The State of Asia
China may be a tiger the size of an elephant, but it has been puffed up by steroids
photo courtesy of The Economist
by Michael Vilímek
It is a little-known fact that all major rivers in China flow from west to east and, just like the rivers, power flows the same way. Over thousands of years, what China did had a massive effect on its neighbours. While the culture of ancient China contributed heavily to the cultural foundations of Korea, Japan, and others, that is not to say that these nations have always bowed to the Chinese will. In fact, they have a track record of being enormously obstinate, which is probably for the better.
Anyone who thought that China could become democratic in our lifetime was clearly out of their mind. The only paper democracies in the region had to be groomed under close supervision from the United States, and even then the results are not what they should be. As such, to think that China could successfully turn itself into a democracy was nothing but a day-dream. Even before the latest move to install Xi Jinping as the latest in the long line of emperors and strong leaders, I would not have dared to estimate the collapse of the regime in no less than fifty years. Even that seems far-fetched now. Let’s not make presumptions through our own cultural lense and apply them onto a radically different environment. We are democratic because the very ideals of such a system were present already in our ancient history. There are no such seeds of democracy in China’s past.
It is obvious that Xi Jinping’s bid for Mao Zedong-like power is well in line with the game that China has been playing in recent years. First came the maritime expansion in the South China Sea which is, in essence, turning harmless coves in the ocean into Chinese military bases which conveniently give China control over major shipping routes. Second, the Chinese power expansion goes hand in hand with its financial investment abroad, most notably in poor countries rich in natural resources desperately needed by China. Yes, China has been quietly building its economic empire for years and now, finally, the empire has its official panda-face ruler.
What about the others? Surely China’s neighbours cannot be oblivious to the game. Some have joined China’s team in hopes of mouthwatering profits. The clearest example of this is the Philippines where President Duterte, in spite of his loudmouth politics, is turning the country right towards alignment with China. From his point of view, it is the only logical move. The U.S. has lost interest in the Philippines and other East Asian countries have been looking down on the country for decades. Other than the Philippines, one may also want to mention Vietnam. Although there have been signs of discord between the two Communist partners recently, mainly over territory in the South China Sea, Vietnam is clearly following in China’s footsteps. China has been pushing for tight censorship and cracking down on dissent since last year and Vietnam did not waste time in following suit. On the surface, the pair may appear to have problems, but Vietnam is likely just soothing its hurt pride and the two are in it for the long ride.
On the other hand, there are those who stand in open defiance to China. Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan do not like to be pushed around and none of them abound with love for the mainland regime. However, there is little to be optimistic about because Taiwan has been losing the PR battle against China for some time. As a nation not recognized as an independent country by the majority of the world, it is critical that it sustains a growing number of countries who do recognize it and that is all about money. Money that Taiwan does not have… but guess who does.
With the U.S. stepping back, China stepping forward, Korean political turmoil, and Japan’s public debt and flailing economy, the outlook for Asia seems bleak, but we must not lose hope. China may be a tiger the size of an elephant, but it has been puffed up by steroids. Its knees are weak, bones fragile, and fangs wooden. It needs the other tigers in the region to have its back and run in a pack. Our task and duty is to prevent that. Let’s lock in China’s neighbours and offer a more tasty treat. If we manage to replace America’s withering influence with European economic might and safely tie Asian markets to ours, China will have no choice but peace and perhaps greater integration into a network where we have the upper hand. Doing nothing is not an option.