Sunday, January 28, 2007


The future evolution of 21st century Asiatic politics is one of the biggest guessing games, ongoing among foreign policy analysts. In particular of course, the future role of China, in both the Orient and out, is a source of differing interpretations. Some posit that Peking, enjoying unprecedented wealth (world's largest foreign exchange reserves), and relative political stability (no repetition of the crisis of 1989), as well as the beginnings of the use of soft power, especially in Africa and Latin America (massive raw materials purchases and foreign aid programmes). According to the American academic, Emanuel Pastreich, China is on the cusp of becoming in the 21st century, what the United States was in the beginning of the 20th century (see: "Is China the Nemesis in a new cold war", in Others see, Chinese political stability as much more fragile and prone to collapsing, due to the pressures of economic modernization, and development, on a archaic and increasing illegitimate political system. According to this perspective, China's rulers, under increasing domestic pressures to solidify their legitimacy, will seek to do so by engaging in crises abroad, especially vis-`a-vis Japan and Formosa [Taiwan]. Seen from this perspective, the closest historical example to China's future path, would be that of Kaiserreich Deutschland, after the fall of Bismarck in 1890. Just as the domestic pressures on the German political system in the period from 1890 to 1914 (as per Eckhart Kehr's "Der Primat der Innenpolitik" [the primacy of domestic policy]) "inevitably" lead to the crisis of the Great War, so will China's domestic instability invariably lead to a crisis with the United States and or its regional allies. Some such as Henry Kissinger, while accepting the legitimacy of the Kaiserreich analogy, argue that a sound and good diplomacy, by the de facto 'hegemon' in the Orient, id est, the United States, can and should prevent the Great War example from happening again. As per Kissinger, it is for the United States, to exercise caution and to envelope China's emerging power, by accomodation & appeasement, as well as occasional firmness, all with the objective to preventing an unavoidable crisis in the Far East from occurring.

For what it is worth, my own position is a mixture of all of the above. I like Professor Pastreich, see that China, has some of the qualities displayed by the United States, at the beginning of the 20th century. However, unlike Pastreich, I do not see China, in the absence of a political transformation of its political system, from being able to convert its newfound wealth into a regional, much less an extra-regional hegemony. The fact that two next largest powers in Asia: Japan and India, are either skeptical of Chinese aspirations and or outright opposed to them, make a 'peaceful rise' of China to Far Eastern hegemony difficult if not impossible. The equivalent example from American history would be if at the turn of the 20th century, the United States was flanked by a militarily powerful and populated Canada, and Mexico. Something of course, which was very much not the case, and, which greatly contributed to America's 'peaceful rise' to Western Hemispheric hegemony by 1905. Absent a complete collapse of the current American alliance system, which in recent years, has seen the addition of India as a de facto member, there appears to be little that China can do to transform its immediate neighbourhood, in such as a way as to make it the hegemonic power. This example of being flanked if not necessarily 'encircled', is of course quite similar to the strategic position of Wilhelmine Deutschland, where Berlin was surrounded by the Triple Entente of France, Tsarist Russia, and, last and most importantly Great Britain.

Into this debate, I would like to add the thoughts of the noted French International Relations expert, Dominique Moisi. Moisi, known to some of you, via his occasional articles in the Financial Times, has been a leading commentator on European and world diplomacy for upwards of the last twenty. From his perchs as the Deputy Director of the French Institute of International Affairs, past editor of their house journal "Politique Etrangere", Moisi has offered up a combination of views both French and European. According to Moisi, Europeans and others such as myself, I suppose, should not feel too much schadenfreude about the possibilities of the 21st century Orient, following in the catastrophic footsteps of twentieth century Europe. As per Moisi, China, unlike Wilhelmine Germany is a 'status quo' power, and, uninterested in changing the regle de jeu, of the Far East's geopolitical landscape by violently overturning it (with the exception of Formosa). As per Moisi, the real problem for Asia is the 'lack of the rule of law', especially in China. According to Moisi, it is this very lack, much more than China's increasing armaments, or its lack of Democracy, which will upend the Orient. How plausible is this prognosis? I think that Moisi's analysis is quite valuable, especially his fruitful (negative) European comparisons. However, the complete absence of the United States from his analysis, of the Far Eastern equation, ultimately makes his outlook problematic. Especially since Moisi fails to note, that the various tie-ups in the region: Japan South Korea, and Formosa, Australia and Japan, India and Japan, all have an implicit or explicit anti-Chinese rationale to them. Finally, like Norman Angell circa 1913, Moisi, leaves altogether too much to the rationality of Peking's leaders. Id est: "why should they take unnecessary risks". Unfortunately, as history, especially history of the last two hundred plus years is full of instances, where leaders, even leaders of great powers, full of success, have decided to play the game of va banque, often of course with results that they did not anticipate. To expect that the leaders of the PRC, 'technocratic' though they maybe, to take the line of common sense, and least resistance, in a sudden crisis, whether real or imagined, is something that history suggests Monsieur Moisi is demanding a bit too much of it unfortunately.

Without the rule of law, an Asian Union can't be the EU
By Dominique Moisi

"It is tempting for Europeans to project their own history onto Asia and to 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 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) openly aiming to become increasingly like the European Union.

In trying to decipher Asia's diplomatic future, Europeans are confronted, so to speak, with an "embarrassment of riches." Is Asia today 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 would consider a casus belli.

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

In reality, what may threaten the stability of the region, and above all that of China, is not an excess of Chinese ambitions or a failure to democratize, but the Chinese regime's inability to establish the rule of law. In 1978, China's newly installed leader, Deng Xiaoping, viewed Singapore as living proof of the superiority of capitalism over communism. He remembered the impoverished backwater that Singapore was in the 1920s, and now he saw the gleaming city that free enterprise - together with Lee Kwan Yew's quasi-authoritarian leadership - had wrought. It was after visiting Singapore that Deng introduced "special economic zones" in southern China.

But the rule of law, even Singapore-style, is far harder to implement than capitalism, and its absence represents the major obstacle to the establishment of an Asian community based on the EU model. Twenty years ago, one of the main obstacles to creating an Asian Union was Japan - Asia's most advanced and successful country, but one that did not feel Asian. Moreover, the rest of Asia resented the Japanese for reveling in this difference. That resentment remains, sustained in part by historical grievances, but the Japanese have now come to perceive of themselves as Asians, helped by their realization that the economic miracle that they initiated in the region has gone well beyond them.

In Europe, transcending nationalism required not only two devastating world wars in the first half of the 20th century, but also the prevalence of democratic regimes. The rule of law is the equivalent for Asia today of what democracy was for Europe yesterday. Without its gradual imposition, an Asian Union could at best remain only a pale and hollow copy of its European model."

Dominique Moisi, a founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, is currently a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (


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