China now faces a critical juncture in its history. The country is already a major power, and is destined to become one of two superpowers in the world. The question is what kind of great power it will become. Or one could ask what kind of civilized country it will become. These are major questions which have a bearing not only on China, but also on neighboring countries including Japan and which will have a connection to the history of humanity. I want my friends in China to think about this issue.
China was the only central power in East Asia in the long history leading up to the 19th century. From the time of Emperor Wu of Han, the Chinese empire ruled Korea for 400 years, and Vietnam for 1,000 years. Separated by the sea, Japan did not come under China's direct rule, and absorbed and internalized the rich achievements of Chinese civilization, such as iron production, rice cultivation and kanji characters.
China had always stood out among the pack, not bending to outsiders, and Japan had been a student of its civilization. This relationship underwent a major turnaround in the 19th century, when Western powers came rushing into Asia.
Japan quickly learned from modern Western civilization like it did from Chinese civilization, and strengthened itself. In contrast, China, over the final decades of the Qing dynasty, suffered from the failed Hundred Days' Reform of modernization promoted by the young Emperor Guangxu and his supporters. China never imagined an external civilization better than itself.
The Empire of Japan became the only country in Asia with modern armed forces, securing a privileged invincible presence in Asia. This invincibility prompted Japan to fight, and wars became habits for the country in the 1930s. The empire sank as it was suffocated under the ABCD encirclement of embargoes by America, Britain, China and the Dutch. The demise was like that of the always victorious general Xiang Yu of Chu state, who eventually became isolated by the enemy army of Han in a state of "simian chuge" (literally, "Chu songs on all sides," or being surrounded by enemies and isolated) and killed himself in the Battle of Gaixia in 202 B.C. One has no choice but to feel a sense of shame for prewar Japan, failing to be a good facilitator of international relations utilizing its might, and playing the role of an aggressive hegemon instead.
After World War II, Japan repented of its prewar deeds, and sought a path of peaceful development. The country, even after achieving rapid economic growth, focused on supporting developing countries with official development assistance, as symbolized by the words in 1977 of then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda: "We may become a major economic power, but we will not become a major military power."
The "reform and opening-up" policy of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has triggered Chinese economic expansion leveraging the world market, with the country averaging growth of over 10 percent per annum for three decades since 1980. The country surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world in 2010. This economic growth came with military expansion. In the 25 years after the end of the Cold War, China's defense spending grew 41 fold. Its economic and military might are two engines behind its overall power, and China thus has followed the millennia-long tradition of power politics. Surely there is a danger that the country could take on a presence like that of prewar Japan.
"What kind of a major power will China become?" This question was brought up when I was a member of the New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century during five early years of the 21st century. The panel of experts from the two countries, organized jointly by Tokyo and Beijing, discussed and made proposals to leaders of their countries on a wide variety of issues including politics, culture and science.
When asked by the Japanese side if China was heading toward Japanese- or German-type power, the Chinese side said "By no means." When asked if becoming a power like the United States, which inherited the position of the central power of the world from Britain, the Chinese side replied, "That's not the case either. China will become a major power of its own." Well, what signifies a Chinese power then? A detailed answer to that question is not yet available.
Over the ensuing years, China's course of action has attracted intense international attention. China succeeded in hosting the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and supported the global economy with massive stimulus package of 4 trillion yuan after it was hit by the economic meltdown triggered by the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers. This feat made China prouder, and voices grew within the country in 2009 that it was high time to graduate from Deng Xiaoping's teaching of "tao guang yang hui" (to conceal one's strengths and bide one's time).
China then intensified maritime expansion. The country challenged Japan's effective control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in 2010 and 2012, and began a push for the reclamation and militarization of some reefs in the South China Sea around 2014. China's attempt to gain unilateral control of the important international sea lanes of the South China Sea attracted strong international criticism. If China was going to press its rule on others with its growing might, then how would the country's transition to the position of a major power differ from the precedents of Germany or Japan?
There were some expectations in the U.S., Europe and Japan that China would become a "responsible stakeholder" if the country was invited to become a member of the global free trade system and achieved an economic growth. Those expectations were betrayed. Making a great leap forward in the world's market economy, China, driven by 150 years of humiliation from losing its previous strength, is possessed by an ambition to become the most powerful country on earth by the mid-21st century, warn some observers. This view has gone hand in hand with the buildup of a tough attitude against China, mainly in the U.S. but in other corners of the globe as well.
Despite such observations, China is correcting its course in some aspects. In the face of "America First" anti-internationalism promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the China headed by President Xi Jinping is calling for protection of the free trade system and the global environment, and advocating the common destiny of human beings and maintenance of international public goods.
China is standing at a crossroads. When the country was developing, supporting itself was everything. But as the country grows, it must be more considerate of others. If China is indeed becoming a central, major country, it ought to maintain a sense of responsibility regarding the world order. People despise a powerful but aggressive presence. The world respects a country of self-restraint and good facilitation. I'd like to call upon my friends in China to make their country great and virtuous based on reason and morality that never changes through the ages.
(By Makoto Iokibe, Chairman of the Asia Affairs Research Council)
This article is part of a series.