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 Chin’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 advisor 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 (www.project-syndicate.org).