A specter haunts the great powers of East Asia. It is the specter of ethnic chauvinism and a recrudescent nationalism one would have thought a thing of the past. With this comes the possibility of irrational conflict, and for the entire region the snatching of failure from the very jaws of success.
China and Japan have sought a new, post-Cold War equilibrium for 25 years. This is essential and must be accomplished. But now the search takes on a taint of danger only a few of us saw coming.
You see this darkening weather across the East China Sea between the mainland and Japan, where the two nations contend for sovereignty over islands, the resources under them, and maritime superiority. You see it as China extends its reach across the South China Sea all the way to Indonesia.
You see it in the Japan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government has just announced that it intends to revise Japan’s “peace” constitution to allow for the extension of military force beyond the defense of Japan’s shores. And you see it most immediately in Hong Kong, whose autonomy as a special administrative region appears to be suddenly and sadly reaching its limit.
A lot of power is at stake in each case, and there is no surprise in this. The shocking part is the extent to which this contention is animated by atavistic versions of both the past and present.
There is a question in this for Americans, it is worth noting right away—the same question the Middle East now poses. What does the U.S. have to offer regions struggling to work through old, pre-modern dynamics, even if American influence in these places has been considerable-to-decisive over the past century?
It was inevitable that China’s reawakening as the giant of the western Pacific would ripple outward across the region. A glance at a map is reminder enough that the Middle Kingdom consciousness ever more evident in Beijing was never fated to disappear—and would thus require reinterpretation in a modern context.
Equally, the long-prevalent thought that Japan could remain forever in the postwar box the Americans built to contain it was never more than angélisme, as the French say—otherworldly idealism. Sooner or later, the Japanese would have to determine for themselves who they are and what they stand for—the “normal nation” theme, as this is called.
These were the post-Cold War tasks, each one worthy. A lot of Asians and Asia-watchers flinched for fear of old genies getting out of bottles again. As a correspondent and now a columnist, I thought more of the leadership in China and Japan, but it looks as if I may well have thought wrong.
Beijing and Tokyo now look drastically retrograde in their attempts to remake the East Asian power balance. In China’s case, the all-but-stated reference is to the myth—always a myth—of Han Chinese purity and superiority. For Abe, a blueblood nationalist, the cause is the restoration of an idea of pristine primacy rooted in Japan’s historical status as the first non-Western nation to arrive among the modern industrial powers.
China’s claims to sovereignty over the seas and many islands around it now extend as far as Vietnam and the Natuna archipelago of Indonesia. Beijing’s reference in each case is history—a version of history, that is—but buried in this lies a long tradition of Han chauvinism. In Middle Kingdom consciousness, those of darker skin were by definition inferior subjects—a point not lost now on Filipinos, Indonesians, and others.
In the case of Japan, we witness an argument a millennia and a half old as to who is the teacher and who the student. Japan’s first great borrowing, in the fifth century, was from the mainland. When the Japanese began modernizing in the 19th century, instructor and instructed changed places and Japan viewed all other Asians inferior. Now China proposes to reverse the current again—and Abe proposes to resist.
The crisis in Hong Kong is merely a variant. A sizable proportion of Hong Kong’s 8 million people, possibly a majority, identify themselves as members of modern democratic polity. By Beijing’s definition, they are Chinese citizens by virtue of blood, Han ethnicity, and those claiming any form of autonomous identity are by this same definition unpatriotic.
Hence the current impasse. Ten days ago, 87 percent of those voting in an unofficial referendum (who comprised the bulk of the electorate) demanded rights in conformity with international democratic standards. The response has been mass arrests and an indirect threat that Beijing is a couple of short steps from deploying the People’s Liberation Army—effectively binding Hong Kong people to an ethnocentric idea of what it means to be a citizen.
Second question for Americans: How is Washington to respond to this very un-modern dimension of China’s great modernization? It is unfolding before our eyes and could well end in many tears.
A third question is this: What is the U.S. to say now that Prime Minister Abe has officially called for the reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution?
Perspective No. 1, Washington’s: The U.S. has long urged Japan to take more responsibility for regional security.
Perspective No. 2, much of Asia’s: Abe is effectively restoring the rays that emanated from the imperial navy’s Rising Sun flag before MacArthur pointedly stripped them off in 1945.
Mass protests, virtually blacked out in the Japanese media, erupted in Tokyo after the Abe government’s announcement of its plans for constitutional revision. These culminated in an unassuming middle-aged man’s self-immolation next to the Shinjuku rail station, one of the busiest places on earth. The Japanese, needless to say, are reeling.
Japanese demonstrators are one with Hong Kong’s formidable Occupy Central movement. For all of them, East Asia’s most powerful capitals are taking the wrong road into the 21st century.
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