Vernon Loeb, his wife Pat, and their four grown children dropped by the bookshop the other day, and we reminisced about the Manila of 25 years ago, when Vernon was based here as Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent. He is now political editor of The Atlantic in Washington.
They were amazed at Manila’s evident progress – the shopping malls, the soaring skyscrapers – and, yes, the population explosion and the traffic jams. I told them the surface progress is an illusion. Twenty-five years ago, there was no one sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the bookshop. Now there are. Vernon asked if Smokey Mountain was still in Tondo. I assured him it was, but is no longer a smoky garbage dump. It is now green with grass and some houses.
And, as with most conversations about America, the topic turned to Trump, immigrants, and what the Trump presidency means for the future of America and for regional relations.
Perhaps, it is because we were colonized by the United States that that nation’s politics and culture have always fascinated me. While I am critical of three aspects of that culture – the racism, the wastage, and the smugness that there are American solutions for all the world’s problems – America has one enduring strength: it is capable of self-renewal. And this strength is brought about by its openness, its self-criticism, and the continuing immigration of the best minds from all over the world. America has always provided a sanctuary, a place where their genius can bloom, and a future for their children.
WHEN I WAS at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto in the mid-1980s, some of my Japanese colleagues were convinced that America was in irreversible decline. At the time, Ezra Vogel’s book, Japan as Number One, had just come out. The Japanese blamed America’s educational system. Drugs, too, had sapped the American spirit. I told them they were wrong, that what they were saying had long been expressed by the Americans themselves.
Now comes Martin Jacques’s bestselling When China Rules the World. The author implies that, again, the United States will be left behind because of its incapability to equal China’s dynamism. Sure, China has more than 4,000 years of civilization, that it was already literate when Europe was peopled by primitive hunters and food gatherers. Some observers say that China is now in the same period like Japan was in the 1930s when it modernized, became militarily strong, and began to advance its imperial ambition.
To be credible, empires claim that they maintain noble motives and should therefore be welcomed by their colonies. The British claimed they were bringing British law and civilization to a benighted world. The Spanish empire sought to spread Catholicism, and to make the world safe for democracy is America’s excuse for its hegemony. In fairness to the Americans, there is some nobility in its imperial posturing. In pursuit of its own self- interest, it helped Europe rise from the rubble of World War II with its Marshall Plan. Maybe China’s future hype will be its Confucian ethic, which emphasizes hierarchy and harmony.
Chinese civilization is a continuum. There are serious gaps in its development when it lagged behind the west in science and modernization, and was easy prey for the Imperial west. But it is the knowledge of this gap that has fired Chinese nationalism and its consequent imperial reach. Now China and the United States are engaged in a trade war and, at the moment, the United States seems to be winning. However, China is still developing its industrial sinews, and has not yet reached its maximum potential.
THE TWO COUNTRIES are headed toward a military war both do not really want. But they are engaged in a game of chicken, and one of them is likely going to make a mistake soon. The possibility of that war is very real, given the growing tensions between the two powers in the South China Sea. In the event that it does happen, whether we like it or not, we will get involved. As the old Burmese saying goes, when the elephants quarrel, the grass gets trampled. To this, I add my own caveat: when the elephants make peace, the grass gets eaten.
It would seem that China today – like Japan in the 1930s – is testing its muscle, even at the risk of antagonizing its small weak neighbors. For sure, all of Southeast Asia will be sinicized in the next hundred years. The richest in all these Southeast Asian nations are ethnic Chinese. In the Philippines, seven of our top ten billionaires are ethnic Chinese. They are a powerful presence, and in the event that war erupts, where will their loyalties lie? Always remember, all came to the Philippines with nothing and they became rich by exploiting the Filipinos and their land.
Eventually comparisons have to be made. I say that the United States can afford the likes of Trump for the free institutions in that country are all working, and the Americans themselves are always alert.
AS FOR DUTERTE, I told Vernon that in the beginning I was for the man, foul-mouthed though he is. No Philippine president has ever challenged the oligarchy, the Catholic Church and the media. I really thought he would bring about the revolution this country needs and that I had been hoping for, for decades. But he has divided the country instead of uniting us as revolution always does.
The Chinese always take a long view of history, in keeping with their own venerable past. The story goes, that when the Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, was asked about what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution on western civilization, he replied, “It’s too early to tell.”
Perhaps we may say the same thing of the American empire. Will it last longer than the Roman and the Spanish empires? Or the Vatican?
First published in Philippine Star, January 12, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/01/12/1884326/pax-americana#ApTikGiOdJkUm2rX.99