ANY CONSIDERATION OF ASIA must have China at its centre. That has been the case for more than 2,000 years and has been sharpened in our day by the evolution of the People’s Republic, whose economy overtook Japan’s this autumn to be ranked the world’s second largest after the United States’. For all Deng Xiaoping’s advice to keep a low international profile, China is being pushed into the political spotlight, be it as the target of US congressional anger or as the prime exponent of resources diplomacy across the globe, from Australia to Angola, Iran to Brazil.
Tens of millions of Chinese tourists now travel each year to other parts of Asia. Confucius Institutes sprout and the legacy of the sage’s behavioural teachings provides an obvious source of cohesion running from the northern deserts of the mainland to Chinese communities in southern Indonesia. China has signed a free-trade pact with ASEAN and acts as a giant assembly shop for technological products made from components imported from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and across the Taiwan Strait. Goods from East Asian countries jostle with domestic products in Chinese shops. Hyundai cars have largely replaced Volkswagens as taxis in Beijing. Japanese investors and developers helped to put up the 492-metre Shanghai World Financial Centre, the third-tallest building in the world. The mainland is slowly making its currency international chiefly through arrangements in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia to spread renminbi usage. Since 1997 it has possessed a prime international financial centre in the shape of the former British colony. Look west and north and China is increasingly becoming involved in Central Asia while maintaining its grip on Xinjiang and casting acquisitive looks at Mongolia’s mineral wealth.
Still, China’s place in Asia is not quite what it seems – and thereby hangs a series of interrogations that ripple beneath the surface of the China-Asia story. The country that prides itself on possessing the longest continuous civilisation on Earth is simply too big and too aware of its uniqueness to fit into Asia, however one defines that geographical entity. It is a state that, to use Lord Palmerston’s phrase, has interests but not allies: China’s only bilateral treaty is with North Korea.
Historically, China has been its own master down the centuries, in good times and bad. Not that it was ever as cut off from the rest of the world as suggested by the legend of the hermetically sealed Middle Kingdom, or the Qianlong Emperor’s treatment of the Macartney Mission from Britain at the end of the 18th century. It has suffered invasions from the nomads of the northern steppes, from Tibet and Manchuria and from Japan. It tolerated the presence of Europeans in their treaty ports after the Opium wars. It has been ruled by Mongols and by Manchus, whose dynasty endured from 1644 to the end of empire in 1912, and who saw China as part of a great domain stretching from their homeland in the northeast to Tibet through Mongolia and Xinjiang.
For centuries, the Silk Road acted as a major international route for commerce and cultural exchanges, and the great Ming admiral Zheng He sailed far and wide through Asian waters – even if one doubts some of the more ambitious claims made for his maritime journeys. Whether Marco Polo actually visited China remains a subject of controversy (he probably did) but Jesuits enjoyed favoured status under the early Qing rulers. They and later Protestant missionaries brought a foreign creed to the home of Daoism and Confucianism and, despite a low conversion rate and the violent reaction of the Boxer Rising, proved extraordinarily persistent.
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