The discourse of dominance

Jun 21, 2023
Hand holding the USA and Chinese flags.

I was rather amused, or to use the American expression “tickled pink”, when I read the article titled “Coexistance: the only realist path to peace” by Stephen M. Walt in Pearls & Irritations. The article’s claim to the “realist path” to peace would make sense only to those who have dominated others for so long (albeit only a blip in the history of the people whom the author is giving a talking to) that they have forgotten the language and discourse of equality.

One does not know if the Western historians writing the history of the winner are privy enough of the Chinese demeanour during the Ming dynasty to conclude that “they demand other nations become tribute states and kowtow to Beijing.” However, one certainly knows that when the British and Americans came to China it was to plunder. When the Western powers swept through the Asian region from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries, they colonised most of the region with the exception of Thailand. It was a brutal suppression of the freedom and human rights of the people of the region. They gained from plundering the resources of the region, especially spices, tea, silk and porcelain; and found a market for the manufactured goods at the expense of local craft. Standing up to them brought dire consequences. In 1860, the British burned down the old and new summer palaces of the Qing Court in revenge for the killing of a couple of British envoys. Western accounts indicate that it took 3,500 soldiers and three days to burn down the palaces. In my book, that was a lot more grievous and malicious than making countries pay a tribute once a year and “kowtow” to China. “Kow tow” may be an ugly word for the Americans but it is a show of respect for the people in the Far East. It is still a Japanese, Korean and to some extent, the Chinese way of showing respect for each other. Perhaps a bit of humility might work better in an increasingly multipolar world.

The author says that he and other former US officials and “prominent realists” argue that China’s stated desire to be a “leading global power” and its efforts to alter the “status quo” justify their concerns. Really! If I remember my readings correctly, Xi Jinping only talked about “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. There was nothing as specific as wanting to be a “leading global power”, and the desire to “change the status quo”. Moreover, what do these “experts” understand of the status quo in the region? If the US respected the status quo of the region, they would not have meddled in the affairs of Indonesia to help Suharto overthrow its left leaning First President Sukarno, resulting in the death of an estimated 500,000 to 1.2 million people. So, when does the status quo in the region begin? After they had had their fill of trying to tame the Vietnamese to submit to their idea of a world order; and bombing parts of Cambodia and Laos to smithereens in the process? A left leaning African leader said of the sudden interest that the US and many of its Western allies took in the African nations, “You came here to make slaves of us. You colonise us. You rob us of our resources and you kill our leaders. Now, you come to teach us about democracy.” (Not the exact wording but what I remember of the YouTube video that I saw).

The relationship between China and its neighbours had been exemplary compared to the constant wars among the Western nations. China and SEA were trading partners as early as the Tang/Song Dynasties in the late 10th century. For example, when Admiral Cheng Ho of the Ming Dynasty travelled through Southeast Asia up to the East coast of Africa, he suppressed pirates who menaced trade in the region. What he brought back to China were trophies and envoys, not the spoils of plunder. It says something about the relationship between China and the small countries in the region that the 2nd Sultan of Brunei, Adbul Majid Hassan ibni Muhammad Shah (reign: 1402-1408) died and was buried in China. The most comforting words that I have for Professor Walt, from the perspective of someone who has lived in the region (and has family in many parts of the region) in excess of three quarters of a century, is that the Chinese have shown no intention of hegemonising the region; and that the region has shown no intention of allowing it to. China and the region has a level of maturity beyond the imagination of the writer.

The rest of Walt’s essay was difficult to read because the argument was made on the basis of sweeping assumptions about “others” which they have little understanding, in a hypocritical tone that sounds reasonable yet speaks in the voice of an authoritarian regime (in the geopolitical sense) telling subordinates how they should and should not behave; all presented as a hypothetical. Assumptions were also made of the Southeast Asian nations that needed to be spoken for as if they have no agency of their own. ASEAN happens to have a significant voice in the region.

Of particular distaste is the first sentence of the fourth paragraph from the bottom, “Yet China’s leaders could still decide to choose the same risky path that other would-be hegemons have followed.” This was followed by the assumption, “This combination of wishful thinking and paranoia is that textbook condition for preventive war; precisely the logic that convinced German and Japanese leaders to launch unsuccessful bids for hegemony during the first half of the 20th century.” The paranoia and wishful thinking is the author’s. He could have spared the informed reader the simplistic comparison with WWII without regard for historicism. Sententious beings are seldom listeners. If they had listened carefully, they would have heard Xi Jinping say, “… the Chinese and American people are both great people and their friendship is a valuable asset and an important foundation for the development of bilateral relations.” .

The best words to end this essay is that of Christ who said, “Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine eyes; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5, KJV).


This article is dedicated to Dennis Argall. A person whom I admired and who showed me nothing but kindness and encouragement.

Vale Dennis Argall

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