Beyond Beijing: Multipolarity in the Asian Regional System

By: Martin Perez Baertl

February 22, 2019

The Western media frames China as a dragon coming out of hell to disrupt the Western-built liberal world order, crush the United States with an undefeatable export capacity, and return to world to a Sinocentric system. This framing is especially prevalent in the coverage of Trump’s attitude towards China, the trade war, and tariffs. Western news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC often present China’s behavior as opaque, mysterious, and strange—as if China was secretly plotting to crush the rest of the world. Before study abroad, I conflated China and Asia. I viewed Asia as nothing but China: the hegemon, the grand power, the disruptor. This perception was only partially true. While studying abroad in China, I began to see a different, multipolar reality. While China remains the most powerful country, other nations still play an important role in the international system.

For example, my pre-arrival expectations about Japan featured jagged hills, purple skies, and calm graphic art. In some senses, these expectations were met. The famous Kinkaku-ji golden pagoda and the Arashiyama bamboo grove in Kyoto were peaceful and contemplative locations. These places inspired a sense of what Japanese civilization must have felt like during the Tokugawa Bakufu under the closed-door policy of Sakoku. After being in such tranquil places, it was easy to believe that modern Japan—with its pacifist Constitution and post-war ideas—is a mainly cultural destination and no longer a forceful player in the international system.

When I took the Shinkansen high-speed train to Tokyo, I encountered a different Japanese reality. Tokyo is an incredibly cosmopolitan political powerhouse and the the epicenter of the world’s third-largest economy. There are three subway systems, jam-packed streets, and an unbelievable diversity of people. Walking near the famous Shibuya crossing, I spotted some posters that mentioned the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands, a point of unresolved dispute with Beijing. Both countries have been struggling over the sovereignty of the islands since 1970. Even the United States in its role as the outside balancer has called the islands “Liancourt Rocks,” a term which favors no country. These posters helped me understand that Japan has been able to go head-to-head with China over issues of sovereignty. This further helped me realize that there is more to Asia than just the country of China.

I had a similar realization two days later when I landed in Taiwan. I previously understood the island as a fragile appendix to Beijing’s towering rule. Western media paints Taiwan as a submissive island that looks to the United States for permanent defense against China, the bully from the north. However, while walking through Taiwan, I was impressed by locations such as Taipei Station, the X’imending shopping district, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, the old Spanish Fort San Domingo, and the wealthy Taipei 101 area. These experiences showed me that Taiwan was perhaps not just a smaller-sized version of China. Taipei certainly has a fraught relationship with Beijing. However, this relationship is not deterministic. Taiwan, with its complex economic and political system, is more than just a smaller version of China or a pseudo-state. Taiwan, too, is a player of in the Asian regional system.

These experiences helped me to realize that despite the messaging from Western media outlets, not all of Asia is Beijing. It is true that from far away, the Asian system appears Sinocentric and unipolar. However, upon closer examination, the Asian subsystem is multi-polar; multiple powers are able to contest China on important issues. There is more to Asia than just Beijing, and I’m glad that I could experience the Asian regional system’s rich variety including Tokyo and Taipei.

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