As tensions rise between the U.S. and China over China’s islands dispute with Japan, American strategists have been thinking about how to accommodate China while at the same time standing behind their Japanese ally.
It may be helpful to look at the situation also from an Asian perspective. Historically, in East and Southeast Asia — until the Western arrival — there has only been one major power rising and ebbing: China. When it rises, it is best to accord it some respect in return for which one derives considerable economic advantage.
Over the centuries, a rich China invariably brought prosperity to all of East and Southeast Asia. Therefore, while Asian countries might value the U.S. as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy. There is a spot that is sweet for everyone. If the U.S. moves closer to China and to other countries of Asia, all will benefit. If the U.S., in response to China’s rise, moves too close to some as a move against others, everyone is caught in a lose-lose situation. Finding the limits of that sweet spot is part of statecraft and diplomacy.
Japan is the first Asian country to meet the Western challenge by becoming an imperial power itself. After its defeat, it effectively became an adjunct power of the U.S. In a curious way, both China and the U.S. may be happy to keep Japan in that “abnormal” position for as long as possible. Prime Minister Abe and other Japanese leaders want Japan to become a “normal” country. For the U.S., such a Japan may help counterbalance a rising China.
THE RE-ASIANIZATION OF JAPAN
For China, such a Japan is only acceptable if it acknowledges history. This re-Asianization of Japan is a complex process that will take another generation to achieve. The Diaoyu/Senkaku issue is only one manifestation of it. The re-Asianization or “normalization” of Japan need not lead to war. Domestic and international pressure on the Japanese elite to recognize history is not only right and doable, it will also relax tension in the Pacific and lead to a better future for everyone, including Japan. But it also requires China and the U.S. to do their part. The common objective must be the “normalization” of Japan on all dimensions.
THE MISSIONARY SUPERPOWER
The U.S. is, by self-identification, a missionary superpower. It judges others by its own standards and tries to shape them in the U.S.’ own image — by hard and soft power. If China is also a missionary power, like the Soviet Union, perhaps a titanic struggle will again be inevitable. However, China is, by self-proclamation, not a missionary power. For China, a cardinal principle of statecraft, not just the PRC but also its earlier incarnations, is non-interference in the internal affairs of others unless those affairs affect China’s core interests.
In fact, this is now a western criticism of China — that it is “amoral” in the way it deals with countries in Africa and the Middle East. But it is precisely the fact that China is unlike the U.S. in missionary zeal that there is hope for the future.
George Yeo is a former foreign minister of Singapore. He served from 2004 to 2011. He is currently the chairman of Kerry Logistics.
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