A new China
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - December 13, 2018 - 12:00am

Anyone trying to understand what is going on in the world today must necessarily make a serious attempt at trying to understand China’s geopolitical intentions and its effects on other countries, especially its neighbors like the Philippines. I have always believed that to understand the present, one must study history.

I still remember that in 1997, former US National Security adviser Brezinski wrote a book, The Grand Chessboard. In it he described China’s geopolitics as “cycles of reunification and expansions, followed by decay and fragmentation.” He explained that China’s history was a recurring struggle to unify a vast landmass and population under a centralized authority whether under an emperor or  dictator. This struggle continues to the present. After two centuries of decay, five decades of fragmentation and seven decades of a struggle to unify, China is now embarking on an ambitious plan of expansion. 

There was a time when China considered itself – the Middle Kingdom – as the center of the world. However, after a century of humiliation by the western powers, China realized that this limited worldview was no longer viable. For a while China seemed doomed to exist on the margins of global geopolitics.  However, Zhixing Zhang, a political analyst, wrote: “Nonetheless, the Middle Kingdom overcame its geographic circumstances and emerged once again as a unified nation. And in the process, its geopolitical thinking evolved. The trials it endured in the second half of the 20th century – including the wars on the Korean Peninsula and in Indochina, a US maritime blockade and the simultaneous threat of pressure from the Soviet Union – helped China realize its strength... The country’s location, after all, gives it maritime access to developed markets abroad and overland access to valuable energy assets in Central Asia and the Middle East. Having caught on to its good fortune, China’s geopolitical objective was now to tap into the ‘wealth to the east, and energy to the west’ as Chinese scholar Zhang Wenmu put it.” 

Since the 15th century, only economies able to access the world’s oceans could hope to grow rapidly; and, that access was firmly in the hands of the Western powers who set out to colonize the world. Since the Second World War, that access was firmly in American hands. Zhixing wrote: “Mao Zedong responded by turning inward, developing China from its own resources, the results were famine and stagnation. Faced by the prospect of even worst catastrophes, Mao’s successors accepted that their only option was to seek access to the world’s waterways, although this could only be on American terms.” The result was the economic miracle of China; but this was done on “ American sufferance, within American dominated institutions and markets.”

Zhixing continues: “Xi Jinping is now attempting to break out of this system. He is pursuing two lines of attack. One is a frontal assault on what Chinese strategists call the First Island Chain dominating its coasts, by building military bases in the South China Sea and attempting to bully or bribe American allies into leaving the Western orbit. The second line of attack – the Belt and Road Initiative – is more subtle...Xi is outflanking the American position, building a network of roads and harbors that will give China unimpeded access to the oceans. Migrants and capital will flow out from China; raw material will flow in.”

Historically, China (Middle Kingdom) focused on keeping the world out. That was the reason for the Great Wall. For the first time in its history, China is embarking on an expansionary course. As it pursues its new geopolitical strategy, it will run up against other powers. It will also be accused of imperialist ambitions just as the Western powers were also accused in the past. After centuries of a self contained strategy, the Middle Kingdom may encounter perils that it may not be able to handle. 

Opium Wars

I recently wrote a column on Drug addiction and Marijuana. I included a historical narrative on the Opium Wars. I received a comment from one of my readers which I think is worth sharing. Here is the reply:

“I’m an English expat writer and historian, married to a Filipina, and resident [for] many years here in Quezon City. I read your articles occasionally in the STAR and mostly find them well informed and interesting, particularly when you are discussing Asian history. 

But on Sunday 9th, in your article on drug addiction, you stated that “it was the British who introduced opium to China.” This is wholly false and misleading. Recreational use of opium was well established in China centuries before the British arrived. In 1483 one Xu Boling wrote that opium “was used mainly as an aid to masculinity to strengthen sperm and retain vigor.” It is also listed in the Chinese Compedium of Masteria Medica in 1578.

The British only fed an addiction already established. In fact, the first Opium War began in 1840 when the young Queen Victoria (she was then just 21) was faced with a fiscal quandary eerily like the one engaging Trump and Xi today: a trade imbalance. Her government was buying so much from China that British silver was running low. The British East India Company responded by obliging their Indian subjects to grow tons of opium in West Bengal (now Bangladesh), which they then forced upon the Chinese in a decidedly one sided trade deal. The events which followed – many of them frankly shameful to my ancestors – is well known. It ended with our forced “rental” of Hong Kong.

When you have the opportunity, please could you point out the error to your readership? I shall continue to follow your excellent articles. 

Sincerely yours, Hugh George, Quezon City.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout this month (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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