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January 8, 2005

Issues for East Asia: A Sinocentric View


by Sascha Matuszak

Yu Bin's recent article for Asia Times Online is a very Sinocentric view of the growing pains East Asia will face as the region grows increasingly more influential and substantially richer.

Yu Bin goes into three major problems: China's relationship with its own poor and underemployed, China's relationship with Japan, and China's relationship with Taiwan. Again, with rather Sinocentric suggestions for how these problems could be best solved.

Although a Chinese-style solution to the problems – namely calm acceptance of the inevitable peaceful rise to leadership of East Asia's largest nation – would be splendid if it ensured peace and stability and prosperity for all, it is quite uncertain whether or not China can handle East Asia's affairs any better than it handles its own.

Japan's steps away from its pacifist constitution and embrace of the US missile defense plan have nothing to do with increased militarism and dreams of invasion. Rather, North Korea firing missiles and kidnapping Japanese, China encroaching into what Japan considers its own territory and a very, very nationalistic Chinese population coupled with the US inability to truly do anything about it scares the Japanese into action.

The Yasakuni Shrine issue would be a non-issue if the roles were reversed. China whips out the "domestic affair" card with impunity. The Yasakuni case is a symbol, a lightening rod of nationalism that is being used by the Chinese side to keep emotions high in China and, if Prime Minister Koizumi ever gives in, a massive loss of face for the Japanese. Koizumi is being placed in a very tight spot by Beijing: bow down or else. One result has been the galvanization of Japan's own nationalists, a veritable devil's circle.

Japan has little choice but to shake off its "pacifism" in the face of military threats from a broke little demon to the north and vigorous political maneuvering laced with "controlled" nationalism from the west. But by shaking off pacifism, Japan, as Yu Bin points out, should be joining the "normal" nations of the world.

Acknowledging this, perhaps China, as the inevitable dominant power in East Asia, could ease back on the nationalistic politics. Dropping the Shrine, for instance, and exacting a reward from Koizumi for releasing the stone from his back and gaining the admiration of all as a country above jingoistic symbolism.

The world is considering dropping the dollar for the euro – Japan must act for itself. And China can either help or hinder.

A Family Affair

For the Mainland, the Taiwan issue is a family affair. Much of the rest of the world have signed economic agreements stating that they see the issue as Beijing does. As long as it stays peaceful across the Straits, most of the world will continue nodding with the Chinese and shrugging with the Taiwanese.

Yu Bin accuses Taiwan of "burning the China bridge," but like Japan, Taiwan is a driving force behind China's productive and technological revolution. Taiwan is burning the bridge to the Chinese political system, which is as Imperial in nature domestically as the US is internationally. Here as with Japan, Beijing keeps discussions at a high octave, keeping the emotional stakes high on the Mainland.

Many a Mainlander has expressed hatred for Koizumi and/or Chen Shui Bian, and thereby the "Japan" and "Taiwan" that these two figures represent in the eyes of Beijing. Not only does this keep the pressure on, but it also fuels the only solution Hu and the Fourth Generation can fully utilize to tackle the biggest and most explosive issue of all, if East Asian problems are to be view through a Sinocentric lens: China's downtrodden poor and the ruthless businessmen and gangster-officials who stomp all over them.

This may actually be the true crux of the Japan-Taiwan-China problems. China's increasing reliance on nationalism to bind the country together comes because wealth creation is not doing the trick. China welcomes aid, investment and technology from both Japan and Taiwan in the hopes that China's booming economy may eventually reach gangster-held, official-plundered spots in the hinterland like Lanzhou, Gansu Province.

But until Beijing can provide economically for its own, nationalism will be the force that binds China together. And this, as much as forgetful Japanese and rebellious Taiwanese, will be a major issue for East Asia in the future.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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