Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Emerging Confucian World Order

China perplexes. America knows how to deal with nuclear-armed countries, like Britain and France, that are clearly friends and allies. It learned through painful trial and error how to deal with a nuclear-armed country, the Soviet Union, that was clearly an adversary. But how does one deal with a nuclear-armed country, China, that is neither a fast friend nor a clear adversary?

In groping to define a coherent policy toward China, it is probably inevitable that policy makers, pundits and academicians fall back on familiar templates. The one that comes readily to mind is the Cold War paradigm, which demands a cordon of democracies to contain China. John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, writes, “China’s neighbors are certain to fear [China’s] rise and they will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the same way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and even China joined forces to contain the Soviet Union.”

But will they? The fundamental weakness of the Cold War model lies in the fact that it is hard to put one’s finger on what exactly needs containing. Unlike the old Soviet Union China’s communist leaders are not trying to export communism or any other ideology. From a historical perspective the communist threat of the 1960s and 1970s as experienced by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore has receded. There is still a vicious “Maoist” insurgency in Nepal and a weak communist insurgency in the Philippines. But Beijing disavows the former and ignores the latter.

Nor are China’s leaders actively hostile to democracy, so long as it is practiced in somebody else’s country. The notion then that the Asian democracies have a natural affinity that will cause them to band together in some kind of anti-Chinese coalition is a fantasy, unless Beijing actively seeks to undermine their institutions. China’s president Hu Jintao is pleased enough to speak before democratic assemblies. While President George W. Bush was extolling democracy in the abstract at a convention center in Japan during his trip to Asia late last year, President Hu was addressing the heart of Korean democracy, the National Assembly, and getting a standing ovation!

If the Cold War model doesn’t work, how to define future of Asia? The Chinese have their own template that comes under the general heading of hepin jueqi or “peaceful rise.” It is a term that Premier Wen Jiabao first used at Harvard in late 2003. But peaceful rise is nothing more than a slogan. If this seems anodyne and feel-good, there is another model to put forth. Call it the Emerging Confucian World Order, or to be more exact, the re-emergence of the Confucian World Order, since in fact Asia is simply reverting to the order of nations with China at the center that existed before the era of European colonialism.

As it did during the Ming Dynasty years, the height of the tributary system, China confers the boon of trade with the nations on its periphery and receives tribute in return. No boon was more welcome in Southeast Asia than Beijing’s decision to during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis to maintain its currency’s peg to the dollar, resisting the temptation to snatch trade advantages from neighboring state by devaluing. Recently, it signed a free-trade agreement with the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and tolerates a $20 billion trade deficit with them. Meanwhile, it gracefully accepts “tribute” from South Korea in the form of its conferring “Market Economy Status” on China, the first country with more than $100 billion in trade with China to do so.

The growing animosity between China and Japan can easily be read in Confucian terms. Ostensibly, the discord is rooted in interpretations of Asia’s modern history. In China’s view, Japan has not shown sufficient remorse for its aggression during World War II. This, it is said, is reflected in how the war is portrayed in its history books and in the regular visits that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi makes to the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan’s apologies for its wartime actions constitute a modern version of the kowtow. The Prime Minister’s regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are for Japan the anti-kowtow.

But then Japan never was a model vassal. The current war of words echoes sentiments going back to the 14th century when the Chinese Emperor Hung-wu addressed the Japanese sovereign as, “you stupid eastern barbarian.” To which the Japanese Ashikaga shogun replied in kind: “Heaven and earth are vast; they are not monopolized by one ruler.” China and Japan that have been rivals for hundreds of years. It should not be surprising that they are still jockeying for primacy. In Confucian terms somebody has to be “big brother” and the other has to be “little brother.”

On the other hand, Korea was a model tributary state for 500 years, stretching from the late Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Koreans paid their annual tribute even more regularly than the other tributary states, such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. No other country in Asia, not even Japan, was so completely absorbed into the Confucian system. Today South Korea is moving perceptibly into China’s orbit. The only question is whether this trend is reversible. The six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea of nuclear weapons seem to be accelerating this trend, and by clinging to them, the Bush administration may be pushing this development along. Seoul’s position in the talks is much closer to Beijing’s than it is to Washington’s.

The political tectonic plates in Northeast Asia are clearly shifting, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the Cold War. The rift that is opening and rapidly widening runs through the Sea of Japan with China and the two Koreas on one side of the divide; Japan, the U.S. and possibly Taiwan on the other. Many are reluctant to give up the Cold War template because the alternative seems to leave little place for the United States. A taste of what is to come was the East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, late last year from which Washington was pointedly excluded. It will be in America’s interests to give way gracefully, maintaining the good will of the countries that make up the continent of Asia while maintaining a significant offshore presence through its continuing alliance with Japan and other bases in the Pacific.

4 Comments:

Blogger Patrick Tan said...

The history is spot on - but I think the reason for the Sino-Japanese freeze is more fundamental, going to the basics - national interest and power politics. China and Japan have never been powerful states at the same time. Before the Meiji Restoration, China was "top dog" in the region. After 1894-1895 (and to an extent, albeit diminishing) Japan became the undisputed power in the region. China's rise makes the Japanese tremble in fear at the prospect of losing the mantle of "No. 1 in East Asia". The old horse-and-cart has transformed itself into a motorcar at last, and is expected to surpass the now jaded Formula-1 car. Will there be a crash? Will the Formula-1 car try to prevent the motorcar from surpassing itself, and if so, how? By taking advantage of centrifugal forces in China and working with the USA? Who knows.

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