What China’s Past Says About Its Hegemonic Ambitions

Interview with Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio World View program

March 23, 2017

We speak with former New York Times Shanghai bureau chief Howard French about what he thinks motivates China’s strategy in the Asian Pacific.

French’s most recent book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, French asserts we can assess China’s hegemonic ambitions by examining its past and how the Asian power treats its neighbors.

What’s behind Beijing’s drive to control the South China Sea? (Guardian Long

Copyright The Guardian

A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
 A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photograph: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

On 26 May, CNN broadcast an unusual clip of a US navy intelligence flight over the South China Sea. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane – one of the newest weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal – had taken off, with a CNN reporter on board, from Clark airbase in the Philippines, once part of America’s largest overseas base complex during the cold war. After about 45 minutes, the plane reached its first target – which had, until recently, been an obscure, almost entirely submerged feature in the Spratly Island group.

Fifteen thousand feet below, dozens of Chinese ships tossed at anchor. Their crews had been working day and night for weeks, dredging sand and rock from the ocean floor to fill in a stunning blue lagoon – turning a 3.7-mile-long reef that had only partially revealed itself to the daylight at low tide into a sizable man-made island nearly 1,000 miles away from the Chinese mainland.

At the approach of the American aircraft, a Chinese radio operator can be heard addressing the pilot: “This is the Chinese navy. This is the Chinese navy … Please leave immediately to avoid misunderstanding.” When the plane, which was busily photographing the land-reclamation effort, failed to heed these instructions, the operator grew exasperated, and the recording ends as abruptly as it had begun, with him shouting the words: “You go!”

 China’s land grab in the South China Sea

For many people who viewed this clip, it might have almost passed for entertainment, but the plane continued on to a place called Fiery Cross, whose history and recent development point to how deadly serious the struggle over the South China Sea has become. Fiery Cross came under Chinese control in 1988, following a confrontation with Vietnam at a nearby site, Johnson Reef, where Chinese troops opened fire from a ship on a contingent of Vietnamese soldiers who stood in knee-deep seas after having planted their country’s flag in the coral. A YouTube video of the incident shows dozens of Vietnamese being cut down in the water under a hail of machine-gun fire.

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The Writers that Shadow Us: on the ghost of Graham Greene.

I had just arrived in Saigon — this was September 2004 — and, 15 hours out of sync after the long flight from California, I was wide-awake, adrenaline-quickened and eager to see everything as I hit the late-night streets. I dropped off my case at the Hotel Majestic and then began walking down Tu Do, or Freedom Street (the Rue Catinat, as it had been in French times, and now officially Dong Khoi, or Simultaneous Uprising Street).

The city had not changed much in the 13 years since I’d last been here, except that the sense of illicit energy, of movement, of underground whispering was more intense. “Layla” drifted up from an underground bar, and men along the sidewalks murmured promises of various exotic pleasures. A young woman sped up on a motorbike, took off her helmet and, shaking free her long hair, said, “We go my room?” Cyclo-drivers peddled slowly past, sometimes with a single woman in their seats, sometimes stopping to ask if I needed a friend.

I went into an internet café — they were everywhere, and everything was open, even after midnight — needing to transcribe this for someone. “I might almost be walking through Graham Greene’s Quiet American,” I wrote to a childhood friend who had become a novelist in a somewhat Greenian vein. “It’s uncanny. The Englishman Fowler and his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong might still be walking down the Rue Catinat.”

At that very moment a young woman came in, from the N.Y.-Saigon Bar next door, and took the stool next to mine. Business must be slow, I guessed, so she’d check her email for a while. She was long-legged, very young, and barely dressed. She logged onto her Hotmail account and I, shameless journalist, looked over to see what she was typing.

It was, of course, a love letter, from an admirer in Europe. “Dear Phuong,” it began, and then the changeless cadences of half-requited love came tumbling out.