‘The Rise of China and the Future of the American Role in Asia’

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‘The Rise of China and the Future of the American Role in Asia’


Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of the JoongAng Media Network and a former Korean ambassador to the United States, delivers a speech at the Intercontinental Hotel Century City in Los Angeles on Thursday after being presented with the Building Bridges Award by the Pacific Century Institute. [KIM SANG-JIN]

Honorable Ambassador Don Gregg, Chairman of the Pacific Century Institute Board of Directors; Mr. Kenneth Tuggle, President of the PCI Board of Directors; Mr. Don Evans, Treasurer of the PCI; PCI Co-founder and CBOL Group Chairman Spencer Kim; members of the PCI Board of Directors; ladies and gentlemen:

Please allow me to begin my remarks with my deep thanks to all for the tremendous honor of receiving the Building Bridges Award and for presenting me with this wonderful opportunity to speak before you.

I spent a total of 12 years living in the United States, as a graduate student, later as an economist working at the World Bank, and then as the Korean Ambassador to the United States.

I believe that my experiences in the United States, and the lessons that I learned during my time here, have played a critical role in my career and that I have many Americans to thank for helping me to reach the point in my career at which I am honored with such an award.

I laud the founders of the PCI for the wisdom and the foresight they displayed in anticipating the profound changes that America would face in the Asia-Pacific age when they launched the Institute 26 years ago.

The PCI has made a tremendous contribution to the deepening of exchange and the increase in understanding throughout the region.

I would like to take this opportunity to share with you my views on the topic of “The Rise of China and the Future of the American Role in Asia.”

As you well know, the rise of China is a new development in East Asia which has altered the accepted geopolitical reality of a relatively weak China that has been true since the Opium Wars in the 19th century, if not before.

The unexpectedly rapid rise of China not only poses challenges for China itself, which often lacks the expertise to support its new global role, but also poses many challenges for the future development of other nations in East Asia, specifically for Korea and Japan.

The challenge of engaging China is also very real for the United States.

In the case of Korea, a country which finds itself in close geographical proximity to China while it remains a staunch U.S. ally, the rise of China is a matter of vital concern and how that rise will unfold will have profound impact on Korea’s future and on its potential.

There is a Chinese proverb, “One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers” (il shan bu rong ho 一山不容二虎).

This saying suggests that there can only be one dominant power in a region.

If this saying applies to East Asia, then we can assume that China and the United States will inevitably get into various irresolvable conflicts in East Asia because each country will strive to be the dominant power.

But is that saying really applicable to the situation in East Asia, which has its own unique characteristics? More importantly, what steps can we take to make sure that the inevitable differences in perspective that arise between the two tigers do not result in a serious geopolitical struggle? How can we make sure that the two tigers coexist without fighting for dominance over a mountain?

I would like to explore this fascinating topic with you and to consider what positive role the United States should play in East Asia.

But I also want to talk about what China must do and consider what Korea, as a country deeply engaged with both superpowers, can do to help in this complex geopolitical dance.

Of course the proverb about the tigers is an apt analogy for the political process in China in which a victor who establishes a unified dynasty after long years of vying for dominance between rivals, must establish his unquestioned authority. In traditional Chinese political thought, there can only be one lord of the realm, and of the state. If there is no singular force to establish order (“zhi”(治)) the realm will descend into chaos (“luan”(亂)).

The Chinese consider a unifying singular force as essential to an orderly political system.

This perspective was extended outward in China’s external relations.

The Chinese geopolitical order assumed that there should be one singularly powerful kingdom that occupied the top of the hierarchy, and that this hierarchy wherein tributary states paid honor to the Chinese dynasty, was essential to maintaining peace and stability in the realm.

According to this view, there will be a high likelihood of turbulent times in East Asia if the realm is not authoritatively unified under one hegemonic power.

This traditional Sino-centric view of external affairs was subject to a tremendous challenge after the incursions of imperialism in the 19th century. Suddenly the unquestioned master of the realm was humiliated at the hands of the British during the Opium Wars and eventually reduced to a state of semi-colonialism.

The supreme power of East Asia was humbled by the technology and the financial instruments employed by the imperialists who ruthlessly pursued national prosperity through military might and an economic system based on the law of the jungle.

The Chinese to this day are deeply aware of the century of humiliations as a semi-colonized state that they suffered through.

The drive for economic development in China is a direct result of the passions stirred up by that humiliation.

China has focused its energy on achieving a national revival and on regaining the global dominance it enjoyed for most of its history.

The devastation and humiliation resulting from the imperialist conquest of China in the 19th century, first by Britain, France and Germany and then by Japan, have made the Chinese feel acutely that they cannot afford to be perceived as the loser in any contest for supremacy.

This awareness is in line with the traditional Chinese view of China’s appropriate place in the world and its relations with its neighbors.

Behind this Chinese perspective on international relations lurks that concept that two tigers cannot co-exist on one mountain.

This perception of international relations made sense to the Chinese in the context of the Chinese experience of imperialism and colonialism.

But the world has undergone tremendous change over the last two centuries, which suggests that we are looking at a very different game today.

Imperialism has found its place in the dust bin of history after the debacles of the First and Second World Wars showed its limitations.

In place of that vertical order, a new Western, international order has been established that holds up equality among sovereign nations and territorial integrity in accordance with the charter of the United Nations.

That new, complex and multilateral world, which has its origins in the Treaty of Westphalia and was fulfilled at the San Francisco Conference of 1945 with the founding of the United Nations, has been transplanted into East Asia.

During the 20th century, relations between countries gradually evolved beyond the imperialist hegemonic struggle for survival of the fittest that dominated the nineteenth century and we have embraced a new model of maximization of mutual benefit through exchange and cooperation.

This new paradigm for a world order based on exchange and cooperation not only continues on, but it is expanding in the 21st century as dramatic breakthroughs in science and technology increase economic integration.

Deepening mutual dependence in economic and trade relations have become the key to peace and prosperity in our world.

It is true, of course, that there remain significant gaps in development depending on the region. But the emergence of a new system is unmistakable. The forefront of this shift can be observed in Europe, the region that has embraced global economic systems for the longest period of time.

In Europe today, the supremacy of one particular state is no longer a significant concern. Instead, the main concern of nations which form a community is the pursuit of co-prosperity and mutual benefit.

The stakeholders have clear roles and responsibilities in the resolution of common problems and that process assures stability and predictability.

East Asia may not have reached that degree of institutional and cultural integration yet.

Nevertheless, the development of shared financial institutions and the launch of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (Korea, China and Japan) in 2011 suggest that East Asia is heading in the same direction as Europe, following the course set down in the pan-global progression of history.

That said, the unique historical legacy of East Asia, and certain cultural characteristics, make the current situation in East Asia a confusing mix of new trends and past vestiges.

A stable and peaceful order may well emerge in Northeast Asia, but it will be culturally and structurally distinct from Europe.

Therefore, the essential question we need to ask when we consider China’s rise and the continuing role of the United States in East Asia is this:

How can we orchestrate in a smooth manner this profound shift in the order of East Asia to a horizontal order based on reciprocal relations granted in the historical vestiges of the old order?

We must guard against a struggle between the nations of the realm for supremacy, a struggle that will not only undermine the global trend towards reciprocal relations, but will be ultimately detrimental to all nations in East Asia.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my sincere wish that East Asia will not revert to outmoded models of the past. We can make real progress if we envision and establish a new order in East Asia based on mutual respect, co-existence and co-prosperity.

Relations between nations should be horizontal and our perspective should be future-oriented, moving forward by embracing new innovations.

I believe that there are many in China, Korea and Japan who are ready to embrace such a vision.

To realize this goal, I believe that the United States must take on new and innovative roles in East Asia to present a powerful vision.

And I believe that we must include China in that vision and that we should make clear what contributions China should make.

If we look at the history of the past century in East Asia, we see many precedents for cooperation between the United States and China and they provide concrete suggestions as to what the foundations for a stable East Asian order might be.

When China was in decline and subject to exploitation at the hands of Western imperialism, U.S. policies with regard to China were clearly different from those of the imperialist powers.

At the time, the United States promoted the “open door policy” for free trade with China based on Secretary of State John Hay’s demand (1899) that all European powers allow for free trade with China and not show favoritism in economic affairs.

In addition, the United States was practically the only superpower with no territorial ambitions for expansion into China.

Quite the opposite, the U.S. played a major role in the Second World War, in which it was allied with China, in defeating Imperial Japan and freeing China from the state of semi-colonialism it had suffered for a century.

Of course, there were profound changes in the relationship of the United States and China after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 and Washington ultimately backed the Kuomintang party which had fled to Taiwan.

The resulting Cold War created a new geopolitical order wherein America intervened and engaged more deeply in East Asian affairs, often with a positive effect, but also with the assumption that there was a threat from “communist” China that had to be countered.

The United States and China even clashed militarily on the Korean Peninsula, and a continued state of tension and confrontation haunted a divided East Asia for decades.

But a welcome shift began in the 1970s when the United States improved relations with China and encouraged Beijing to become an active member of the international community.

Encouraged by the new opportunity for trade and for economic growth, China made the historic decision to set out on the road of economic and political reform and achieved remarkable economic growth by joining the international trading order and entering the U.S. market in earnest.

For its part, America actively engaged with China to set up programs and implement policies for significant bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

China seized the opportunity and emerged as a major economic force after concentrating on domestic politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

For its part, the U.S. made strides politically, diplomatically and economically in bringing China into the international community, culminating in China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.

In short, America’s role in China’s rise has in general been amicable and positive. The experience of history strongly suggests that it is possible for the United States and China to maintain mutual cooperation during China’s rise, and thereafter, granted that there will inevitably be disagreements and misunderstandings concerning specific issues.

Overall, the actions of America, as the dominant outside force in East Asia over the past century, have contributed to peace, stability and prosperity in the region as it witnessed a war led by Imperial Japan, the Cold War, the rapprochement with China and then entered the post-Cold War era.

The United States offered an international order which was not imperialist in nature and which encouraged self-determination in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson.

The precedents for a positive role for the United States hint at the potential for a new order that fully integrates China, engaging it as a major power with clear rights and responsibilities.

That is to say, there is a way for two tigers to work together for peace, stability and co-prosperity in the realm.

Frankly speaking, I am skeptical that the countries in East Asia can create a new geopolitical order all on their own.

Not only do East Asian countries not have the experience with modern international relations and regional cooperation that we have witnessed in Europe over the last 300 years, there are serious concerns that past conflicts over history and territory may reignite at any time.

What we have seen over the last century, starting with the “Open Door” policy for trade is that when an outside force, in this case the U.S., plays the role of an honest broker, it becomes easier to build a stable and reciprocal order in East Asia.

If we consider the larger geopolitical need to create a stable system that undergirds all bilateral relations, the United States has a clear and urgent task in front of it in East Asia to encourage China to participate in a constructive manner as we work together, as equals, to establish a reciprocal and cooperative order in East Asia.

That order will be similar to what we have witnessed in Europe, but it will have unique features dictated by the specifics of East Asia.

And I believe that the U.S. has the maturity and the experience to engage China in that process and assure China that it too will have a clear stake in the new order.

The U.S. has responded to China’s rise with a policy of “Asian rebalancing,” or what is known as the “pivot to Asia.” I believe this policy is an important one and that the new economic importance of East Asia in the world demands that Washington focus its resources more on responding to the emergence of East Asia.

But China, because of its painful experience with colonialism, has displayed a tendency to misread any moves to increase U.S. engagement in Asia as a ploy to contain and encircle China.

Granted the two centuries of humiliation that China experienced, we can find in Beijing’s psychology an odd mixture of smarting wounds from the past and pride in today’s achievements.

We can understand, even if we disagree, why the Chinese tend to harbor skepticism towards the United States’ intentions and retain a sense of victimization vis-a-vis external powers.

Also, behind the obvious pride the Chinese take in their achievements, there remain concerns about domestic challenges produced by rapid economic growth.

The combination of wariness about the intentions of outside forces and concerns over domestic issues are fanning nationalism in China.

America also needs to make sure it does not give the impression that its legitimate concerns for a stable and reciprocal order in East Asia are an attempt to subvert China’s rise.

We know that most Americans want strong engagement with China and that many see opportunities for the United States if China becomes a true stakeholder.

But if the U.S. gives the impression that it is trying to contain and encircle China through its actions, China will feel compelled to exert itself and push back.

There is another ancient Chinese proverb that I would like to share with you. This proverb suggests another paradigm for imagining the future of East Asia. The proverb is “The cypress tree is happiest in a lush pine forest.” (in Chinese S?ng mao b?i yue (松茂栢悅), or in Korean “Song mu baek yeol”.

If the international community wants to encourage China to cooperate with other nations and to contribute more to creating an open community in East Asia, the U.S. should take the lead in welcoming China’s rise and continuing to engage China through dialog in diverse fields, and on different levels, from elementary students to college professors, from local government officials to CEOs of major corporations.

If the U.S. welcomes a flourishing China, I believe that Beijing will respond to that encouragement and play a more responsible role.

China has shown it is capable of such growth before and it shows signs now that it will move toward a new order in the region based on mutual respect, co-existence and co-prosperity.

We can convince the Chinese that it is the trees on the mountain which grow together in a symbiotic manner, and not the hungry tigers that wander over the mountain that should be our model.

Let us talk a bit more concretely about what America’s role in East Asia should be. The U.S. must play a leadership role in encouraging a common agenda for collaboration in East Asia and checking narrow-minded nationalism and chauvinism.

Also the United States should continue to play a leading role in addressing in a multilateral format potential trouble spots such as North Korea’s nuclear program.

In order to encourage collaboration and draw attention to common concerns in East Asia, the U.S. needs to pursue diverse engagement policies in the fields of business, finance and trade.

I hope that the U.S. will continue to advocate for mutual benefits to be realized through the encouragement of competition, efficiency and rationality.

The United States should encourage opportunities for individual participation in economic exchange and demand compliance with rules and the upholding of high standards for transparency.

Anti-colonial nationalism remains a powerful force in East Asia today and it can disrupt many valuable efforts for multilateral cooperation.

Because America took a stance against imperialism during the colonial period and actively tried to counter the ambitions of the imperialists, even going to war against Japan for that reason,

East Asia was able to recover its freedom and its sovereignty.

Many Koreans, myself included, are deeply grateful for the sacrifices made by Americans to end the reign of imperialist exploitation.

The disputes over history issues in East Asia, if they expand and flame emotions, can create barriers in the region at a time when we should all be coming together.

I hope that the United States will rise to the occasion and demonstrate leadership so that past wrongs do not create present day problems.

The best way to build a new order in East Asia in both name and in reality is to establish successful precedents for cooperation.

I believe that resolving the controversy over North Korea’s nuclear program could be such a model case. North Korea’s recent nuclear test, the fourth, demands a speedy and unified response from all the nations of East Asia.

If we want a meaningful resolution to the North Korea nuclear issue, and I believe it is possible, we must not let ourselves be sidetracked by geopolitical strategies.

Rather, we should focus on the core values of nuclear non-proliferation and regional security, and we should engage closely with each other, while speaking seriously with the North Koreans.

Although the agenda of the Six-Party Talks so far has been limited to the question of North Korean denuclearization, it nonetheless has served as an unprecedented venue for negotiations that include the major countries of Northeast Asia.

If our joint efforts bear fruit this time around, the Six-Party Talks could serve as a precedent for meaningful multilateral governance.

If the United States can address serious issues together with Northeast Asian countries in the case of North Korea, it will be a dramatic example of cooperation between two giants in the region: the U.S. and China.

We can build on that collaboration, and other previous agreements for cooperation in the response to climate change and military exchanges, to set up a stable long-term vision for the relationship.

The agreement between the United States and China for a joint response to security threats will be a critical precedent for trust building and economic cooperation that will result in closer ties between the nations of East Asia as a whole.

Such a universal shift will be the only way to induce North Korea, the only isolated country in East Asia, to join the common current of our times.

The reality of geography makes it inevitable that America and China are here to stay in East Asia.

We expect that China will search for constructive ways to support co-existence and co-prosperity in the region and that such an effort will include a pragmatic acceptance of the U.S. presence in the region as a constant and stabilizing element.

I hope that China will welcome America’s role in East Asia and take the “cypress and pine tree approach” to the engagement of the two nations in the region and with each other.

Rather than using its new-found political and economic might to project its influence outwards in an assertive manner,

I hope to see China exert its efforts towards domestic and regional development that is aimed at increasing prosperity and to demonstrate far-sighted leadership by cooperating with the U.S. to create a future-oriented order.

The United States should increasingly focus its attention on the nations of East Asia which have reached a high level of sophistication.

It should openly recognize that China can be a good partner for many efforts to promote peace and prosperity. China should understand that in this globalized world there is no way to go back to a traditional order.

Both parties should recognize this reality and find an ideal balance with benefits for all.

As a middle power in Northeast Asia which has developed close multilateral relations with all its neighbors, Korea is a threat to no one.

An ally of the United States, with deep-rooted relations with Japan, and a significant partnership with China and Russia,

Korea is in the unique position to push forward the establishment of a community based on mutual respect, co-prosperity and interdependence among countries in the region.

I also believe that Korea can function as a facilitator to create a new order built on common ground between the U.S. and China and East Asia as a whole. As a nation with no history of colonialism or imperialism, that role on the part of Korea would be welcomed by East Asian nations.

It would raise Korea’s stature and create a favorable environment in the region to support for efforts toward unification on the Korean peninsula.

In conclusion, the U.S. presence in East Asia over the last century is a geopolitical constant in East Asia and venturing an East Asian order without such an honest broker as a stakeholder runs the risk of returning to the old patterns of rivalry and conflict.

The rise of China has also become a geopolitical constant.

Therefore, the U.S. and China should embrace the zeitgeist of a highly networked global village in the 21st century and join forces to usher in a future-oriented order in East Asia based on true reciprocity.

The key to success is a constructive and positive approach to international relations that takes into consideration the needs and perspectives of the partner.

Both the United States and China should adopt a realistic perspective that assumes mutual respect and cooperation on multiple fronts to realize common benefits.

New developments, from the internet to new global trade regimes make such unprecedented cooperation not only possible, but required.

But how smooth that process will be depends on the wisdom and the creativity shown by U.S. leadership and the sense of responsibility and vision on the part of China.

As a citizen of Korea, the middle power in East Asia that is so deeply committed to a multilateral cooperative future, it is my sincere wish to see a new order of mutual respect and co-existence like that which we have seen flower in Europe take root in East Asia.

We can create a new order in East Asia wherein nations, big and small, like trees, entangle their roots together beneath the earth and mingle their branches together above our heads to form a green and peaceful canopy.

Tigers of all stripes will be welcome to come and go as they please in that luxuriant green.

Thank you for your attention.
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