China Watching and Contemporary Geopolitics of Fear and Fantasy – by Chengxin Pan

Photos: Cory M. Grenier, Creative Commons 2.0

Photos: Cory M. Grenier, Creative Commons 2.0

In The Geopolitics of Emotion (2009), the French author Dominique Moïse describes how the world is being shaped and transformed by a host of emotions: fear, humiliation and hope, to name but a few. While the world has always been emotion-laden, the geopolitics of emotion has been particularly on vivid display in the twenty-first century. Climate change, the ‘September 11’ attacks, the lingering global financial crisis, the perceived unstoppable power shift from West to East, refugee and humanitarian crises, ethnic conflict and popular uprisings have together brought into sharp relief a mixture of anxiety, anger, frustration, disillusionment, hatred and fear in many parts of the globe. In the West in general, and the US in particular, a key source of anxiety has been China’s seemingly relentless rise. There is now ‘a cauldron of anxiety’ about this emerging giant, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick proclaimed in 2005.

To many Western observers, this fear, based on objective knowledge of China’s rise, is warranted. As an authoritarian state with the world’s fastest growing economy and one of the largest military forces, China seems to be nothing but a frightening giant on the horizon. Clearly, one cannot deny China’s vast size, enormous economic power and military potential. But the fact that the almost equally impressive rise of India has not attracted the same level of anxiety is revealing. If anything, India has been embraced with much enthusiasm and affection of late. In this sense, ‘objective’ knowledge, empirically grounded though it may seem, is nevertheless inseparable from emotion and desire. One might even say that what we know is often what we want to know. Thus, a significant portion of Western knowledge on China, gained apparently through the respected intellectual activity of China watching, has less to do with China and more with Western desire (a subject which has thus far attracted little attention).

The familiar ‘China threat’ argument, for instance, is not so much an objectively verified fact as it is a fear-inspired speculation disguised as ‘knowledge’. To substitute for the lack of positive certainty about China’s trajectory, this knowledge is produced through fear, which helps provide a negative form of certainty, namely, threat. During the Cold War, an Australian China observer commented that ‘What we do not know we fear’. That habit did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. Today, the Australian government vows to boost its China literacy in the Asian Century, but all the while it is acutely wary of China’s intention and military might, citing the usual reason that China is not yet transparent. Sharing this China anxiety with US policy-makers, Canberra has recently beefed up its military ties with Washington, as exemplified by allowing 2 500 US marines to train in Darwin and passing the US-Australian Defence Trade Treaty.

There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious about China. After all, the Chinese themselves may have been caught by surprise by the speed of their country’s ascendancy on the world stage, and many are grappling with the meanings and implications of China’s new global role. Meanwhile, aware of unease felt by neighbouring countries, the Chinese leadership has tried to reassure the rest of the world that China’s rise will be peaceful. Yet, this ‘reassurance’ policy has done little to ease that fear, for the latter has become interwoven with the expert knowledge of the ‘China threat’ offered by some quarters of the China watching community. This fear-induced China knowledge, now compounded by the widespread anxiety about impending US/Western decline, has in part given impetus to the Obama administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ to Asia. Although the US constantly denies that this strategic move aims at containing China, its unease with Beijing’s perceived growing clout has been at least one of its main driving forces. Interestingly but not surprisingly, despite their belonging to the opposite sides of the American partisan politics, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney both share this latent fear about America’s future as well as China’s ambition. Neither wants to see the widely anticipated Asian (Pacific) Century become a Chinese, rather than American, century.

Herein lies America’s new geopolitics of fear, following the decade-long ‘War on Terror’. But as the focus of this new geopolitical game turns to China and the Asia Pacific at large, fear is not the only emotion at play. Fantasy, as it may be called, is another, and perhaps even more enduring, emotional underpinning of the US’s Asia Pacific strategy.

From the American business community’s ‘Bridge the Pacific’ campaign in the late nineteenth century through Ronald Reagan’s ‘America is a Pacific nation’ declaration to Bill Clinton’s ‘Pacific Century’ statement, the Pacific has long been envisaged as an American Lake and a new frontier in the US’s ‘manifest destiny’ to lead the world from darkness to light. At the heart of Oriental darkness has been China, marked by its backward civilisation, despotic political system, and deplorable human rights records. Therefore, the dream of transforming the Oriental Other in American image has run deeply through US China-engagement policy ever since the missionaries’ ‘Christ for China’ campaign, business executives’ ‘Oil for the lamps of China’ slogan, and more recently, the ‘constructive engagement’ policies of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Considering that modern China studies and, by extension, contemporary China watching, owe much to the missionary writings on China, it is clear that fantasy or a desire to see ‘a huge country with an ancient civilization transforming herself into a modern, democratic, Christian nation and following the lead of the United States’ has been part and parcel of contemporary China research agenda, although the terminology has been changed from religious conversion of China to economic and institutional integration as well as normative socialisation.

Despite the intellectual, commercial and strategic efforts of engaging China, America’s China dream, now as then, proves to be elusive. As a result, a large part of the China fantasy has turned into disillusionment and even fear. In this context, the US’s ‘Rebalancing’ to Asia and its hedging against China represent a new and more sophisticated manifestation of the geopolitics of fear and fantasy. While no doubt many China observers are busy observing the fascinating new geopolitical manoeuvring in the Asia Pacific, they could do well to also critically observe the role of their China knowledge – strongly coloured by fear and fantasy – in the making of this strategic shift that is likely to profoundly shape global politics in the coming decades.

Chengxin PanDr Chengxin Pan is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University. He was educated at Peking University and the Australian National University. He held visiting positions at the University of Melbourne (1996-1997), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (2008), and Peking University (2012), and has been invited to give lectures or presentations at Asialink, City University of Hong Kong, Durham University, Peking University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Hong Kong, and the University of Queensland. He is the author of Knowledge, Desire and Power in Global Politics: Western Representations of China’s Rise (Edward Elgar, 2012) as well as more than twenty journal articles and book chapters published in English and Chinese. He is on the editorial board of the Series of International Relations Classics, published by World Affairs Press (Beijing) and is a regular contributor to Radio Australia (Chinese Programs) and other media outlets.




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