Make Room for Big Brother

Article excerpt

Asia accomodates Beijing's rise.

CHINA PERPLEXES. The United States knows how to deal with nuclear-armed countries, such as 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 poUcy toward China, it is probably inevitable that policy makers, pundits, and academicians faU back on famiUar templates. The one that comes readily to mind is the Cold War paradigm, which demands a cordon of countries, most of them democratic, to contain China. John Mearsheimer, professor of poUtical science at the University of Chicago, writes, "China's neighbors are certain to fear [China's] rise and they wUl do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coaUtion 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?

Unlike the old Soviet Union, China is not trying to export communism or any other ideology. Nor does it see itself as a protector of the large Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia. As far back as the 1970s, the late premier Zhou Enlai cautioned overseas Chinese to be loyal citizens of their adopted countries. From a historical perspective, the "communist threat" of the 1960s and 1970s as experienced by Indonesia, ThaUand, Malaysia, and Singapore has receded. A vicious Maoist insurgency wreaked havoc in Nepal until a recent ceasefire, and a weak communist insurgency continues to roil the Philippines. But Beying disavows the former and ignores the latter.

Southeast Asian nations have done a complete about face, with a new respect for both China and their own ethnic Chinese minorities. For many years, governments in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand looked on their Chinese as a kind of fifth column intent on spreading communism and undermining their governments. A few years back, simply publishing a photograph that portrayed written Chinese characters could get your publication banned in Indonesia. Now the Chinese Lunar New Year is designated an official holiday. In Thailand, Chinese language classes proliferate, and there has been a rise in ThaiChinese influence, not only in business and commerce, which has traditionally been the case, but also in politics and the bureaucracy.

Nor are China's leaders actively hostile to democracy - as long as it is practiced in someone else's country. The notion that the Asian democracies have a natural affinity that wiU 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 to speak before democratic assemblies. While President George W Bush was extolUng democracy in the abstract at a convention center in Japan during his trip to Asia in late 2005, 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 should we define the 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 that existed before the era of European colonialism - with China at the center.

As it did during the Ming Dynasty years, the height of the tributary system, China confers the boon of trade and foreign aid on the nations on its periphery and receives tribute in return. …