China’s established return to the hierarchy of great powers raises questions about cosmology and international relations. In the intersection of those two realms lies the relations that the Middle Kingdom is likely to possess with the rest of Asia, relations mediated fundamentally by the US.
Every country has a reigning idea, derived from a real or imagined part of its history, prehistory or myth, or all of them acting in fluid combination. For example, the US derives its identity from the concept of being a City upon a Hill, an existential phrase that draws on the teaching of salt and light in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In the context of contemporary geopolitical reality, the City is a rhetorical declaration of American exceptionalism that enables it to act as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. As with all rhetoric, the claim is based partially on historical fact and partly on extrapolation from past to future. America’s embrace of the world’s unwanted has made it the most wanted nation in the world. How it will fare in the future, only time knows.
China’s defining self-image is that of the Middle Kingdom. That image is endowed with the same universality that is embodied in the metaphor of the City upon a Hill, and with the same sense of earned exceptionalism that underpins the American self-perception. According to an excellent description of the concept of the Middle Kingdom, provided by an arm of Thailand’s premier Chulalongkorn University, the notion reflects the lighted wisdom of Chinese universality as being inseparable from the idea of civilisation as a centre that shines light upon its surrounding regions. The Middle Kingdom carries the Mandate of Heaven.
Not very different from the American version, is it? The Christian undertones of American salvationism are replaced in the (much older) Chinese version with a subtler providential message: that the Chinese are here to civilise the universe, not to colonise it. Interestingly, the US rose to power on the strength of its anti-colonial rebellion against British tutelage and rule. The historically uncolonised Chinese lay claim to world history for the same reasons: They resist the colonisation of the life of nations by the great powers. One advantage that China possesses over the US is that the latter itself was born of a history of Western imperialism and colonialism, which it continued ingloriously in its dealings with the Americas and the rest of the world, while China is free of the lasting historical taint of colonisation. Hence, China’s demands for a multipolar world today are genuine — because it has preserved its national integrity in just such a world before and after the advent of Western colonialism in Asia in the 16th century.
The problem is that great nations are not static, any more than time itself is. Although China has no imperial past outside its borders, there is nothing to say that it will not have an imperial future outside them. Its success in reclaiming most of the South China Sea in terms of its historical claims, and its advances in creating a Sinic sphere of global influence through its Belt and Road Initiative, indicates its ambition to be a revitalised Middle Kingdom whose glory outshines the light emanating from the City upon a Hill. There is no reason to blame China for its renewed cartographic aspirations, any more than there is reason to blame the US for clinging to the geography related to its provenance. All great nations behave this way.
The question however is: How should Asian nations behave, caught as they are between the American and Chinese versions of providentialism? Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand all have their myths of origin, which rule the imaginations and tempers of their peoples and governments to this day. Which way should they turn?
Interestingly, both the City upon a Hill and the Middle Kingdom are vertical concepts. The first idea presupposes the denizens of the earth being attracted upwards, from the lowly misery of their daily lives to an elevated form of existence where they may renew themselves in gravitational freedom. The second idea presupposes China being situated between the Heavens and Earth, drawing energy endlessly from the divine to pass on. These are very powerful self-images. The concept of the Middle Kingdom should not be dismissed as an improbably self-serving national metaphor, any more than the image of the City upon a Hill is a totally fictitious account of America’s role in the world. Neither the US nor China is an interloper in the world. That is a fact that the rest of humanity will have to live with, principally that large segment of humanity which resides in Asia, where the contest between the American Dream and the Chinese Vision is at its most intense.
So, how will Asian nations respond? My sense of Asia is that it will respond with an instinctive sense of itself. What I mean is that the Japanese, Koreans, Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Vietnamese, Thais, Indians and others will not simply buy into either the American or the Chinese version of historical inevitability. They will judge historical claims against present behaviour. Indeed, they are doing so already.
America’s military interventions in the rest of the Americas, in the Middle East, in Asia and in Africa — sometimes offensive, sometimes defensive — during its Cold War contest with the Soviet Union were one thing because an American defeat would have spelled the end of the little freedom that the world knew. The invasion of Afghanistan prevented (for a time at least) that country from becoming a functioning epicentre of global terror, another existential threat to freedom. However, the invasion of Iraq, the destruction of Libya and the undeclared war on Syria fall into the category of imperial appropriation of others’ national spaces. The war in Ukraine, which is being waged essentially between a US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia, shows no sign of Ukrainians climbing up to the City upon a Hill. Russian missiles kill many of them before they can even embark on that journey.
As for China, the Middle Kingdom is not faring too well in the world either. Increasingly, it is being forced to exercise influence far outside its borders, this being the key test of a great power. China’s imprint in the Middle East is clear, for example, in the role it played in brokering a deal between arch-enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia in March this year to restore diplomatic relations between them after decades of enmity that had led to a formal severance of ties in 2016. That rapprochement is welcome, of course, and therefore China’s mediatory role as well.
However, the stronger China grows and the more its influence expands, the more it will be sucked into conflicts far away from itself, conflicts that do not impinge on its core national interests — unless friendly access to oil-producing countries is considered one of them. And even if that access is a part of its national interests, the question arises as to how far a great power should be involved politically in the affairs of other nations — since oil must be traded internationally if its production is to profit the oil states and since global energy markets do their job ultimately. Why invest so much diplomatic energy in issues lying far away from Chinese territory? The answer: this is how great powers behave in order to remain great powers. The cost: entanglement in others’ disputes without tangible returns for the great power itself.
China can learn from the US in this regard. America’s entanglement with Middle Eastern affairs is legendary. Lately, the US was instrumental in the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 that normalised diplomatic relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and potentially Sudan. The accords represented a welcome breakthrough in paralysed regional relations, but their reach was stymied by a lack of tangible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Since that intractable dispute lies at the heart of Middle Eastern conflicts, American involvement in the Abraham Accords merely confirmed to Palestinians their suspicion of America’s inevitable tilt towards Israel, a tilt disguised by one diplomatic initiative after another. It is difficult to see how the US has benefitted from the accords. The City upon a Hill lies outside the grasp of Palestinians. The Middle Kingdom, carrying the Mandate of Heaven, is unlikely to fare much better in its interventions in global affairs whose secular logic defies the cosmological premises of exceptional nations.
Tropes and symbols
This is as good a point as any to return to the issue of Asia. China would be mistaken if it were to believe that it could “pacify” East, Southeast and South Asia into belonging to an exclusively Sinic sphere of influence reminiscent of America’s Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared that North and South America were no longer open to European colonisation. Indeed, the doctrine held that the US would not allow European countries to interfere with independent governments in the Americas. No Monroe Doctrine is possible today. Instead, Asian countries today are not willing to be held hostage collectively by the contending interests of China and the US — no matter how much either country might covet them only for itself.
If anything, if a modicum of global cooperation between Beijing and Washington were to be possible, even within the jealous parameters of their bilateral rivalry, it would be possible for Asian nations to fit their own myths, histories and contemporary relations into the overarching grid of great-power interests formed by the triangular relationship among the US, China and Russia. Tropes such as “Democracy” (the template of the City upon a Hill) and “Order” (that of the Middle Kingdom) are passé. (The Russian Eagle’s symbolic power is being questioned every day in Ukraine.) Asians do not need tropes and symbols. They need a peaceful and stable world order in which to find a future for themselves.
The blunt truth is that neither the US nor China can afford to treat the other as an adversary; their relations are central to peace in the world. That truth is one which Asians would support unconditionally.
The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and a graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. The Board is chaired by the global statesman, Dr Henry A Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. This article reflects the writer’s personal views