Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Arthur Waldron and the Rightward Drift of U.S. Discourse on China

In Joseph Kahn and Chris Buckley’s article in the New York Times, China Gives a Strategic 21-Gun Salute to Visiting Uzbek President, a China expert parses the Chinese desire to cozy up to Uzbekistan as follows:

"Energy is clearly one driver for China in the region," said Arthur Waldron, a China expert at the University of Pennsylvania. "My sense is that they also tend to think that anything that throws sand into the face of the U.S. is a good thing."

Hmmm. Not exactly the way I read it.

In the interests of full disclosure, I think Kahn and Buckley should have identified Waldron as affiliated with the self-identified “Blue Team” of confront-China enthusiasts seeking to permeate the Pentagon and State Department.

Waldron is the former Director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; signatory to Project for the New American Century statements on Taiwan and Hong Kong; served on the boards of various right-leaning foundations, and testifies to Congress on the China threat.

In the feisty days when Clinton was president and the Blue Team boasted of its virtuous conspiracy to tilt policy and perceptions toward a harder anti-China stance in the face of panda-hugger persecution, Waldron openly called for regime change in China.

He provides academic credibility and cover for the Blue Team, which is composed largely of anti-PRC enthusiasts with limited backgrounds in Asian affairs, in role similar to the one Bernard Lewis played for the neo-cons over Iraq.

It may be unfair, but I see Waldron, like Lewis, as an academic at best prescribing tough love for his area of study and at worst sounding positively Sinophobic.

In considering 20th century Asia, Waldron has a strong pro-Japan tilt. A flavor of his views, and how he applies them to the current situation, can be gleaned from his piece Japan Emerges, published earlier this year:

So perhaps we should listen to other historians, less well known than those who concentrate on Japanese domestic history {for the origins of the China invasion}, stressing instead a series of completely unexpected developments in the region that even the most liberal Japanese leaders saw as threatening to their country’s security.

Most important of these was a strong but erratically guided rise of Chinese power that saw that country’s government, goading and reacting to the resentments of her people, flout many of the undertakings she had made at Washington {at the Washington Conference of 1921-22--CH}.

Almost simultaneously came political splits and then civil wars in a China that at the time of the Conference had seemed politically stable and set on a course of peaceful economic development. These wars threatened continental interests that Tokyo considered vital, and when the allies who had promised at Washington to consult on such threats and act to protect legitimate interests failed to do so, Japan attempted to do so herself—in a catastrophic way that saw both democracy and millions of Japanese people perish.

One element of a parallel to these developments is already in place. North Korea’s nuclear capability has deeply unsettled Japan…

Translation: The Chinese were asking for it in the 1930s and now they’re asking for it again today.

Most students of the period tend to blame Japanese belligerence and imperial ambition for the catastrophe of the Pacific War, not Chinese provocation.

As Waldron himself admits, he’s in the minority in his reading of modern Asian history.

So it seems to me a sign of the rightward drift in the popular discourse about China that he nevertheless appears to be a go-to guy for the New York Times when some academic insight about the PRC is called for.

When Waldron depicts China’s outreach to the Uzbekistan regime primarily as a move touching on the mother of all American strategic interests—oil—and a provocative nose thumbing at the United States…

…instead of a clumsy embrace driven by China’s fear that weakening of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia will give the Muslims of Xinjiang a thirst for the same kind of populist, anti-government activism and promise of democratic self-determination that has roiled Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan…

…it makes me wonder if he’s trying to create a pressing issue for America in China’s relationship with Uzbekistan that really isn’t there.

If anything, China may be using its ostentatious show of support for Karimov to signal to the United States that China is fully vested in the survival of this pro-American tyrant and the U.S. government should not feel there is any need—or compelling alternative—to abandoning him.


Unknown said...

This original post by “Chinahand” here is ridiculous and I'm shocked that Prof Waldron even responded. I was an student in Waldron’s classes while studying Chinese politics at Penn a decade ago, have read a lot of his material and have lived in China/Asia since graduating. I can unequivocally say that a statement like
"but I see Waldron ... at worst sounding positively Sinophobic..."
suggests to me, Chinahand, that you should have your eyes checked. In the months of lectures that I attended, Waldron never communicated anything resembling a right wing agenda. Waldron has been an inspiration for many thousands of fledgling Sinophiles at Penn. His unbridled and infectious enthusiasm for China and Asia in general inspired myself and others into further China-related studies. I’d recommend his research to any Chinese history/politics/IR students out there today trying to get a better understanding of the issues, regardless of your political affinities (In case anyone is interested, I’m quite “left wing”, if we’re using such ridiculous labels).
Chinahand’s discussion of Waldron himself, as opposed to just his ideas, is disappointing but perhaps necessary, since the argument he’s trying to make about Waldron’s right wing, inaccurate bias otherwise holds no water... I am honestly impressed that Chinahand got Waldron to respond though, so kudos for that I suppose.
To reemphasize Waldron’s own response, if you read anything other than a few snippets of his work (which seems to be all that Chinahand did read) you’ll agree that there is no Sinophobic agenda being put forward. I understand that in academia it is common to try and draw attention to one’s own ideas by taking pot shots at the established experts… I don’t work in academia so, Chinahand, please excuse my lack of subtly when I say your original post is complete nonsense. And please excuse my late posting!

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