Asia gets along easier with a Chinese giant than a Paper Tiger

Preparing for a recent trip to Indonesia last week, I came across an article by Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the editor of the feisty Indonesian daily Jakarta Post, protesting that the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia seemed too much like an attempt to start a cold war against China, with the help of its neighbors.

America’s “economic intentions and wherewithal” in Asia should be doubted as much as its attempts to contain China, the Jakarta Post argued. The U.S. was insincerely using the rhetoric of democratic values to advance its business interests in such new Asian economies as Mongolia…

In any case, Suryodiningrat said, “Southeast Asia has dealt with the powerful Middle Kingdom since the pre-Majapahit era, and it has always found a way to persevere without submission.”

Such sentiments are not untypical in much Asian commentary on the U.S. reassertion of its role in the Pacific. They sound romantic, even chauvinistic, in their evocation of a pre-modern Asia unsullied by Western realpolitik.

Still, similarly narrow-minded is the Western view in which China, bullying its neighbors and forcing them to seek U.S. assistance, is far from becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

In some extreme versions of Western Sinophobia, China is always plotting, while talking up its “peaceful rise,” to take over the world — a conspiracy insidiously advanced, if we are to believe the U.S. Congress, by such global Chinese companies- cum-Trojan-horses as Huawei.

Such scenarios omit the fact that, unlike Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the U.S., among other erstwhile “rising” powers, China has virtually no record of military interventions in far-off countries.

You could practically end this piece right there. A significant and qualitative truth about American foreign policy and other participants in imperialism as a way of foreign economic life. Find an asset-rich country that declares itself unwilling to be subservient to Wall Street and Washington, DC – and you just discovered the latest aggressor and threat to peace, democracy and the American way of life.

And death – delivered by the latest technology.

European imperialists radically disrupted…integrated economic and diplomatic order in the 19th century, beginning with Britain’s imposition of the opium trade upon China in 1841, which inaugurated China’s “century of humiliation.” Within a few decades, Japan broke free of East Asia’s old tribute system and began its calamitous effort to find a place in the new global order of competitive empires and nation-states ordained by the West.

Now, after many self-inflicted disasters, China has “peacefully” risen, its ascendance coinciding with a major transformation of its neighborhood. Asia has reverted to being what it was before the European intrusion — a dynamic region of interconnected trade with China at the center…

Trade with their big neighbor anchors the economies of almost all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which renounced decades of hostility and distrust to establish close relations with China in the 1980s and 1990s.

Few Asian countries can afford a war with China, even one fought with enthusiastic U.S. assistance. Also, Asian policy makers are unlikely to have forgotten how badly the previous U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia ended in Saigon in 1975, forcing even Thailand, an eager facilitator of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, to start deferring to China.

Given this, fantasies of militarily balancing China often appear little more than a desperate attempt by Cold War-era American think-tanks to keep themselves solvent…

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