Earlier this week I blogged a little bit about the tremendous changes currently being experienced in China as an indirect result of the tragic Sichaun earthquake, and the credibility crisis of 21st century authoritarian capitalist states. Picking up where we left off, this week has brought more and more surprising and historically unprecedented news from China: namely, that they have announced that they will accept earthquake relief aid from Japan, essentially inviting the first Japanese military air mission to China since the end of World War II. Any student of Chinese history will tell you that this announcement by Beijing involves one of the greatest departures from the nation’s historical narrative in recent memory. In my view, it ranks along with Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. The history of East Asia may never be the same, and Washington should be paying much closer attention to their rapidly depreciating relevance in global affairs.
[Photo: Members of a Japanese medical team walk to board a flight bound for China, at Narita International Airport in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, May 20, 2008. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Ren Zhenglai)]Firstly, I need not recount for readers the horrors of the Japanese Army’s legacy in Manchuria and China in the 1930s – there’s no shortage of painfully detailed literature on the subject. However, it is difficult to overestimate the continuing resonance of these tropes in Chinese society – as recently as 2005, a wave of anti-Japanese protests swept over the country, startling the control-obsessed authorities.Bolstered by booming trade between the two countries, this significant measurement of the “new” Chinese openness sends a clear signal that Beijing has undergone a major change in attitude, and believes that it has a historic opportunity with the present Japanese government to draw them politically closer to their orbit. This, in combination with flourishing regional relationships as well as ties to Russia and Africa, is creating a new balance of power in the East. Japan was arguably the last domino to fall in Asia – a longtime American client and advocate – now in a comfortable, increasingly stable relationship with China – so much so that their military can even fly into the territory for an aid mission.This all comes back to the earthquake disaster, and how the government appears to be undergoing their first experience in public relations, allowing the media relatively open coverage while trying very hard to appear as though they would leave no stone unturned in helping the stricken populace (naturally there are still some shortcomings, but still, the effort to appear helpful is evident). In a strange way, Beijing seems to be attempting to grasp the immense importance of their reaction to the natural disaster – similar to their efforts for the Olympic Games. For decades, a government which has never looked in the mirror has become quite suddenly image conscious.Meanwhile it seems like Washington just can’t pull itself out of the current losing streak in foreign policy. Soft power used to be something that the United States could wield, but it now seems to also be China’s game – as detailed in the already-dated book by Joshua Kurlantzick. Perhaps the only effective recent move the United States has made in East Asia (they certainly flubbed the 1997 crisis) was their respective assistance to tsunami relief.The situation of power relations with China is in a dramatic state of flux, based upon many factors ranging from this disaster to Tibet to economic growth and the Olympics. The ongoing strategies of the country’s “peaceful rising” tested daily, and leading to an increased inclusiveness that was previously thought to be antithetical to the state model.Looking at recent events across the globe, everything from Colombia’s first state visit to Moscow to discuss arms sales to Venezuela, to Medvedev’s first trip to Beijing, and Mr. Putin’s red carpet treatment in Paris this week, it is evident that the new vision of a multilateral world is beginning to take shape. Our following post on the first trip of a major Colombian leader to Moscow underscores the vacuum of leadership from the United States that continues to be the light motif of the post-war on terror international environment.The fact that China appears to be running a successful foreign policy in Asia and Africa is not that surprising. What exacerbates this situation is the near total absence of an intelligent U.S. policy response, which would seek to capitalize on opportunities. Washington can sit back and watch Beijing preempt the United States everywhere from Nigeria to Australia, or it can come up with innovative ways to leverage their trade relationships to make itself a relevant player in these regions once again. The status quo is clearly not working, and this tactical vacuum is making it easier for authoritarianism to flourish.