Challenges from Pax Sinica

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Challenges from Pax Sinica

China is committed to reviving the gloried era of Pax Sinica when it saw itself as an ever-expanding central power around which the world revolved, claims Chinese expert Steven Mosher in his book “Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia and the World.” China still sees itself in these terms, which explain its pursuit of predominance through an attempt to redeem what it deems its traditional and rightful rank and authority in Asia and other parts of the world.

The attacks on Lotte Group’s Chinese operations after it supplied the land to deploy a U.S. antimissile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad), should be understood in the Pax Sinica context. Lotte is being punished for surrendering its land for a weapons system Beijing has publicly and repeatedly protested against.

But more importantly, it is being made an example of the consequences of challenging the Hegemon. The punishment is being carried out on both the state and civilian levels because the great name of China has been insulted. Authorities have suspended operations at 55 Lotte Mart stores in just four days. Chinese consumers are willingly joining their government’s boycott of Lotte. They are basically allowed to vandalize Lotte stores.

China is an expert in dominance. The deep-rooted Sinocentrism led to China regarding peripheral states as barbarians or vassals. The ancient sage Mencius said, “I’ve heard of the Chinese converting barbarians to their ways, but not of the other way around.”

Deng Xiaoping’s famous advice to “keep a low profile and bide your time” was chucked away as soon as China became the world’s second biggest economy. The monster, once awakened, would fight tooth and claw and become a plague for others, a 19th century British field marshal warned. France, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all came under its claws. We should not be surprised that we have fallen victim. What’s surprising is how naïve and unprepared our government has been.

We must know our enemy to be able to fight it. China has become skilled in taming lesser states. First, it sets a target and strikes relentlessly to send an unequivocal message. That is why Lotte is specifically targeted in a high-profile manner so that others should watch and learn. Second, China has become clever enough to ensure it can weasel out of any accountability for its actions. The tax, fire, and hygiene probes of Lotte units are legitimate actions by state authorities and they can impose regulatory actions upon finding violations. Beijing believes this is a plausible denial of a politically motivated crackdown. It was able to ban the airing of Korean TV programs and kick Korean entertainers off Chinese stages because services don’t fall under the bilateral free trade pact with South Korea.

Beijing also lets ordinary people do its dirty work. Once it makes its position clear, men and women on the street start destroying Hyundai Motor cars and boycott Korean products. They know their marching orders.

Our response should be designed to sway international opinion to our favor. China’s weapon is petulant nontariff barriers. We must rally countries that suffered similar attacks from China to create a new international norm to ban them. The Korean government must form a joint front with civilian enterprises to fight back. But our domestic conditions do not make joint actions easy.

Lotte Group can hardly counterattack because its head is implicated in a political scandal. The group’s chairman Shin Dong-bin is banned from leaving Korea because of the government probe into bribery and favoritism allegations involving the president and her friend Choi Soon-sil. When a territorial dispute over a group of uninhabited islets called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China led to a nationwide boycott against Japanese products in 2010, the Japanese foreign minister and business leaders flew to China to solve the issue. Shin’s request to leave for China was denied by our prosecutors. Our trade and industry ministry also refrains from getting involved in fear of worsening the friction with China.

The Korean public offers scant support. In fact, they manage to make matters worse. Protestors rally in front of Lotte outlets denouncing the group’s swapping of its land for the Thaad battery. The Chinese may be smiling at the way Koreans are tamed. Lotte’s board of directors endorsed the plan to swap its land for military purpose saying national interests should come before corporate interests. We must not let a company suffer for serving the nation.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 9, Page 30
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