is a gap in Mr Cotterell's overview of the early histories of Southeast Asia though he can hardly be blamed. Little is known about that vast nation's creative years and the dense jungle covering Sumatra and Java has made archaeology impracticaland impossibly expensive. The book concludes with the period since 1945 and an indulgent look round the corner into the future. In some senses surprisingly little seems to have changed. In the 19th century Japan's Meiji reformers encouraged trade and industry as a defence againstthe West; today Japan pursues the goal of the fifth generation computer for identical reasons. Japan's economy, already twice the size of re-united Germany's and on course to become larger than the United States' economy in about 20 years, cannot escape growing competition with fast-developing China. Both nations will need the entire East Asian marketplace for their products. China's advantage will be the overseas Chinese diaspora and the well-rooted links with China that this book does so much to explain. Elsewhere in East Asia Thailand has become over-populated relative to its current economic performance and tourism seems to have brought more problems than solutions. Vietnam is starting a recovery from war that will take decades to reach fruition. Burma still has to face the problem of assimilating its minority peoples who number 13 million. The Philippines looks like continuing along its road of troubles as its latest president received the support of only 23 per cent of the voters at his election. Indonesia's economy will continue to develop but in other ways the nation's course remains obscure with secessionist movements and corruption as the obvious dangers. There is an excellent bibliography though the index is a minor weakness that could have been much improved with more sub-indexing. A cross-reference for both Wales-Giles and pinyin would help those who still cannot recognise names like Cheng Ho as Zheng He. East Asia leaves the impression that the author worked from a huge volume of notes, which means that he has available enough material for another more detailed, and very welcome, book on each East Asian nation.