The end of a temporary advantage


Western powers are indeed trying to tell China how to behave, both implicitly and explicitly, but the idea of the West needs rethinking. A response to Xiaoyo Pu in the 'emerging powers and human rights ' debate. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Hugh Shapiro
16 July 2013

Dr. Pu’s essay asks: “In what way can China act as a normative power,” given that “the West” and “Western powers” are always “attempting to tell (and to teach) China how to behave”?  At first blush, the idea that anyone or anything can tell China what to do, can push China around, telling it how to act, appears patently false.

However, upon reflection, Dr. Pu is making an important point. Western powers are indeed trying to tell China how to behave, both implicitly and explicitly.  In a broad, implicit sense, the international order as it exists today is the creation of Euro-American power, of its science, technology, political-military ambitions, of its cultural practice.

Consider the weft and warp of modern life.  Universal Time is Greenwich Mean Time, Zero Hour being located in Merry England.  The year 2013, degrading to non-Christian civilizations, frames the birth of Confucius, Siddhartha, and Zoroaster as marginally notable events, recognizable only in that they occurred 500 years before the start of time worth tracking.  In the Eurocentric structure of the modern world, Europe is a continent, one of seven.  How can this be?  Geologically, Europe no more qualifies as a continent than India or China or the Arabian Peninsula. Western Asia’s rocky outcrop is a continent solely because this category was invented in Europe.  The world lives within Euro-American history.

Shenzou 5 re-entry model. Wikimedia Commons/Yxk. Some rights reserved.

Explicitly, the west attempts to tell China what to do by positing an international order largely drafted in China’s absence.  Be reminded that for the first half of the Cold War, from 1949 to 1971, China (PRC) was excluded from an international order dominated by the United States.  Taiwan (ROC), with its 1950 population of 11 million (as opposed to China’s then population of 500 million) was awarded the Permanent Seat on the United Nation’s Security Council.  In trade, cultural and educational exchange, in politics, the US isolated China very effectively.  (The US also effectively blinded itself by purging its most experienced China experts in its longue durée of anti-communism).

China, therefore, had no voice in major international treaties, such as the ‘Outer Space Treaty,’ adopted by the UN in 1967.  China sometimes signals its rejection of treaties formulated in its absence.  In the 1990s, for instance, China parked a satellite just off the orbit of one of Japan’s communications satellites.  If China had activated its satellite, one-half of Japan’s mobile phone traffic would have been disrupted.  China did not activate it, yet the point was clear. 

Disagreements over definitions within international treaties, such as Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), exacerbate simmering conflicts in the Western Pacific.  The navies of Vietnam and China have skirmished in the South China Sea, over the Spratly Islands, to mention but one ongoing, volatile conflict over oceanic territory and the resources that lie within and beneath it.  Different interpretations of the EEZ was partly to blame for the 2001 crash between a US EP-3 surveillance plane and China’s J-8 interceptor, in which renown PLA Navy pilot, Wang Wei, died.

A note on the phrase “the West.”  Scholars in Europe and elsewhere have abandoned ethnocentric terms such as the “Far East” or “the East” in favor of more neutral language, such as East Asia.  “Far East” is self-referential, an imperial Briticism from a different age.  If one is standing in North America, it’s simply inaccurate.  China is due west of the US, not east.  Yet Dr. Pu’s essay refers repeatedly to the West, Western power, Western countries.  Why does intellectual and popular discourse in China retain this anachronistic language? 

Euro-American power has remained among the most inexorable facts of life impinging on China and its imagination for the past 150 years.  The ubiquity of the West in China’s modern history can be likened to a force of gravity, touching on almost every facet of experience.  In Dr. Pu’s conclusion, he states that this is all changing, that China’s relationship with the West is morphing.  But he does not explain why.  

This is why: the tools, methods, sciences that enabled the west to dominate other countries have been mastered by everyone else, everything from calculus to biomedicine.  The temporary advantage that the west enjoyed is now gone.


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