Imperial End Times, Progress & the Water Dragon

Water dragon

By REG LITTLE

English speaking people who have benefited from the past 200 years of Anglo-American global order have reason to view progress through 2012 with some sense of trepidation.

Almost everywhere, comfortable certainties are under challenge, whether from the widespread sense of economic decline and overwhelming debt or from the sense of tectonic shifts in geopolitical power blocs. Clumsy responses to these challenges are beginning to raise serious questions about the viability of some leading democratic powers. This is particularly so as their ever more desperate initiatives engage them in lands where unfamiliar cultures and local resentment offer little more than quicksands to devour military and other already depleted resources.

At the end of 2011 various commentators foreshadowed this from very diverse perspectives.

The prolific Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University New York, James Petras, titled an article that appeared on the Global Research website on 25 December 2011 Unrelenting Global Economic Crisis: A Doomsday View of 2012 and concluded it with the following words:

“All indications point to 2012 being a turning point year of unrelenting economic crisis spreading outward from Europe and the US to Asia and its dependencies in Africa and Latin America. The crisis will be truly global. Inter-imperial confrontations and colonial wars will undermine any efforts to ameliorate this crisis.”

The peripatetic Brazilian born journalist, Pepe Escobar, in a German interview by Lars Schall carried by Consortium News on 29 December 2011, gave a much more geopolitical slant. He commented on the evolving global scene with passages that highlighted the possible further substantial growth of the BRICS grouping, the Russian and Chinese dominance of Central Asia, the pervasive influence of the Chinese diaspora throughout South East Asia, the fact that US policy shapers know absolutely nothing about other cultures and don’t even travel and the way that US action and Chinese inaction is inevitably drawing Pakistan closer to China.

The geopolitical environment was presented even more starkly by the Canadian based Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya in an article on the Global Research website on 1 January 2012:

“Neither Russia nor China will be able to stand idly in the case that a war is launched against Iran. In one way or another, if Russia enters a war against the US and NATO then countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Moldova would all be dragged into the conflict as it broadens. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would be collectively involved.”

The Nobel prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, in the Australian Financial Review of 2 January 2012, offered a profoundly gloomy assessment of leadership in the US, without even referring to the above geopolitical challenges:

“Americans will have to choose between a leader who has proven that he can’t lead the US out of its economic morass and one who has not yet proven his inability to do so – but who could make matters even worse through policies that increase inequality and slow growth.”

In other words, it will be difficult to emerge from 2012, the Chinese Year of the Water Dragon, without an escalation of recent trends that have witnessed a steady decline in Western economic strength and a discreet but relentless growth in Asian wealth. This has been accompanied by the restructuring of political and economic order beyond the effective reach of Western power. On occasions, these trends can prompt acts like the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya and activities in Syria and Iran that may provide brief pyrrhic victories that only serve to strip away the last remaining threads of Western (NATO) credibility and authority.

While Escobar hinted that China often has to do little more than allow American misjudgements and misadventures to run their course to advance its interests, Nazemroaya suggested that the SCO, including China, may be approaching the moment where it is pressed to openly oppose American initiatives.

The weight of evidence suggests that China has been intent on a peaceful rise, committed to preserving the post-1945 Anglo-American United Nations based global order. The desperation that increasingly seems to infuse US leaders confronted with problems on many fronts has the capacity, however, to lead to a hastened decline in the authority of American led institutional structures, adding further to a sense of disintegration throughout the West.

As someone who has followed closely the rise of Asia and the decline of the US for almost half a century, since arriving in Tokyo as a diplomatic language student in 1964, it has been a matter of profound puzzlement that US policy has increasingly shown itself to be totally inept in responding to the creative energies of diverse Asian peoples. These have all at various times sought to align themselves closely, and as tacit subordinates, with the world’s “indispensable power.”

Today, the ASEAN plus Three grouping comprises over 2 billion people who lead the world in financial reserves, manufacturing production, applied technology, educational excellence and much else, and who are all led by administrative and commercial elites shaped by the Confucian tradition that derives from China. Over more than a decade since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, they have been exploring prospects for a new currency order and the recent China-Japan currency arrangement confronts America with a number of challenges with which it is ill equipped to cope. These include the further weakening of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, the growing consolidation of understanding across ideological boundaries between the Confucian communities of Asia, heightened questions about the longer-term allegiance of assumed US allies like Japan and Korea and the increasingly irresistible attraction of China’s economic dynamic, particularly when compared with American decline and financial distress.

East and South East Asia showcase perhaps the fundamental weakness of the US, which is an inability to think beyond popular stereotypes and work strategically with peoples of unfamiliar cultural character. American policy has proven vulnerable to over-reliance on using its financial leverage to buy alliances and wield military muscle, while neglecting serious diplomacy that seeks to build bonds informed by an understanding of educational, economic and political values and practices.

While America’s takeover of the British heritage of empire was skilfully managed by Franklin D. Roosevelt prior to and after 1945, it might be suggested that it has failed to use the British legacy to innovate successfully its own imperial tools. Perhaps the two central aspects of British success might be seen as fundamental to US failure. The invention of the modern corporation was used brilliantly by British leaders to motivate and mobilise young men to adventure out and discover and exploit wealth far from British shores. Moreover, the British were first movers in identifying and exploiting the power of fossil fuels – coal and oil – in seeking to extend power across the world’s seas.

Unfortunately, American corporations might be described as having gone feral, shipping American manufacturing and technology to countries that now do it better than the US and all too often harming human well-being and environments by focusing on short-term profit rather than on adding quality to human lives. Added to this, the concern to maintain a near-monopoly hold over fossil fuels seems to have been a major motive in initiating several recent disastrous wars. Moreover, there is growing evidence that the US has failed to master all the financial tricks that Britain developed as a centre of empire and may have fallen victim to practices of rehypothecation encouraged by the City of London.

In contrast, the peoples of East Asia, led initially by Japan but now by China, informed by the world’s longest continuous written tradition, and matured by the most colourful and enduring experience of imperial strength and weakness, have responded with tact, caution, imagination and strategy to the opportunities offered by poorly educated American political and business leaders. Indeed, education is probably the critical factor in the success of Asian communities, shaped as it is largely by a Confucian tradition that placed it above almost any other human endeavour. Educational deficiencies also seem to be a critical factor in US failures, as it repeatedly ignores clear warnings about its declining capacities.

Confucian education has qualities the West has never properly recognised and that place ignorant people from advanced economies at a serious disadvantage. These include early rigorous rote learning that builds a lifetime skill for mastering new subjects quickly, a knowledge of key classics and historical experience that is rare in today‘s West, a highly disciplined and social approach to life from an early age, a broad foundation in lifetime knowledge and skills and a lively and active intelligence behind the most discreet and obedient of manners. In many ways, it is the antithesis to the profit driven corporate spirit that initially built and then sought, with less success, to maintain an empire.

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The excellence of Asian and Chinese education is increasingly taking on a new relevance. Many, of course, still dismiss rote learning as being a poor preparation for life where innovation and adjusting to continuing change plays a critical role, but this is simply pandering to comforting and deceiving delusions and prejudices. Those educated by rote practices may be allowed a little longer by their societies to mature and apply the benefits of their learning but their success is demonstrated by the manner in which first Japan and later China have taken monopoly leadership positions in many of the hi-tech materials and components that are now fundamental in technological innovation. Moreover, competition for the world’s fastest computer seems now to be a two horse race between China and Japan. Asian graduates regularly make up large numbers in advanced courses in science, technology and engineering at Western universities where they tend to excel. And China is now said to graduate more students from domestic universities each year than America and India combined. As a consequence, it is difficult to see America even today retaining any technological military advantage, except in the minds of poorly educated political aspirants.

The situation is made no better by a little examination of American corporate culture. With the growing employment of mercenaries to undertake US military initiatives this has become even more critical in the projection of US power. Unfortunately, whether it is synthetic pharmaceuticals that not infrequently kill people quickly, processed food that poisons more slowly, chemical agriculture that depletes nutrition or financial services that can bankrupt a nation, the focus of US corporations on short-terms profit results has failed to guarantee quality in their products. It is difficult to believe that US military-industrial corporate culture is fundamentally different in basic quality.

The recent Iranian hacking and capture of a US drone with the latest technology can only reinforce such conjecture. Moreover, an article on 9 January 2012 titled The Heritage Foundation: Then and Now released by Counterpunch reveals fundamental and shocking inadequacies in the latest US fighters, F22 and F35, and is explicit about a web of institutional corruption that feeds defense mega-corporations:

“Here is a paradigm of the moral decay so visible among contemporary Washington defense ‘intellectuals’. These dabblers in defense pretend to serve seriously the real needs of our national defense and our people in uniform – when, in fact, they are serving the needs of foundations, universities, non-profits or politicians funded by defense mega-corporations seeking to expand their sources of government largesse.”

The unique and curious dilemmas posed by America’s decline and China’s peaceful rise for Australia, a country with Western history and culture but overtaken by Asian geo-political and geo-commercial realities, were captured acutely by another 2 January 2012 article, this by Andrew Clark, in the Australian Financial Review:

“So China – Australia’s biggest trading partner, the biggest foreign investor in Australia, the nation that generated the resources boom, transformed Australia’s terms of trade and has accumulated more spare cash than any other country – is about to take another great leap forward. This means a pervasive Chinese presence spreading from mining to farming, services, education, manufacturing, high tech industries, medicine and tourism and presenting a dilemma for Australian foreign policy traditionally wedded to retaining a strong US presence in the western Pacific.”

By highlighting apparent Australian dilemmas, without seriously addressing the sources of the West’s economic and political malaise or the East’s unique cultural and educational strengths, the article can be seen to illustrate the lack of informed forward strategising in even a front-line Western community like Australia. As elsewhere, a narcissistic assumption of Western, and American, superiority has caused a prosperous, but critically situated, nation to neglect even basic preparations for a world that would be profoundly reshaped by another decade of 10 percent per annum Chinese growth.

Of course, recently there have been a number of commentators warning of a bust in Chinese real estate and the decline of Chinese manufacturing markets in Europe and America. These, however, often have the character of wishful thinking or some form of political posturing and correctness. Invariably, they ignore China’s internal development strategies, growth of domestic markets and external strategic positioning in alternative global markets. In other words, there has been little or no reflection in the West on how best to accommodate China’s “peaceful rise.” In contrast, the “peaceful rise” itself has been achieved through careful and far-sighted strategising and sensitive diplomatic manoeuvring.

The harsh reality from a Western perspective is that numerous dangers and uncertainties loom large as the Mayan calendar foreshadows an approaching critical moment in December 2012. Yet these are likely to be viewed somewhat differently from an Asian perspective, where the Year of the Water Dragon accompanies a pervasive if discreet understanding of Chinese political and strategic tradition. It would seem that China has now advanced to a strategic position of economic and technological power and influence where anything other than informed and disciplined understanding and acceptance will prove highly damaging to would be rival powers. In other words, the biggest threat to a world already confronting a growing number of problems may derive from ignorant attempts to defend positions of privilege that have already been surrendered through neglect and complacency.

It is from this position that it will become increasingly important to address China’s peaceful rise from a perspective informed by an understanding of Chinese culture and history and accept with some resolution that those who achieve the best deals are likely to negotiate them by anticipating Chinese needs, goals and intentions. In this respect Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to be well ahead of his Western rivals as he continues to show a keen interest in Chinese martial culture and traditions during frequent visits to his dynamic neighbour.

While it remains to be seen how Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping, defines his responsibilities, he dropped some hints in a 1 September 2011 address to the Communist Party school when he strongly recommended the careful study of Chinese history, particularly since the mid-19th century Opium Wars. Western behaviour in China in the second half of the 19th century is not something that puts it in the best light. The time may be approaching for some serious and objective work on strategies of how to negotiate with a revitalised Confucian civilisation and how to move on from the false and misleading stereotypes of Communist authoritarianism that remain popular in Western discourse.

Yet some Western comment suggests that many recent developments have been driven by a determination to strengthen the influence of the inter-generational financial families that control the West’s central banks and move towards a new and dominant global order. If this is true, such interests are approaching a decisive moment where they are far from well positioned to achieve their goals. Rather they seem to have created a global situation where they are in inevitable retreat and where a reluctant China will find itself in a dominant economic, technological and political position, desperately seeking to define strategies that do not impose on it the burdens of a monolithic global order.

Nevertheless, it is hard to see any other power that is positioned to play a comparable role in the post Anglo-American world. Given its likely role in shaping the ASEAN plus Three and SCO communities, with which it has geo-political and historical intimacies and its likely capacity to influence events in most parts of the world through the growing reach and importance of the BRICS community, both America and Europe may find themselves struggling to establish their relevance and importance if present trends continue. Their disposition to understand the character of changes taking place around them in terms of their recent, but declining, global dominance and to disparage unfamiliar cultural norms and standards leaves them particularly vulnerable to the unintended consequences of their own actions.

In this context, it is possible to see a situation evolving where the US, the UK and their close allies are the least aware and clear-sighted about the increasingly likely consequences of present trends and policies. Corporate and financial power, which fragmented private interests exercise within democratic communities, has so taken over media and academia that only the most determined and experienced alternative thinkers are likely to be able to formulate a sense of the rising influence of groups like ASEAN plus Three, SCO and BRICS and the inept and self-destructive actions of the global communities erstwhile leaders.

The processes touched on above are now so far advanced that attempts to address and reverse them are only likely to harm the personal and professional fortunes of those so bold to attempt such work. The corporate energies and fossil fuels that built and maintained imperial structures have not been able to nurture a more subtle and mature sense of civilisation and means of exercising power. The Chinese experience of imperial decline at various times over three millennia will suggest to them that these situations are rarely if ever reversed. The absence of a comparable interest in and knowledge of history in the contemporary West only further reinforces, through neglect, the dynamics leading to Western decline.

The concluding words of an article, appearing in Global Research on 7 January 2012, by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, a senior Treasury official in the Reagan administration, reminds that US policies offer little hope of reversing its present decline:

“I cannot predict how long policymakers can hold economic armageddon at bay with spin, money creation, currency swaps, intervention in gold and silver markets, and outright lies. The onset could be sudden and take place this year, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of spin over a gullible public that trusts ‘their’ government and fervently believes that Muslim terrorists are out to get them and that the demise of the Constitution, the product of an eight hundred year struggle that produced Anglo-American civil liberty, is worth the price of ‘safety’.

“There is no safety in a police state and a debauched currency. The comfortable world that Americans have known is falling apart at the seams.”

Of course, US attempts to maintain its standing in the world through increasing and disruptive involvement in the domestic politics of those who are not “with us” and the incessant rhetoric and posing about Muslim terrorists has made the movement towards “a police state” an almost inescapable defence measure, necessary to avoid the deployment of US tactics against “the home of the free.” The simultaneous peaceful rise of China is in some respects the restoration of a global order where China led the world with forms of production and political authority until the Western intrusion into China’s domestic affairs with the Opium Wars in the mid 19th century.

A peculiar question emerges from the probable end of a period of Anglo-American Empire – does it also signify the end of the mythologies of universal values that derive from the European Enlightenment, such as democracy, rule of law, human rights and, most intriguing of all, progress? After all, the innovative culture of the modern world has depended on a close alliance between capital and science and it might in future be said that this must be seen to have failed in terms both of human politics and natural order. While the profoundly cyclical and holistic consciousness of Chinese civilisation is unlikely to surrender its recent technological conquests, it remains to be seen whether it will continue to be enamoured with the Western illusion that humanity can continuously reconstruct nature for the better.

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REG LITTLE was an Australian diplomat for over 25 years in Japan, Laos, Bangladesh, the United Nations, Ireland, Hong Kong, China, Switzerland, and the Caribbean, obtaining advanced language qualifications in Japanese and Chinese. Deputy or Head of Mission in five overseas posts, he served in Canberra as Director of North Asia, International Economic Organisations, Policy Planning and the Australia-China Council. He has participated in Conferences in Asia since 1987, has been a Founding Director of the Beijing based International Confucian Association since 1994 and has co-authored two books, The Confucian Renaissance (1989) in English, Japanese and Chinese, and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997). His 2006 book A Confucian-Daoist Millennium?, available from www.confucian-daoist-millennium.org, examines if the leadership of a renascent Confucian-Daoist civilisation can displace that of a declining West.

The above article appeared in 2012 New Dawn Collector’s Edition.

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