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Chapter 5 puts the reconfiguration of Pacific Asia into global perspective in four respects. First, in contrast to the divergences that characterized the modern era, in this century there has been a multi-dimensional convergence between developed and developing countries. 2008 marked the first time since the nineteenth century that the production of the developing world was greater than that of the developed world. Second, the unipolar world order of the post-Cold War has shifted to a multinodal world order. Without a defining global power, the multinodal order has a “certainty vacuum” rather than a power vacuum, and it is best filled by partnerships rather than by alliances. Third, Pacific Asia has become a global powerhouse. In 2020 its GDP equaled that of the US and the EU combined, and it is integrated by global value chains. Fourth, China reaches beyond its region. Despite the headwinds of Covid-19, trade bottlenecks, and global tensions, China and Pacific Asia have arrived. If a bipolar configuration develops, it is likely to differ from the Cold War camps by being closer to a developed/developing country split, with less unity of leadership on either side.
Given China’s position in Pacific Asia, defining its regional centrality might seem a simple task. But centralities grander than merely geographical have been alleged and contested. Currently some maintain that China is the central kingdom because of its power. But it was conquered by the Mongols and the Manchus, and its present centrality is due more to its economic mass and connectivity than to its military. Others claim that hierarchy is natural to Asian culture, and China is the apex. But neighbors were often cynical about China’s moral stature, and China’s soft power is now at a low ebb. I argue that China was the center of regional attention in the premodern era, and that it has returned to center stage since 2008. The three basic reasons for China’s original centrality and its return were situational: presence, population, and production. The salience of all three disappeared with Western imperialism’s global presence, the devaluation of mere demography, and industrial production. Traditional and current centrality created asymmetric relationships between China and its neighbors, but the regional situations differ fundamentally.
Pacific Asia, comprised of Northeast Asia, Greater China, and Southeast Asia, has surpassed the combined production of the United States and Europe, and its intraregional economic cohesiveness exceeds that of either the EU or North America. Pacific Asia has emerged gradually and without major conflict, but it should be taken seriously as a region. China is primarily a regional power, but in a prosperous region deeply interconnected to the rest of the world. The United States tends to view China as a lone global competitor, but its global presence and strength rest on its centrality to Pacific Asia. Understanding China in its region is the first task of this book, followed by the challenge of rethinking the global order in terms of a multinodal matrix rather than a bipolar competition of great powers. This requires background on the evolution of the Pacific Asian configuration, including China’s premodern centrality as well as the splintering of the region by European colonialism. Rethinking is aided by commentaries from four of Asia’s leading thinkers about international relationships.
Wu Yu-Shan, a distinguished Taiwanese political scientist, points out that Western success was based on power, undergirded by technology and organization. In response, Pacific Asia attempted to achieve modernization by four routes. Western liberalism was stillborn in China, as was Meiji-style conservative modernization. Mao’s approach could best be called “confused modernization,” a mix of state socialism and disastrous experiments like the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. What worked in Korea and Taiwan was authoritarian politics and state capitalism, and with Deng Xiaoping this became China’s path as well.
Qin Yaqing, China’s foremost theorist of international relations, concentrates on the complexities of the new multinodal world order. He argues against centrality, pointing out that international relationships are now complex and flat rather than binary and hierarchical. The nodes of the international multinodal complex are internally as well as externally complex. Moreover, the successful regional initiatives of ASEAN demonstrate the capacity of smaller nodes to play leading roles in configuring order.
Prior to the Opium War China was central to Pacific Asia, but it was not in control of its neighborhood. The mobility of the various nomadic groups threatened China’s northern and western frontiers, and Vietnam’s successful resistance to Ming annexation set a southern boundary-stone. While China’s centrality was not hegemonic, its location, demographic preponderance, and artisanal production made China the center of regional attention. Conversely, because of China’s demographic and production centrality, China was more interested in defending what it had than in imperial adventures abroad. Its foreign policy was one of controlling exposure in relationships—thin connectivity. By the Ming Dynasty this evolved into the tribute system, whose core was a ritualized exchange of deference by the neighbor for acknowledgement of autonomy by China.
Evelyn Goh is well known for her emphasis on order transition rather than power transition in world politics, and in her commentary she stresses the compatibility of a multinodal framing that recognizes the continuing significance of power in a post-hegemonic context. While China’s reemergence is a key event for Pacific Asia, she cautions that regional centrality does not preclude global relevance, either for China or for the Pacific Asian region. China is not just regional, and neither is Pacific Asia. But becoming global implies new challenges of global governance and global responsibility. The overall tendency is toward “a multinodal Asia in a multinodal international system.”
While Pacific Asia had China as a “solid center,” a place in the middle where most of the people and production was, the West had a “liquid center,” the Mediterranean. Wealth could be pursued and neighbors conquered in different places in the West, leading to competitive, distinct empires rather than to dynastic cycles.
European imperialism in Pacific Asia not only displaced China as the center of its neighbors’ attention but it splintered the region as well. This was sharp connectivity. France established French Indochina, the Dutch tightened their control of Indonesia, the British took over Malaya and Burma, and all of them had pieces of a disintegrating China. Japan avoided colonization and created its own empire, beginning with Korea and Taiwan. China became the vulnerable edge of a global frame, a frame centered on Europe that included the pieces of Pacific Asia. China’s population was now seen as an impediment to modernization, and its artisanal production was swamped by Western mass production. The US replaced European segmented globalization with a hub-and-spoke globalism rimmed by newly sovereign states. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China remained a mostly insignificant other to its neighbors until Deng Xiaoping’s policies took hold. The salience of China’s presence, population, and production began to rise, and China had become a significant other to its region by 1998. But the US remained the center of an unquestioned global order until the financial crisis of 2008.
The United States and China are the primary nodes of the multinodal world order. Together they are the middle third of the global economy, with the world’s biggest military budgets. Their parity makes rivalry inevitable because they are one another’s greatest counterpart. But their parity is asymmetric. China’s power relies on its demographic scale and on its Pacific Asian integration, while the US remains the center of the familiar global system that it created and it is the avatar of the developed world. While a Cold War is unlikely, the dangers posed by global rivalry are profound, ranging from nuclear war to failure to cooperate on global problems. The primary nodes also face asymmetric challenges. The US faces the challenge of adjusting to a central but not hegemonic global role. China faces the challenge of domestic tolerance and a mutually beneficial integration of Greater China and, more generally, of Pacific Asia. Beyond the primary nodes, regional reduction of uncertainties can contribute to the stabilization of world order. Cooperation founded on mutual respect is the prerequisite of successful global governance in a post-hegemonic world.
Since 2008 Pacific Asia has been reconfigured as a region, with China as its center. In economics, China has been the central driver and partner in growth. In politics, China has become the central concern of its neighbors. China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s in 2000, and by 2009 it equaled the combined totals of Japan, ASEAN, and Korea. While this shows China’s demographic power, it is not simply a matter of size. Its per capita GDP is now at eye level with countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. China is again the major presence in Pacific Asia, with a majority of its population and its production. Re-centered China is quite different from premodern China. China and its region are now globally integrated, and its former, cautious thin connectivity has been replaced by assertive thick connectivity. China now tries to maximize win-win contact. However, the new asymmetries worry the neighbors. China’s challenges of integrating Greater China and avoiding hostility with Japan are vital for China’s global prospects as well as its regional stature.