Europe’s Distant Mirror?

It is tempting for Europeans to project their own history onto Asia and to view current developments there as a mere repetition, if not an imitation, of what occurred in Europe. In fact, Asians themselves encourage this temptation, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) openly aiming to become increasingly like the European Union.

In trying to decipher Asia’s diplomatic future, Europeans are confronted, so to speak, with an “embarrassment of riches.” Is Asia today replaying the balance of power games of late nineteenth-century Europe, with China in the role of Germany? Or is South Asia, through the growth of ASEAN, poised to one day become the Far Eastern equivalent of the EU?

These comparisons are not neutral, and one may detect in the analogy between China today and nineteenth-century Germany an element of that guilty pleasure in others’ troubles that the Germans call “Schadenfreude.” Asia may be doing well economically now, according to this view, but just wait: rising nationalism, China’s appetite for power, and the rest of Asia’s desire to curb its ambitions will necessarily impede economic growth and restore the West’s global primacy.

But this scenario does not correspond to reality. China at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not Bismarck’s newly unified Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Chinese do not view themselves as a rising new power, but instead as Asia’s traditional power, now experiencing a renaissance. China, they believe, is regaining the status and prestige that it enjoyed until the end of the eighteenth century.