Recently, the Chinese scholar Wang Hui sat down for a conversation with Helmut Schmidt, Germany’s elder statesman, in Hamburg.
Until 2007, Wang Hui was editor of the influential journal, "Dushu," and is author of the seminal four-volume study, “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought.” Helmut Schmidt, 95, was chancellor of Germany from 1974-1982 and visited China several times to meet Mao and Deng Xiaoping.
A version of this conversation appeared in Chinese in Guancha.cn.
PART II: Japan Has No Friends in Asia. Neither does China.
WANG HUI: China has become the second largest economy in the world. Many economists argue that by 2030 China will be the number one economy.
HELMUT SCHMIDT: Whether in 2030 or 2040, that will happen. It is a great change in global history.
WANG: At the same time, the situation in East Asia has been worsening. Since the late Qing Dynasty, Japan has been the most powerful country in the whole region, and it was not prepared to see the revival of China. I visit Japan regularly and I can see a certain kind of bewilderment in the mentality of Japanese people: Even though China faces many problems, it is nonetheless rising in its economy and military might.
Many of my Japanese friends argue that the best way forward for Japan is integration into Asia so it does not become isolated in its own region.
SCHMIDT: The basic fact about Japan’s situation is that it does not have any friends in the region –- not the Philippines, nor the Koreans, nor the Russians, nor the Chinese, nor people in Indonesia. They have invaded all these countries. They do not understand that all their neighbors hate them despite the fact that the present Japanese did not commit any crimes.
Germany certainly committed more war crimes than anybody else. But, unlike the Japanese, we have had the great stroke of luck of finding neighbors who have helped us overcome our past. We have openly regretted what our fathers have done. So the Germans today, to an amazing extent, have been able to join in a project of European integration that, whatever its problems, makes war between European nations impossible.
In Asia, a military conflict between the Japanese and others in the region cannot be completely excluded. If I were a Chinese politician, I would wait in peace for demographics to take its course. I would continue the policy of the emperors of the "Middle Kingdom” and bide time as events take their inevitable course. By 2050, China will have 1.5 billion inhabitants. Japan will have only 120 million or even less.
If I were a Chinese I would just wait and see how long it takes until the Japanese come bearing presents. Just give them time and don’t fight about these ridiculous Diaoyu islands.
WANG: Ten Southeast Asian countries plus one -- that is, China-- want to have a free trade zone. Japan and Korea followed to propose a ten plus three system. When these ideas arose, there was a certain kind of optimistic sentiment toward the integration of Asia, encouraged by the European example. Will it work?
SCHMIDT: It will not really work. As is the case of Japan, China also has no friends in the region. The Chinese leaders are not unaware of this fact. However, you do not need friends. You are big enough and you will be able to stand alone. And you will still be the largest economy of the world. But you don’t have friends. And they will not join a Chinese-led union like Europe.
In history, China never had any friends. A number of people came to Beijing and brought presents as tributaries. China was the Middle Kingdom. You didn’t make friends, but you did make people dependent on your leadership. Right now, however, others are not willing to submit themselves to the Chinese. This is true for Indonesia; it is also true for India, Korea and Japan.
WANG: Regional integration in Asia could be radically different from the regional integration of Europe. This is partly because the integration of Europe relied on inter-state relations to form the system of one large entity. The integration in Asia will be inevitably based on inter-state relations as well, but it will be more like a network. The goal will not be the formation of a large, unified political entity.
SCHMIDT: International law is an invention from about 400 years ago. That is rather young compared to the age of Confucius. It is rather young compared with the age of Chinese history and Chinese civilization. The Chinese have one great advantage in Asia: You have one and the same written language. You can even read Japanese newspapers. You may not understand Japanese philosophy, but you can read their newspapers.
WANG: Especially for scholars, we can read some pre-modern books because many of them use Chinese characters exclusively or extensively.
SCHMIDT: That’s a great advantage compared to the 500 million Europeans where every nation has its own language. Don’t underestimate this enormous difficulty.