Of all the Asian countries that have engaged with pan-Asianism in the past hundred years, perhaps China has had the most grounds on which to do so.
After all, in earlier centuries, kingdoms surrounding the Middle Kingdom would send annual tribute to the “Son of Heaven” in recognition of Chinese suzerainty.
In the early twentieth century, no less an eminent personage than Sun Yat-sen, the first president and founding father of the Chinese republic, evoked this historical precedent when he laid out his pan-Asianist vision in a famous speech given in Kobe in Japan. Sun echoed many of the ideas of Tagore and Okakura, albeit with a Chinese twist.
For Sun, a pan-Asian civilization could only be based on the ancient Chinese Kingly Way (wang dao or rule through benevolence). He contrasted this with the European Despotic Way (ba dao).
Significantly, he warned his Japanese audience against a pan-Asianism based on the Despotic Way. The Japanese move to shed Asian culture and align with Europe was, to Chinese eyes, a rejection of traditional Sinocentric pan-Asianism and would lead to disaster.
Elaborating on the Kingly Way, Sun cited the example of Nepal. For years, Britain had lavished subsidies on Nepal in exchange for the ability to recruit soldiers that would help them keep law and order in the empire. But in the hundred years or so since Britain had conquered India, Nepal had never once sent tribute to Britain. By contrast, though far away, Nepal had sent tribute to China over the centuries and all the way up to 1911 despite China’s fallen stature in the world, because it respected the Chinese Kingly Way. (Sun allowed no room for the possibility that Nepal’s actions were simply a balancing of powers.)
By placing Confucian ideals at the centre, Sun’s view of pan-Asianism was no less ethnocentric than the Indian and Japanese versions.
Still, Sun’s vision stood apart in one crucial way: it recognized that Asia was not and could never be culturally homogenous.1
Japan wanted all of Asia to modernize as it had done (and was attempting to do in Manzhouguo), and India saw itself at the centre of a world that had, many centuries ago, made itself in India’s image.
Sun’s example of Nepal was instructive. Here was a Hindu kingdom that had not adopted Confucianism but still sent tribute to China. The tribute model, he noted approvingly, implied a mutual recognition and respect for each other’s cultural differences.
Following a period in Chinese history where pan-Asianism was thoroughly discredited and China was cut off from the world, China is now once again looking outward at the Asian continent.
That the new pan-Asianism owes much to Sun Yat Sen becomes obvious the minute we consider that non-interference in the internal affairs of its Asian neighbours is one of its key principles.
In the words of one of China’s foremost foreign policy thinkers, “Eastern culture upholds the ideal of ‘harmony in difference.’ To attempt to force a homogenous political system onto Asia [has failed historically and] will lead nowhere in present circumstances and will be difficult to justify in the future.”2
Nonetheless, now, as in the past, China must still be suzerain.