Friday, September 5, 2014

The Secret to Understanding the "New" U.S. "Pivot to Asia"

One of two Chinese stone lions flanking the entry to
"10 Div Ave" -- the building housing the
Harvard-Yenching Library.
When I showed up on campus for my freshman year in college about 35 years ago, I quickly glommed onto the idea of giving East Asian Studies a try.

There were many reasons this seemed like a good idea.  Just a few of them:

* The U.S. had just withdrawn from Vietnam. I had grown up on a daily diet of news reports of the war. It seemed obvious to me that we had a lot to gain by approaching Asia from the standpoint of knowledge rather than that of belligerence.

* Mao Zedong had recently died, but not before initiating the opening to the U.S. In 1977, there was a feeling of great imminence about China.

* The idea of learning the Chinese and/or Japanese languages -- so recondite (at least to Westerners) -- was irresistible.

* When would I ever have the chance to take a deep dive into the unknown -- such as this -- again?

And so I dove in . . . .

Big Gulp

The organizing principle for the field of East Asian Studies was to get us students to focus on one or both of two major cultural areas -- China and Japan -- and (with luck) to wean us from some of our U.S- and Euro-centrism. The thinking was that these two "areas" -- China and Japan -- each provided an enormous body of new information for students to try to get navigate.

China's Response to the West:
A Documentary Survey 1839-1923

by Ssu-yu Teng and John K. Fairbank
In general, WWII experience was de-emphasized, though it might seem to be one of the nearest at hand to explore.  I think the concern was to avoid getting sucked in to the gravitational field of what Americans already thought they had figured out about that experience.

The trope of "the response to the West" by Japan or China was, in general, substituted for what frequently seemed to be our natural reflex: talking about "the U.S. experience in (fill in the blank)."

I'd like to say that I had a vague sense that something was missing, or not quite right about this framework. But the truth is that I was swimming in so much new information that it was all I could do to keep my head above water.

I noticed that certain topics -- such as Korea, or Vietnam, or the Philippines -- were not given much attention. Everyone I knew carried around mental lists of things they wanted to learn more about . . . someday . . . when they had whittled away further at their must-do list of characters to memorize and books to read and courses to take and trips to make.

In my senior year, for instance, I dove with great gusto into the John Fairbanks' Ch'ing Documents: An Introductory Syllabus, on the theory that it was essential that I be able to read court documents from the 19th century (in Chinese, in the formal bureaucratic lingo) in order to fully appreciate "China's response to the West."

The Missing "Area"

I have never stopped taking runs at getting my arms around "East Asian Studies." It seems that as I grow older, I run out of steam faster and faster.

But as I get older, I also seem to be more willing to challenge orthodoxy.

Emperor Hirohito: Coronation photo
I've been doing some reading which has been very provocative in light of my concerns about problems of war and peace. After books about the bombing of Hiroshima; dissidents in contemporary Japan; the maneuvering around Japan's August 15, 1945 surrender decision; and one about the discourse around race in Japan and the U.S. during WWII, I continued on to read Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix. It was here that all the pieces seemed to come together for me.

The Bix book conveys the sense, through the eyes of Hirohito and others, of the increasing frequency with which developments were converging on that part of the world with each passing decade of the 20th century. Bix is centrally concerned with the responsibility of Hirohito for the war. Part of that involves seeing how deeply involved he was in understanding the activities, capabilities, and intentions of England, the U.S., Russia, and other countries as they related to the widespread geography of the Pacific region.

I felt challenged to see what people in Asia (and others) have seen for the past century: something is happening in the Pacific, and it's being driven in part by advances in naval (and, subsequently, aviation and electronics) technology, and in part by powerful nations (principally, but not limited to, the U.S.) proximate to the area.

It occurred to me that we can say there is a third "area" -- of equal importance relative to "China" and "Japan" -- that is the proper third leg of "East Asian Studies." That area is "the Pacific (as a field for empire in light of post-19th century technology)."

Clearly, this has a lot to do with the U.S. and its imperialism. But it also invites us to go beyond just seeing the U.S. as only factor at work in this area.

We've all been taught that the "Aha!" moment for many late 19th century political leaders was the advent of Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History. But it had never before occurred to me to view that -- as many people likely did at the time -- in light specifically of the Pacific Ocean, including its geographic and political dimensions. 

Fall Semester 2014

I'm hoping that my new "troika" approach to East Asian Studies -- China, Japan, and the imperialized Pacific -- will help me make sense of developments in that part of the world.

So here are some of the "study assignments" I've given myself for the weeks and months ahead:

* what are the pros and cons of Chinese naval development?

* how is new technology changing the face of militarism in the Pacific?

* is the Pacific more than just a patchwork of bases?

* what would it take to make the Pacific a nuclear-weapons-free zone?

* does the Pacific need a "traffic cop"?

* is the Pacific ecosystem at risk?

. . . and more . . . .

I'm thrilled -- and a little scared -- to imagine what I might discover.


Can we adopt a new perspective on Pacific affairs?



Related posts

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The opportunity: asking ourselves, "What would we do differently if we revised our myths of Asia?"

(See U.S. Militarism in Asia: THINK DIFFERENT!)





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Like the 2001 event, it's making a lot of people ask what the hell the U.S. is doing provoking China where they live.

(See Boeing: Where There's Trouble . . . )



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(See SOUTH CHINA SEA: No End of American Grand Designs)




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 (See Now HERE'S an "Asia Pivot" I Can Believe In! (Marshall Islands Sues Nuclear "Haves") )



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(See What Will "Strategic" Mean in Our Children's Lifetime?)