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Analysis: The re-emergence of an old power

Catherine Oh

Over the past two centuries, China has suffered as a victim of domestic despotism as well as a victim of aggressive imperialism at the hands of both Western industrial powers and Japan. In spite of the trials it has endured, in the summer of 2010 China became the world’s second-largest economy, pushing Japan down to third place.

From Africa to Latin America, the Chinese, backed by a formidable bankroll, have secured economic and diplomatic partners. From a longer time perspective, the rise of modern China is not the rise of an unknown power, but the re-emergence of the old China, a great nation that was once the centre of Eastern civilisation. What is different today is that China has expanded its influence much farther beyond its borders. As the daughter of a Korean professor of Chinese history and literature, I am simply overwhelmed to observe changes in the new China. An old Chinese phrase envisions change in this way: “The blue ocean turns to mulberry fields.” Another version speaks of the danger of conflict: “The mulberry fields will turn into a blue ocean and a chaotic world will result.”

China’s progress and power are impressive, but also chilling. As China steps forward, other nations tend to politely step back. Is this the modus operandi of the new China, pushing polite others to the corner to gain a status for itself?

We observe that it is not unusual for an aggrieved person to behave harshly toward others. For example, the traditional daughter who was treated badly by her mother-in-law might, when her son marries, become a mother-in-law terrorist herself.

Did Japan’s harsh imperialism turn China into an aggressive power? We don’t know yet. But the clashes between China and its neighbors in the East and South China seas, for example with Japan over the last month, are not a good omen.

During the first half of 2010, the trade volume between China and Japan reached a staggering US$151 billion. Throughout the 2000s, Japan has been one of the top five investors in China, and now China is eagerly buying bonds in the sluggish Japanese economy, amounting to $6.7 billion just in the first quarter of 2010.

Their bilateral trade, investment and respective shares of the global economy as number two and number three make China and Japan immensely important economic powers for the global economy. The prospect of poor relations between these economic giants is bad news for us all.

Since the beginning of recorded history, territorial disputes have produced tribal killings, community conflicts and sometimes wars. Maritime disputes are especially difficult to settle because boundaries are not easily drawn in what appears to be a common area and laws of the sea are weak. On the map, the East and South China seas may look like an empty expanse for international sailing, but the riches of its sea life and seabed have given rise to fierce territorial disputes. Some maritime analysts argue that China’s recent attempts to claim nautical jurisdiction have the potential to create more tension than its past land border disputes (eg, with Vietnam and the former Soviet Union). Japan’s navy is by no means powerless, but China’s relentless military buildup, whether seen as an attempt to match economic power with military power, or as a new imperialism, is worrisome and mortifying to the Japanese, who seem unable to emerge from their economic doldrums and are already under threat from their North Korean neighbour. In a heated debate on this issue, a prominent Asian scholar summed up the situation from Japan’s perspective: “Well, if the thief is trying to beat up the weak policeman, whose side should the United States take?”

I suggest a “shelving strategy” for such territorial disputes – not referring to the continental shelf. When a son inherits an ugly family heirloom from his dying father (“Son, keep this well and remember me”), the son can hardly sell or discard the unwanted item. So he puts it on a high shelf where it is out of reach of children who might damage it, and by the same token, out of the sight of family and visitors.

When the son dies, he bequeaths the same troublesome item to his children. In the meantime, everyone respects the status of the item.

In the oceans, there are likewise rules to respect: freedom of navigation and preservation of natural resources held in common for present and future generations.

There is more to gain by respecting such rules than by inciting violence for short-term gain.

China and Japan, both wealthy countries that can prosper quite well without extracting the resources or monopolising the sea lanes of the East and South China seas, should not lose time and patience by fighting each other, because there are many other countries trying to catch up with them.

They can both win if they set this territorial issue aside and concentrate on cultivating a better economic and political relationship.

Catherine Oh is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analysis and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.



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