Focus on China – December 1, 2012

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Napoleon had famously remarked nearly 200 years ago, “Let China sleep, when she awakes the world will be sorry.” The Communist giant has certainly woken up, but whether this is a disquieting development for the rest of the world remains to be seen. What is becoming clearer is the US is “pivoting to Asia’as the media refers to it, which essentially implies that U.S. national interests indicate a shift away from Europe and the Middle East toward Asian countries. The latter’s remarkable economic growth provides multiple opportunities for mutually fruitful collaboration between the United States and this part of the world. President Obama has signalled this renewed focus on Southeast Asia by undertaking his first foreign visit after his reelection to Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia.

Odd Arne Westad, a professor at the London School of Economics, has written a major book, Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, in which he makes the point that during the past two centuries the country has been “decisively shaped by ideas and movements from outside: imperialism, communism, and modern capitalism.” As the second largest economy in the world, poised to overtake the United States in the next few years, it is but natural that China should flex its political and economic muscles. Westad places current developments in China in an interesting historical perspective. In 2010, he writes, “China held its biggest naval exercises ever in the South China Sea… for the first time since the fifteenth century, China has a predominant naval presence in the southern seas.” The influential columnist for the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, opines, “the rise of Chinese naval power is unlikely to be greeted passively by other Pacific powers – particularly if combined with a more assertive Chinese attitude to territorial disputes in the region.” Seemingly as a riposte to burgeoning Chinese naval strength, Japan and the U.S. recently conducted a joint military exercise in the East China Sea involving more than 40,000 troops. Westad is tentative on the broader question whether a rising China can continue its peaceful rise – or whether it is doomed to clash with its neighbors and rivals. Westad believes that a China that “successfully rebalances its economy, improves the rule of law and builds a new relationship with its national minorities will be a much more reliable international citizen. By contrast, a China that experiences significant internal instability is likely to become more nationalistic and erratic in its international behavior.”

One of China’s foremost intellectuals, Zhang Weiwei, in his book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, has rebutted the notion that modern China is simply following Western patterns of development – particularly political development. Where Westad sees China as a “restless empire”, Zhang’s preferred term is “civilizational state”. He argues that China’s Confucian heritage offers a more efficient and legitimate form of government than a misfiring Western model, which he identifies with the financial crisis and the wars of George W. Bush. Soothing the apprehensions among China’s neighbors and even countries in the wider world, whether China will exploit its immensely increased power to exercise hegemony over them, Zhang adopts a reassuring stance when he states: “given its cultural traditions, China is not likely to be a country bent on confrontation,”.  However, he administers a warning too: “this positive picture may change if some countries are determined to pick a fight with China.” Zhang’s allusion is obviously toward Japan with which China is at loggerheads with over some insignificant islands that both claim. Some observers attribute the unusually nationalistic fervor exhibited by the Japanese to its declining economic status vis-à-vis China.

Rachman believes that Zhang has ignored the Maoist legacy in China’s history. He proffers the opinion that he cannot see a “truly stable political future for China until it is able to have an open discussion of the crimes that Mao inflicted on the country.” Perhaps at the back of his mind, Rachman has the example of Khrushchev’s celebrated 1956 de-Stalinization speech, which enumerated the numerous crimes committed by Stalin against his people.

Given China’s rising star in the international firmament, it is quite natural that considerable attention would be paid to its future by Chinese and other scholars. In view of the history of Western domination of China in the past, the Chinese will be wary of attempts to contain it by building other countries as a counterweight to it. Such strategies might have worked in the Cold War years as witness the containment architecture devised by the U.S. against the Soviet Union. In the 21st century, the United States, Japan, India and other neighboring countries will not have much leeway except to adjust to China’s rising clout. A new diplomatic architecture, which avoids conflict and resolves disputes through peaceful methods, will be mutually advantageous. The United States should embrace the latter course and firmly eschew the former Cold War mindset.

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