Sat, Jan 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Is Asia Europe's distant mirror?

ASEAN is aiming to become like the EU, but the political processes involved in the region are not necessarily a rerun of European history

By Dominique Moisi

It is tempting for Europeans to project their own history onto Asia and view current developments there as a mere repetition, if not an imitation, of what occurred in Europe. In fact, Asians themselves encourage this temptation, with ASEAN openly aiming to become increasingly like the EU.

In trying to decipher Asia's diplomatic future, Europeans are confronted, so to speak, with an "embarrassment of riches."

Is Asia replaying the balance of power games of late 19th century Europe, with China in the role of Germany? Or is South Asia, through the growth of ASEAN, poised to one day become the Far Eastern equivalent of the EU?

These comparisons are not neutral, and one may detect in the analogy between China today and 19th century Germany an element of that guilty pleasure in others' troubles that the Germans call "Schadenfreude."

Asia may be doing well economically now, according to this view, but just wait: rising nationalism, China's appetite for power, and the rest of Asia's desire to curb its ambitions will necessarily impede economic growth and restore the West's global primacy.

But this scenario does not correspond to reality. China at the beginning of the 21st century is not Bismarck's newly unified Germany in the second half of the 19th century.

The Chinese do not view themselves as a rising new power, but instead as Asia's traditional power, now experiencing a renaissance. China, they believe, is regaining the status and prestige that it enjoyed until the end of the 18th century.

As a result, unlike Wilhelmine Germany, the Chinese are not in a hurry to prove how strong and powerful they have become. In strategic terms, China is not a revisionist power, but instead a "satisfied," status-quo power.

The only exception to this, of course, would be a declaration of independence from Taiwan, which the Chinese have said they would go to war over.

To be sure, the Chinese are indeed rearming -- and even entering the military space race -- but they are doing so at a pace and to a proportion that reflects their new economic prosperity. China's fundamental priorities remain economic, reflecting its leaders' belief that their regime's long-term survival presupposes the continuation of rapid growth. For that, they need access to energy, but they are not about to engage in military or even diplomatic adventures.

Nor are they set to become a benevolent, altruistic power, ready to use their new strength and reputation to improve the stability of the international system. Chinese cynicism and spontaneous selfishness, however, is now tempered by what they perceive as growing recognition of their unique status. The combination of respect and interest they see in the way the world now views China can only reinforce their sense of confidence. So why should they take unnecessary risks?

The resounding success of the Africa-China summit, which was attended by more African leaders than purely African gatherings; the diplomatic rapprochement between India and Japan; and the democratic alliance in the making between India, Japan, and Australia can only be interpreted as signs of China's newly regained position.

Why would they jeopardize such real and symbolic gains with rash and untested moves? There is no Bismarck at the helm of Chinese diplomacy, but there is no impetuous Kaiser either: just relatively prudent and competent technocrats.

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