Brantly Womack is Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Virginia and Senior Faculty Fellow at the Miller Center. His interest in the general dynamics of Chinese domestic development and international relationships has led to a number of books, including Asymmetry and International Relationships, China among Unequals: Asymmetric International Relationships in Asia. Most recently, his research has focused on China’s reemergence and its implications. His latest book, Recentering Pacific Asia: Regional China and the World Order, was published by Cambridge University Press this August. In September, Dr. Womack visited Emory University to give a Book Talk, and accepted our interview at the Carter Center. Below is the edited manuscript of the interview.
Dr. Womack, what motivated you to write Recentering Pacific Asia: Regional China and World Order? What do you mean by the term “recentering”?
Well, as things began to change dramatically with the global financial crisis of 2008, the attitudes of the Pacific Asia region and the United States toward China all seemed to be pointing in slightly different directions. In the sense that: things are changing; the world in the future is going to be different. As I thought about that, and as I talked to people, it struck me that no one really had figured out what this new future was. Of course, the future can’t be known in advance, but understanding what was happening in the terrain of politics, economics, society, and geography had to be thought out better. Everybody had to engage in rethinking, and I was going to do that rethinking as well.
That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four or five years, culminating in this book, which was also the result of a multi-lecture series and much discussion with former students and friends. I use “recentering” because China is the center of attention in Pacific Asia. By Pacific Asia, I mean Northeast Asia, Greater China, and Southeast Asia all combined. But China wasn’t in control. China hadn’t conquered the region and, politically, there were so many problems relating to the region: North Korea, cross-strait relations, South China Sea, and then particular country problems such as domestic issues in Myanmar. So, what did “centering” mean? Why were people paying attention to China if it wasn’t in a situation where China was in control? How does the current situation of China and Pacific Asia relate to the history of regional relationships? I didn’t see answers to these questions nor much sustained attention to these questions elsewhere. The entire region needs to rethink its relationship to other countries in the region, including China. Those are the things that led to the emphasis on recentering and the idea of writing the book.
The cover of your book is an image of the Selden Map. It’s an interesting choice because the Map dates to the Ming Dynasty, and you’re writing about contemporary international relationships. How would you compare this region now, “the post-hegemonic age” as you phrased it, with the pre-modern period shown in the Selden Map?
I’m glad you asked a question about the Map because I’m very proud of having found the Map and used it as the cover. The reason why I think it’s a good idea is that, in a sense, this is the earliest map of Pacific Asia. It’s also the last map of traditional Pacific Asia because this is early 1600s, and the Dutch, the Brits, and the French are just beginning to arrive. This map shows how regional trade between China, Japan, and Southeast Asia thrived. It is sort of a last picture of something that has returned now. If you were to map the important trade routes in Pacific Asia now, a lot of them would be the same.
Another interesting feature of the map is that it moves China. China is not in the middle of this map, whereas in every other traditional Chinese map, China is a big block in the middle and everything else is on the edges. China’s on the edge here, but it’s so important. The Port of Quanzhou has something like 40 different trade routes coming out of it on this map. The Map is not just about China, it’s the whole Pacific Asia region, but China is central to that region, hence the cover of the book.
Then do you think the US “Indo-Pacific strategy” is a misnomer? How is the term “Indo-Pacific” different from the term “Pacific Asia” in your title?
Well, I think Indo-Pacific can mean different things to different countries. If you look at the Canadian white paper on Indo-Pacific, it lists 40 countries as members of the Indo-Pacific, including China. If you look at the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, it doesn’t list China, and the first sentence is, “the United States has always been part of the Indo-Pacific.” If you look at ASEAN’s statements on Indo-Pacific, they’re all emphasizing the expansion of trade and connectivity, and including China. So, there’s an ambiguity about membership in Indo-Pacific. And then there’s an ambiguity of purposes.
They want to go around China, and by doing so, contain China. Of course, China doesn’t like that. Their own attitude toward Indo-Pacific is obviously critical of any containment aspects.
China is India’s largest trading partner, so it doesn’t have anything against trading in the Indo-Pacific. But if we look at the economics of the Indo-Pacific, it’s Pacific Asia plus India, but India’s trade to Pacific Asia is not spectacular if you leave China out. India’s chief export market is the United States. It’s part of a global pattern rather than a regional economic pattern, not so much an economic community. What counts in Pacific Asia is the trade within the region. Over half of the trade of Pacific Asian countries is with other Pacific Asian countries. But India has been very hesitant to join regional trading agreements. So, I chose to focus on Pacific Asia, which doesn’t include India. The most western country in this Pacific Asian region would be Myanmar.
Both on the Selden Map and in your book, a lot of the focus is on Southeast Asia. However, this region is not commonly brought up in geopolitical public discourse. What role do you think does a prosperous Southeast Asia play in China’s “recentering”?
If you look at China’s economic presence in Southeast Asia, it’s very big. When people in Southeast Asia are asked what country is economically most important, they usually rate China above 70%. For political importance, they rate it maybe 60%. However, when you ask these people what they think about this, they’re worried. China has not reduced the anxiety of being dependent on China, and that’s what China needs to work on. It needs to reassure Southeast Asia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, that it’s not out to get them, that their autonomy will be respected by China. China has to stay internationally open, and it cannot demand that countries not trade with the U.S. If it starts putting a fence around Pacific Asia or around Southeast Asia, then it’s giving those countries a reason to hedge against China, to join the Indo-Pacific as the group of countries worried about China, rather than continue to develop tight economic relationships with China.
In your book, you talked about the 3 Ps (presence, population, and production) being essential to China’s “centrality.” How have China’s 3 Ps changed over time? Why are these measures so important?
Well, let’s start with traditional China. Was China always the most powerful country in Asia? No, otherwise, you wouldn’t have conquest dynasties like the Mongols and Manchus. Obviously, China wasn’t always the most powerful. Was it China’s cultural superiority that concentrated China’s centrality? I would say China seems to think that’s the case, but the neighbors don’t. The neighbors are actually quite cynical about China’s virtue, and about China’s sincerity. So, I don’t think cultural superiority is a good argument for Chinese centrality.
And yet all those neighboring countries had this orientation toward China, including the western countries starting from the 16th century. So, you have this situation of everybody looking at China. And I thought to myself, that’s a kind of centrality. What accounts for the resilience of China’s centrality? Well, one thing, it does help to be in the middle. If China were in Siberia, they’d have a much different relationship with Southeast Asia. If China were in Southeast Asia, they’d have a much different relationship with Japan, Korea, and the nomads.
Part of the presence is population. China has a largely agrarian population, so it’s mainly self-sustaining. The scale of China’s population also allowed significantly sized cities and significant wealth for the government to deploy in building the Grand Canal, the Great Wall, etc. Also, China’s population allowed the possibility of raising a large army, a larger army than other countries could raise. However, the downside of having such a large population was it was harder to control. A big population is a mixed blessing.
The last “P” is production. Part of the connectivity of China to its region was the large-scale–but still artisanal—production of silk, tea, and ceramics. These are things that were highly valued in neighboring countries. China was the center of those goods. And so, presence, population, production, those are the three Ps. The interesting question is: what happened to them with Western modernization?
The short answer is China not only lost its position, but it also lost its region because the whole Pacific Asia region was cut up into colonies serving mother countries in Europe. They became part of a global system, and China’s regional context fell apart. It becomes the periphery of a global periphery, a non-presence to its neighbors
Secondly, on population. China still had the biggest population, but it was considered an inert population. China couldn’t do what Japan did to modernize in the Meiji Restoration. It just simply had too many people, it’d take too great an effort. There was a great statement by R.H. Tawney in the 1930s, “The Chinese peasant is like a person standing up to their neck in water, the least ripple will drown them.” Hundreds of millions of peasants, all standing neck deep, only made the problem worse.
The last thing is production. China’s scaled-up artisanal production was replaced and undercut by industrial production, cotton, textiles, things of that sort, and silk was being replaced as the primary textile. Ceramics, too, could be mass-produced. It could be plastics, or metals; you don’t need ceramics anymore. So, you had these various developments that undercut those three Ps.
Then, to skip ahead a bit, you have Mao Zedong in 1949, bringing China together again. There was a concerted population in China. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, China stood up, but it stood up in a closet. As far as population goes, the population was working, and you had the beginnings of Chinese industrialization. There was some progress in agriculture as well, but it was all internal. It was all self-sufficiency. The size of China’s population mattered for China, but it didn’t matter for anybody else.
Production was also internal. There was this anti-commercial mentality under Mao. China was changing, but its relationship to its neighborhood was as inconsequential as it had been in the Western modernization period. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping gradually established his control. The reform and openness policies began to open China’s trading relationships. However, if you compare China to ASEAN, ASEAN’s GDP exceeded China’s until 1991.
After 1991, China continued with a 10% growth rate and with inflation under control. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, China sailed through and helped South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, and helped the region as a whole by holding the renminbi steady. Then you have what I call the “Golden Decade” of China’s ASEAN relationships from 1997 to 2007. Free trade was developed and all sorts of positive happenings on every front occurred. Also, relations with Japan and especially with South Korea improved.
By 2008, with the shaking of the global economy and China’s continued rise, people started thinking of China as a safe rock to hold onto in turbulent water. That rock kept growing, and it developed the largest middle-class market. China started to invest on the outside and develop trade networks. China became a center again. What’s involved in it becoming a center of attention again? Presence. That presence had changed in one important respect: the railroads, the high-speed rail, and the highways all facilitated more efficient trade routes.
In terms of production, China developed at an industrial scale. So, no wonder people were looking at China again.
It’s not that it has stopped rising, but rising isn’t its primary characteristic. The primary characteristic now is the economic and political significance that it has already established.
How do you think the recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Zero-COVID Policy have influenced this recentering process? How have they changed, or not changed, the balance of power in this region?
The first thing to mention is the fundamental dehumanizing, depersonalizing effect of the isolation involved in dealing with COVID. Not just international isolation, not just that you’d have to go through three weeks of quarantine to visit Shanghai, but think of not being able to talk to people, not being able to go to restaurants. In China it was considerably harsh at the very beginning, and then it got easier. Things were nice in the last half of 2020 and 2021 until the Omicron variant arrived.
I really want to emphasize the importance of isolation in dehumanizing personal relations and international relations. We don’t appreciate it enough. The fact that people, diplomats, couldn’t talk to each other, couldn’t meet with each other. My last visit to China was in 2019, and then I went back in the spring of 2023. What had I been dealing with before I went back? It was memories of people and issues. And there are plenty of people talking about the issues of the US-China relationship who don’t have memories of people, for whom it is all categories. It’s all stereotypes and issues, with no roots in complex human relationships. That sense of dealing with human beings again must be reestablished.
Now, beyond that, China did quite well in the first two years of COVID. Whatever the origins of COVID, it’s hard to deny that the pandemic started in Wuhan, China, whether it was brought in by a parachute from Mars or whatever. So there’s a sense of residual resentment from other countries, just like within China, there was a suspicion of people from Wuhan. Then you have a contrary phenomenon to China’s initial success: the availability of protective equipment and vaccines they were providing to other countries. There was a time, I can tell you from public opinion polls in Southeast Asia in 2021, people were impressed by China’s performance and generosity until Omicron hit in 2022.
With Omicron by April, you have the lockdown of Shanghai. It’s not just that it’s a ferocious thing to lockdown, with all sorts of humans suffering involved in the lockdown methods, but also it was ineffective in that it only slowed Omicron down. It didn’t stop infections the way the initial actions against the original COVID had done. And yet that was continued all the way to November. To abandon the policy right before the Party Congress was unacceptable. That means that all the unnecessary suffering from all those extra lockdowns and crackdowns and daily tests were less important than stability for the Party Congress.
After the Party Congress, things could change. You have what are called the “20 tweaks.” But those initial relaxations of COVID policies were unclear, so some localities relaxed, some didn’t, and then people were too frustrated. Eventually, the central government gives in, and you have a move from Zero COVID to “total COVID”, which lasted about six weeks. In those six weeks, probably over a million people died. All the money for COVID had been shifted to COVID control, not to hospitalization.
By the time I got to China in mid-February of this year, we were in post-COVID, which is a nice time to arrive. But all the people I was dealing with, my students, were traumatized. They had been through a lot. They were really appreciative post-COVID, but it was very hard. That’s the Chinese domestic experience.
I think 2022 is going to be remembered as politically traumatic in the groundwork of people’s attitudes toward the Chinese government. 2022 is going to make a difference because, for most people, it was an existential experience comparable to the Cultural Revolution or something of that sort, and it clearly had a political cause. I personally think that a good deal of the slowdown and the slow recovery of consumer spending in China is related to that up-and-down trauma of 2022 and that the domestic effect of 2022 will be greater than the international effect.
In your book, you describe the relationship between the U.S. and China as “asymmetric.” What is an asymmetric relationship? What does it look like between two powerful nations like the U.S. and China?
I called the relationship between China and the U.S. a relationship of asymmetric parity. It’s asymmetric in that the strengths of each country are quite different, and yet each is large enough to be a major power. So, where is the asymmetry? Well, China surpassed the United States in material production in 2014, but that only meant that it had one-quarter of the per capita production because China’s population was four times the US population. Is China a country as rich as the US? No. Rich is a question that’s per capita. It’s not a wealthy country, it’s not a developed country. It’s a developing country, but it’s such a big developing country that it has a kind of demographic power rather than simply wealth power.
Another big difference is neighborhood. For China, those neighbors, especially the Pacific Asian neighbors, are really important. Its global stature relies on the foundations of its regional relationships, and the U.S. situation is quite a bit different. From the beginning, the U.S. thought globally. It’s not that the Americas were insignificant for the US, but that wasn’t the focus of American attention, or prosperity, or production. So you have those differences of geographical context: China with regional power, regional location, the United States with global power, global location, and wealth power versus demographic power. The United States and China aren’t the way we imagine the Soviet Union and the US as being symmetric competitors.
Then there’s the problem of security. The US didn’t defeat the Soviet Union. It collapsed. Our idea of security has moved from a sort of bilateral security competition to unilateral security. We need to be the most powerful country, able to do what we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, at minimal cost to ourselves. That’s the American idea of security now. No other country can afford to have that kind of idea. There can only be one country that can have an absolute idea of security. That absolute idea of security, as China develops and as various other things happen, becomes either far too costly or impossible. That’s another area of asymmetry. China doesn’t have that attitude. China’s attitude is security control of its areas and minimizing the risk of trade routes.
In recent discourse, tensions between China and the U.S. have been described as a “New Cold War.” Do you agree with this description. Are there ways in which the status quo is similar or different from the Cold War period?
I think it’s only in the United States that this “New Cold War” term is popular, and I think it is popular in the US because it’s a familiar idea. It’s a comfortable concept because, during the original Cold War, we managed that and we won. We didn’t really win, but the other guys certainly didn’t win. If you’re in the U.S. military industries, a new Cold War sounds good because they made a lot of money during the old Cold War.
A “New Cold War” could lead to policies like sanctions on China and the decoupling of economies because we’re trying to contain China.
Securitizing our domestic economy, securitizing our international relationships, boxing off things, and we’re thinking we’re containing China. Are we containing China, or are we containing ourselves? It reminds me of a famous statement that was in the London Times in the 1930s, saying, “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off.” Only in London could you think that.
Now, China has the capacity to contain itself. China could cause self-isolation, though it’s not in the process of doing that. The US is really talking the talk. We could end up over-militarized with severe shocks to the global dollar economy, and it gets really scary that there’s nothing self-correcting about that. The world is watching. There are all sorts of things that are indicating that we’re not in control of global public opinion anymore.
In your view, what is the future of Pacific Asia, and what kinds of policies could promote global collaboration?
There’s no reason to think that Pacific Asia can’t continue to develop economically. One of the factors increasing anxiety in Pacific Asia is the novelty of the situation. China needs to make its being there less threatening to the autonomy of its neighbors. If it wants to be more threatening, the most threatening thing it could do that’s conceivable in current situations is to have a militarized cross-strait crisis. China, unfortunately, still looks at Taiwan as simply a bilateral sovereignty issue, and the US as the confusing third party. Now, Taiwan is an important member of this Pacific Asia region. It does a huge amount of business with Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia. To disturb those relationships is to show a lack of appreciation for how important the region is and to shake the sense of autonomous security of the other countries in the region.
The importance of getting a code of conduct in the South China Sea is that it gets the South China Sea off the front burner of China’s relations with Southeast Asia. The sovereignty issue gets contained, and there’s no way that any resource in the South China Sea is more important than China’s normalized, healthy relationships to the 10 countries in Southeast Asia.
What’s not appreciated is the small amount of actual risk South China Sea tensions. There has not been a military casualty in the South China Sea since 1988. So basically, you have a huge amount of noise in the South China Sea and not much risk. You have developments in the South China Sea, island, runways, and things like that, but they’re not seizing somebody else’s territory. They’re in disputed places, but not on pushing other claimants off of features that they have already occupied.
The South China Sea disputes are important because they are symbols of a general concern about China’s future intentions, and about the risk of becoming increasingly dependent on China.