Negotiating Asymmetry: China’s Place in Asia

Negotiating Asymmetry

Author(s): Anthony Reid, Zheng Yangwen (eds.)

ISBN: 9971694476

Publisher: NUS Press

Year: 2009

Price: $28

Reviewed by PANG YANG HUEI, Goh Keng Swee Command & Staff College, Singapore

International attention is riveted onto China’s strategic maritime intentions due to a series of positions which China took vis-a-vis its regional waters. For one, the Chinese reacted adversely against United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement in July of US national interest in the peaceful resolution of Southeast Asia’s territorial sea disputes. Following this, China’s public altercation with Japan over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands in September only added to the general unease amongst China’s smaller neighbours. Days before the release of the Joint Statement of the Second ASEAN-US Leaders’ Meeting on September 24, 2010, which called for “a peaceful resolution to territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” China had already announced its displeasure. It stated bluntly that “the disputes were a matter only for China and the countries directly involved. Countries without claims in the region should stay out.”

Given the current tensions, the present volume, Negotiating Asymmetry: China’s Place in Asia, is a particularly apt collection of essays which looks at the same set of “inherently asymmetric” relationship between China and the smaller Asian countries from a much longer perspective. All the papers were presented in a conference organised by the Asia Research Institute held at Singapore in 2006. Anthony Reid, one of the co-editors, ambitiously set up the volume’s aim to be a successor publication to two other earlier classics, namely, The Chinese World Order (1968) and China among Equals (1983).

The volume is divided into three parts. For part one, “Alternative Asian World Orders,” Seo-Hyun Park explains how Korea and Japan creatively adapted the existing sino-centric order for their purposes. Under the former international order presided by Qing China, Korea sought for a more “integrationist” approach, achieving international status accorded in the traditional sino-centric order. Japan, on the other hand, preferred a looser arrangement whereby isolation from its international neighbours would guarantee its sovereignty. With the dawn of the Westphalian system, Korea still pursued autonomy within a dependent framework, but Japan sought to enter into the international system by modernisation. In the second essay, Junko Koizumi examines the diplomatic relations between Siam and China. Siam tried to hold China off at arms length by employing time tested methods such as ambiguity or simply stalling for time. In the third essay, Alexander Vuving looks at how Vietnam and China constructed their relationship through different world views. If there was ever a shared view between the two countries, they served best as “myths that functioned as interface.”

In the second part of the volume, “New Perspectives in Changing Asia,” the setting is firmly in the post war era where Myanmar and India’s relationship with China are debated. Maung Aung Myoe scrutinizes how the relationship between “unequal Pauk-Phaw (kinfolk)” is played out. Myanmar had always carefully and shrewdly balanced its ties with China with friendship with other countries. Thus far, Myanmar has been successful in maintaining its autonomy to the present day. Prasenjit Duara takes the broad theme of decolonization and looks at how India and China offered leadership in Asia through their “civilisational narratives.”

For the final part of the book, “The Long March From Empire to Nation,” Kawashima Shin utilizes Chinese textbooks and magazines (1900-1940) to look at how the concepts of “China” and “Asianism” were as elastic as they were socially constructed. Interestingly, Japan’s Pan-Asianism was perceived as a challenge to China’s traditional international order. Zheng Yangwen too looks at Chinese textbooks to flush out how China’s “century of unequal treaties” is depicted nowadays in Chinese schools. Zheng questions the wisdom of the present Chinese government in inculcating a sense of victimhood reinforced by historical memories of humiliation amongst the Chinese students. Anbin Shi, on the other hand, using similar conceptual and analytical tools, turns to examine the meaning of Chinese-ness in contemporary China. He concludes that the dynamism inherent in the identity politics of Chinese-ness where “we can never settle into ‘being’ but will be always ‘becoming’ Chinese.” Finally, the doyen of Chinese studies, Wang Gungwu rounds off the discussion with a nuanced piece highlighting how China viewed the term “family of nations” in modernity. One of the best quotes Professor Wang gave concerns China’s present global status:

With consistent displays of friendship and family feeling expressed through self-control, strong civic discipline and respect for other people’s values, a powerful China may actually help strengthen the international system that it has so cautiously embraced. (227)

Undoubtedly, the present wrangle around China’s regional waters has darkened the mood about China’s intentions. This volume’s long term perspective provides a useful corrective in uncovering the probable trajectory of China’s relationships with her smaller neighbours. The conclusions drawn from the various chapters in this book are almost counter-intuitive. But, it was just a few years ago, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee said that, “[Historically] It was China’s economic power and cultural superiority that drew these countries into its orbit and was the magnet for their cultivation of relations.” If this book is any guide, countries in Asia would probably have adroitly, over the next decade, ritualized a set of diplomatic engagements with Beijing that will ameliorate diplomatic tensions, reaffirm the nexus of ideas and commerce between China and its neighbours, and rationalize China’s regional presence.