Illustration by Matthew Hollister
Illustration by Matthew Hollister

Preparing for a recent trip to Indonesia last week, I came across an article by Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the editor of the feisty Indonesian daily Jakarta Post, protesting that the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia seemed too much like an attempt to start a cold war against China, with the help of its neighbors.

America’s “economic intentions and wherewithal” in Asia should be doubted as much as its attempts to contain China, the Jakarta Post argued. The U.S. was insincerely using the rhetoric of democratic values to advance its business interests in such new Asian economies as Mongolia.

In any case, Suryodiningrat said, “Southeast Asia has dealt with the powerful Middle Kingdom since the pre-Majapahit era, and it has always found a way to persevere without submission.”

Such sentiments are not untypical in much Asian commentary on the U.S. reassertion of its role in the Pacific. They sound romantic, even chauvinistic, in their evocation of a pre-modern Asia unsullied by Western realpolitik.

Trojan Horses

Still, similarly narrow-minded is the Western view in which China, bullying its neighbors and forcing them to seek U.S. assistance, is far from becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

In some extreme versions of Western Sinophobia, China is always plotting, while talking up its “peaceful rise,” to take over the world -- a conspiracy insidiously advanced, if we are to believe the U.S. Congress, by such global Chinese companies-cum-Trojan-horses as Huawei.

Such scenarios omit the fact that, unlike Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the U.S., among other erstwhile “rising” powers, China has virtually no record of military interventions in far-off countries.

Indeed, the history of China’s relationship with its neighboring states during its long centuries as the supreme power in East Asia furnishes some remarkable facts: the relative lack, for instance, of violent conflict between major states such as China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

China fought plenty of wars with the nomadic communities on its western and northern borders. But while the map of Europe was continuously and often brutally altered during the last millennium, the boundaries of China’s neighbors -- Korea, Japan and Vietnam -- remained largely stable for nearly seven centuries. China’s successful intervention on Korea’s side against a Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, for example, did not lead to a Chinese military presence abroad.

Its uncharacteristic invasion of Vietnam in the early 15th century ended in defeat; but the victor, Vietnam’s legendary rebel-turned-emperor Le Loi, opted, like his predecessors, to become a tributary of the Middle Kingdom.

For China was not only the Greece of Asia, imparting its Confucian cultures: Its empires were also at the center of a trade and diplomatic web extending from Nepal to Java, and the Amur region to Burma. China’s economy was central to the region; overseas Chinese merchants and traders were later to become crucial in the economic development of Southeast Asia.

China’s neighbors benefited both materially and politically from acknowledging its hegemony; they didn’t seek to “balance” its power in the European way by forming alliances.

The emperors in Beijing, in turn, seemed content with recognition of their legitimacy and authority as the dominant power (no one back then bothered with the nominal “equality” of our nation-state system that gives Vanuatu as many voting rights at the United Nations as India, but allots the greatest power and influence to the U.S.). Though militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states, China refrained from making them.

New Order

European imperialists radically disrupted this integrated economic and diplomatic order in the 19th century, beginning with Britain’s imposition of the opium trade upon China in 1841, which inaugurated China’s “century of humiliation.” Within a few decades, Japan broke free of East Asia’s old tribute system and began its calamitous effort to find a place in the new global order of competitive empires and nation-states ordained by the West.

Now, after many self-inflicted disasters, China has “peacefully” risen, its ascendance coinciding with a major transformation of its neighborhood. Asia has reverted to being what it was before the European intrusion -- a dynamic region of interconnected trade with China at the center.

Trade with their big neighbor anchors the economies of almost all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which renounced decades of hostility and distrust to establish close relations with China in the 1980s and 1990s.

Few Asian countries can afford a war with China, even one fought with enthusiastic U.S. assistance. Also, Asian policy makers are unlikely to have forgotten how badly the previous U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia ended in Saigon in 1975, forcing even Thailand, an eager facilitator of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, to start deferring to China.

Given this, fantasies of militarily balancing China often appear little more than a desperate attempt by Cold War-era American think-tanks to keep themselves solvent.

The Jakarta Post columnist is right: the U.S. should not engage in the futile and counterproductive task of dividing co-dependent Asian countries into rival camps of friends and enemies.

China, too, has obligations to its neighbors -- in general to maintain “harmony,” the Confucian word much loved by Chinese leaders. No matter what provoked China’s recent stridency toward Vietnam and Japan -- the troubled leadership transition or the recourse to nationalism, opium of the modern masses -- it is deeply disquieting.

War Games

Recent scenes of officially approved anti-Japanese demonstrations, and a hardening Chinese posture toward Japan, provoke a serious question: Will Beijing play by the rules of the modern international order -- in which bellicose posturing by new stakeholders has been the norm, exemplified by the non-peaceful rise of Japan in the early 20th century -- or will it seek to recreate East Asia’s old equilibrium that guaranteed stability and indeed prosperity in the region for centuries?

Certainly, China will sound less and less convincing as it blames the U.S. for stirring up trouble in its backyard or lashes out at Japan. The “century of humiliation” is over. The upstarts from Europe who initiated it will remain preoccupied with internal problems for years, if not decades; and the lone Western power in the Pacific, presently running trillion-dollar deficits, may find itself unable to fund its fresh strategic investments in Asia.

China may be right to balk at being a stakeholder in someone else’s global order, or -- what can amount to the same thing -- cleaning up other peoples’ messes. But Beijing is back at the center of the East Asian world, and must now assume responsibility for its continued harmony. Certainly, the angry Chinese nationalists of today need not look further than their country’s history for magnanimous precedents.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.