The Asian leap towards modernization has faced many complications filled with vicissitudes, violence and war. As is well known, the process began in Japan after World War II when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the phenomenon of Asian economic ‘Tigers’ and ‘Dragons’ appeared; which first happened under military and authoritarian regimes. Then in the 1990s, the process was led by democratic governments. Although the end of the Cold War played an important role in this transformation; the point that does not get due attention is the Sino-Western relationship, particularly Sino-US ties, both in its favorable and adverse aspects.
The Japanese march had begun, somehow amid China’s inattentiveness as MacArthur’s constitution was enacted and reconstruction started before communism took over China in 1949. Subsequently, China’s foreign affairs were limited to the Korean War, while the new regime could hardly establish itself.
Smaller Asian countries were the most affected by China’s rivalry with the West, especially as Beijing and Moscow were still allies at that time. Thus, tensions spewed out on two frontsHazem Saghieh
Tensions affecting Asia
However, smaller Asian countries were the most affected by China’s rivalry with the West, especially as Beijing and Moscow were still allies at that time. Thus, tensions spewed out on two fronts. The first front was Taiwan, which Washington pledged to protect, albeit Beijing considered it as having a rogue and separatist regime that posed a threat to Chinese unity and sovereignty. The second front was the Vietnam War, where both Communist giants — Russia and China — agreed to support North Vietnam. The mid-60s also witnessed Indonesia’s terrible massacre, when General Suharto, who was backed by Washington, killed between 500,000 to 3 million communists and members of the Chinese minority.
However, increasing differences between Moscow and Beijing amid US-Chinese rapprochement, beginning in the 1970s, changed many givens. In 1971, China got a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, instead of Taiwan. This had a positive effect on Chinese politics and economy, which culminated in Britain’s fulfillment of its troop withdrawal in 1997 from Hong Kong and the handover of Hong Kong to China.
However, Washington and Beijing soon found themselves facing growing Soviet influence in different countries and locations — such as Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, as well as Pakistan. Pakistan got Washington’s and Beijing’s support against India which was backed by Moscow at that time. These circumstances accorded Asians a conducive atmosphere to feel assured and peaceful, hence to resume political and economic advancement as it continued after the end of the Cold War.
It is feared today that these givens or at least some of them will change. As the US and China enter into the trade war which Donald Trump launched, there are many US bases in Asia that China views with suspicion. Meanwhile, Asian countries that fear China’s military rise demand more US presence and guarantees. The dispute over the South China Sea Islands involves many countries that oppose China’s alleged expansionist claims in that area.
However, there are two other factors that exacerbate concerns and frame a context to what is happening or what might happen. The first is that today’s Sino-Russian relations appear to be at their best, which reminds one of the circumstances that accompanied the Korean War in the early 1950s. The large presence of Chinese minorities in most of Asian countries neighboring China threatens to transform external conflicts, if they happen, into internal and civil strife.
Anyway, tension between Washington and Beijing might adversely impact a region which we thought had put pains and wars behind it for good.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.