Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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On the ‘Rise of China’

May 26th, 2011 · No Comments · FORUM

Sheryn Lee

If one consider the concern over a rising China, it is true we need detailed knowledge of the fast-growing economic and military capacities of the PRC, in particular how China might best interact with the region, however could it also be the case that the ‘rise of China’ is the most predictable ingredient in what many have termed ‘the Asian century’? The phenomenon of the ‘rise of China’ has previously been felt in the Ming and Qing dynasties, but how it’s ‘subordinate’ states reacted to the adjustments in power relativities is what defined the regional order.

On the surface, in Northeast Asia, China’s ‘rise’ is viewed as relatively peaceful. If one begins in the Chinese Mainland, the phrase ‘rise of China’ (Zhōngguó de juéqǐ) is used by the CCP government yet in everyday domestic conversation the expression Zhōngguó rén zhàn qǐlái’ (Chinese people stand up) tends to be used. This second formulation conveys more clearly a sense of nationalistic pride. Moreover, rather than describing their nation as ‘rising’ (‘jueqi’), the Chinese people tend to see it as a ‘return’ to its traditional status in the region. For them, the ‘rise of China’ phenomenon is revivalist, reflecting historical perceptions of the former strength and wealth of China. In associating the resurgence of Chinese power with the historical norm, this narrative evokes an impression of inevitability and justness associated with the ‘return’.

Chinese Premier Wen, Japanese PM Kan and South Korean President Lee at the 4th trilateral summit, 21 May 2011 (photo by flickr user tula_7755)

In Japan, the phrase ‘rise of China’ (Chuugoku no taitoo) is also used, and when used it tends to suggest Japan is relatively relaxed about the growth of – or restoration of – Chinese power. In many situations in Japan, however, there is reference to ‘the China question’ (Chuugoku no mondai) and ‘the China threat’ (Chuugoku no kyooi) – and these phrases communicate much more distinctly a Japanese anxiety regarding China. In the context of already widespread concerns about the relative decline of Japan’s global influence, Japanese apprehension about the implications of China’s current rise is sometimes rooted less in concerns about China’s absolute growth than in its expansion relative to Japan, thus the emphasis on the ‘question’ of China and not the ‘rise’. In other words, the ‘threat’ of China is based on fears that Japan will find itself relegated to its pre-modern era status as a subordinate power in East Asia. In records from the Ming dynasty, one could say with confidence the Japanese did not view the Ming as glorious, however, they still wanted to trade with China and entered the tributary system. They took offence when they were considered at the same level (or lower) than Korea in the hierarchical order and made a point of sending infrequent tributes to the mainland. By the 19th century, Japan seized the opportunity to detach itself from the traditional Sino-centric tributary system and opted for ‘Westernisation’ as a way to modernise.

In South Korea, particularly in its media, there is a certain lack of focus on the ‘rise of China’. The expression ‘rise of China’ does not seem to have an established standard translation; the direct translation ‘Chungguk kulki’ is only used when translating Chinese texts into Korean (strange, given the amount of Chinese loanwords prevalent in the Korean language). Rather, the phenomenon of a ‘rising China’ is translated indirectly through explanatory remarks like ‘the Chinese move to prominence’ (Chungguk pusang) or ‘the growth of China’ (Chungguk sǒngjang). Like Japan, the ‘China question’ is to some extent a part of- and preoccupation of- South Korean domestic politics; the Korean Right (traditionally pro-American) sometimes cites the ‘China threat’ as a reason to uphold Korea’s endangered military alliance with the US, while the Korean Left (anti-American and nationalist) rejects such statements as unfounded and often paints a rosy picture of Korea’s prosperous coexistence with the mighty China. (Korea is unique in being perhaps the only long-term participant of the Sinic tributary system which not only used its unequal relations with China for diplomatic gains, but also openly admitted its own position of ritual ‘inferiority’ vis-a-vis China.) At the same time, Korean public opinion continues to be preoccupied with Japan, even though in the current situation Japan hardly constitutes any real threat to Korea.

If one just the looks at the ‘rise of China’ in the states most proximate to the mainland, one could assume that they are relatively nonplussed. Though if one delves a little deeper, throughout history there have been particular anxieties of tributary-states, city-states and now nation-states of changing power relativities. These age-old apprehensions though seem not to be of who will emerge as the dominant regional power (China or the U.S.) or even how will this regional power exert its influence in the region, but rather how the ‘subordinate’ states guarantee their own status, prosperity and stability. While this project is very much ‘in the weeds’, security in the ‘Asian century’ is not just a question of the balance of economic and military power in the region, but also pivots on the influence that beliefs about the ‘shared past’ has on the perception of threat and order.

*This post draws heavily on the work of the project’s Northeast Asian lexicon entries as well as conversations with Professor Anthony Milner.

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