NRI Dunia
Think Outside The Box

China’s rise takes the world into uncharted waters

Twice in the 20th century, Japan challenged the West, first in a military-led attempt to become an imperial power and then as an industrial powerhouse. Now it is China’s turn to take the global stage.

Seventy-five years after Japan’s surrender in World War II, and 30 years after its economic bubble popped, the emergence of a 21st-century Asian power is shaking up the status quo.

As Japan did, China is butting heads with the established Western powers, which increasingly see its growing economic and military prowess as a threat. In turn, China, again like Japan, feels the West is trying to limit its rise, fueling nationalistic sentiment among both its public and leaders.

What’s changed, though, is the global landscape — post-colonial to start, and one of the nuclear-armed states, global institutions, and much deeper economic interdependence.

China’s goals are similar to Japan’s — to assert control in its immediate neighborhood while securing resources for its economic growth — but its means are different.

Rather than imposing direct control through armed invasion, China is relying on economic enticements, cultural outreach and a gradual buildup of its military forces to boost its standing.

“The means by which China would increase its power are vastly different, as are the means by which other countries might resist it,” said Jennifer Lind, an Asia expert at Dartmouth University.

The rest of Asia is watching with a mixture of opportunism and trepidation, eager to benefit from China’s trade and investment, wary of its size and strength and its sprawling territorial claims.

Much larger than Japan, with 10 times the population, it is potentially better able to go toe-to-toe with an established superpower.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is building ports, railways and other infrastructure across not just Asia but also Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.

Less welcome is China’s growing presence in the South China Sea, where it chases away the fishing boats of its Southeast Asian neighbors and has built artificial islands to stake out its territorial claims.

Ramon Navaratnam lived through Japan’s World War II occupation of Malaysia as a boy. The veteran commentator advises working with China, not against it.

“We must be able to win them over,” he said. “In other words live peacefully with the dragon, don’t antagonize it.” In a different era, when the sun never set on the British Empire, a rising Japan sought to join the league of European colonial powers by invading and occupying China and several Southeast Asian nations, often in brutal fashion.

Japan formally surrendered 75 years ago this week onboard the USS Missouri, its empire-building ambitions in tatters after US atomic bombs leveled two cities, ushering in the nuclear age.

Chinese leaders marked the anniversary Thursday in a brief and solemn ceremony at a memorial hall that remembers those who fought the Japanese.

Rana Mitter, an Oxford University scholar and author of a book on the Japanese invasion of China, cautions against comparisons between then and now.