[OBSERVER]Minnows, too, have destiniesA poll the other day said that nearly everyone in Asia worries about China’s rise to potential political hegemony.
Nearly everyone? The poll, conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, did not ask any Koreans. So we do not know whether they, too, worry about China, or whether the worriers include only Japan, Russia, India and the United States, the four non-Chinese countries that were surveyed.
Still, if our concern is stability in Northeast Asia, the poll is worth a look.
The underlying assumption of the poll was that pretty soon China, not the United States, would be Number 1. How about that?
The Chinese don’t believe it. Only 37 percent of them imagined that China would replace the United States as the world’s dominant power. Even among Americans, 43 percent thought that China was the next hegemon. Japan and Russia were more or less in the same range, but India, which has fought several wars with China in the past half-century, is quite spooked by the idea of Chinese hegemony in Asia: 65 percent fear that China will be the dominant power 50 years from now.
First of all, we have to understand what a poll is. It is a measure of opinion by folks whose opinions may or may not be worth anything. A common tendency is to extrapolate from current trends. Fifteen years ago, the intelligent punditry in the United States was extrapolating the economies of rising Japan and the stagnant United States and forecasting the date at which Japan, not America, would be No. 1.
But, as the American baseball player Yogi Berra is said to have said: “It’s hard to make predictions ― especially about the future.” Perhaps you have noticed that Japan’s economy is still No. 2 and the pundits are now calculating when it will fall to No. 3, behind China’s.
Statistics and trends may or may not be destiny. China’s economy is now about $2.2 billion, less than half of Japan’s and about a sixth of U.S. output.
China’s sheer population mass, though, does lend itself to mind-boggling speculation. Some years ago I read that someone had reckoned that if every Chinese drank just one glass of beer more next year than this, the world’s grain reserves would be wiped out ― commandeered to brew all that beer. Whether because the Chinese remain temperate or because the world’s farmers are more productive, that calamity has not yet visited us.
But the marvelous comparisons continue to roll in. Just last week I read that China’s apple harvest this year, at 25 million tons, will weigh as much as 68 Empire State Buildings. More serious is the pressure of a booming China’s demand on the world’s supplies of oil and other mineral resources and the effect of an industrializing China’s waste, solid and atmospheric, on the global natural environment.
And there is China’s military potential. The same poll cited above found that Japanese (93 percent), Russians (76 percent) and Indians (63 percent) are worried about a militarized China. (Only 3 percent of Chinese are.)
Here in Korea, polls show that George W. Bush is regarded as the greatest danger to peace. Kim Jong-il, Japan and China follow, in that order.
Mr. Bush, of course, has started more wars lately than any of the other three. Still, this seems like blinkered thinking, colored by the remembered insult of Japanese colonialism and the fanciful notion that Koreans North and South could work out their problems if only Mr. Bush would be “flexible.” (As they so famously cooperated, for example, in the years leading up to the Korean War?)
It is often said in diplomacy that countries have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Korea’s interests make it a natural ally of the two other Pacific democracies, the United States and Japan.
This does not mean that Korea should resist China’s political and economic development ― indeed, Chinese development, too, may be in Korea’s interest. But it should work with its allies to push that development into constructive channels. Instead, at least in its public diplomacy, Seoul spends an awful lot of time engaging in “lovers’ spats” with its allies.
The trouble with a country’s thinking of itself as “a minnow among whales” ― Korea’s traditional description of itself surrounded by China, Russia, Japan and the United States ― is that it loses perspective. It magnifies weakness and substitutes emotion for analysis.
Many countries much smaller than Korea ― the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, or at times even Thailand ― are able to play constructive and respected roles in the world. Perhaps Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon’s election as UN secretary general will make Koreans not only proud, but politically mature and effective.
* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.
by Harold Piper
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