As China has grown in power, many have sensed the disturbing anger that it shows. This anger saw two publications, China Can Say No and Unhappy China — both exuding a pathological nationalism and demonizing other countries — become national best sellers. To quell concerns other countries may have about this anger, China first said its rise to power was to be a peaceful one and then later turned around to say that it was not going through a peaceful rise to power at all, but was instead merely experiencing peaceful development.
Many people believe that only a very small number of extremists in China harbor this anger and that because the Chinese leaders are extremely aware of it themselves, they will continue following former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) policy of “hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time.”
Former Chinese minister of foreign affairs Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) recently questioned where the talk about China’s rise to power has been coming from. Li asked how China could be considered to have risen to power given that it ranks 94th in the world in terms of GNP per capita and 83rd in terms of life expectancy. He added that all the talk about China’s rise to power was an attempt by other countries to place China on a pedestal from which they could knock it down whenever it suited them.
While Li’s remarks may have eased the minds of some people, we have witnessed the way China has been acting over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). It has been in total opposition with many of its neighbors over the islands, as well as with the US. It has also shown total opposition to countries traditionally viewed as being “strong” and “imperial” like Japan and the US, as well as with countries traditionally viewed as being “small” and “weak” like the Philippines and Vietnam.
China’s extreme opposition has shown everyone just how “angry” it and its rise to power truly are. This also reflects how the concept of China’s “angry” rise to power has grown from being an idea proposed by a few extremists into an extremely proud mindset that now dictates the nation’s international policies and actions.
Beijing says that tensions are being caused by the US, which, in its attempts to contain China, is encouraging the restoration of Japanese militarism, as well as the use of “weaker” Asian nations to rebuild the “blockade of island chains” between key strategic islands in the region. Is this really how things are?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, East Asian countries were eager to say goodbye to the unhappiness caused by the Cold War and the old world order. Although the US had no intention of fully removing its troops from East Asia, countries in the strategically important island chains had their own ideas.
In 1991-1992, after protest from the Philippines, the US first withdrew from Clark Air Base and then its naval base in the Subic Bay in Luzon. From 1998 to 2008, former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun promoted pro-China and anti-US policies, as well as policies of reconciliation with North Korea. During this time, South Korea and the US got into heated disputes over the construction of military bases and the command over forces in the South.
In 2009, the Cabinet of former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama proposed developing closer ties with East Asian nations, with Japan falling out somewhat with the US over the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa.
These countries were not against the idea of China’s rise to power at all; they welcomed it with open arms. They believed that China could give everyone prosperity while also being capable of keeping the US, the leader of the current world order, in check. With people holding such opinions and the way China came through the recent global financial crisis unscathed while the US found itself in severe trouble, China came to be in a very strong position.
What is surprising though is how in just three short years — from 2010 — many countries that in the past did everything they could to get rid of US influence and become closer to China have all turned around and are trying everything they can to keep US troops in their countries. An example of this is when China’s traditional allies, Kazakhstan and Cambodia, took part in a series of US military exercises in 2010 that drilled troops in possible conflict with China.
China’s “miraculous” rise to power has also seen some experts and academics from the west and Taiwan speak at great length of the virtues a powerful China could have. One point they all made was how China will be able to build an international order far superior to the one the hegemonic US has established. They echoed what Chinese academics have said about the current Western concept of Westphalian sovereignty — that it is fraught with crises, that it represents a form of anarchy and is nowhere near as capable of bringing about peace like China’s traditional political arrangements such as the “tianxia system” or “celestial order.”
Is what we are seeing with the current state of affairs in East Asia an embodiment of the great Chinese systems of times gone by?
To many, the concept of a celestial order may seem attractive. So when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) recently said that the “Chinese race” will again rise to power like it did during the Han and Tang dynasties, was he implying a return to this celestial order?
Former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush recently released a book in which he described the current situation in East Asia as being like “one mountain with two tigers.” China and Japan are the second and third-biggest economies in the world, so referring to them as “two tigers” is in line with reality.
However, what this theory overlooks is the fact that the celestial system allows there to be only “one dragon” and nothing else, especially not two tigers. Is this what China really thinks? It would definitely seem so. This is why regardless of how much Japan tries to appease China, Beijing will not allow Tokyo to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council or a “normal country,” and also why Beijing tells Tokyo what to do every chance it gets.
The celestial system also includes the idea of a system of tributary trade in which the “celestial court,” or China, offers concessions. China now gives such trade concessions to ASEAN countries, but why have ASEAN members all turned to the US and broken one of the taboos of the celestial order by coming together and blackmailing Beijing when it comes to the issues of the South China Sea?
With things like this, it is no wonder the world has an “unhappy China” on its hands.
Regardless of what the truth is, as long as there is a strong China that is making a comeback and has dreams for a return to some celestial order of times past, the recent chaos we have witnessed in East Asia will not be stopping any time soon.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Drew Cameron