The international relations of the Monkey King
China’s journey to greatpower status reminds me of the Monkey King. This cultural hero, who has the body of a man and the face of a monkey, is a popular character in Chinese literature. Indeed, one translator of “Journey to the West” claims that children in the Chinese world want to be monkeys.
The novel tells of a stone monkey who becomes king of the monkeys and who thereafter leaves his kingdom to seek enlightenment. During his travels, he acquires human manners and magic, including the power of transformation. He then receives an appointment from the Jade Emperor to serve as protector of the horses. To his disappointment, he discovers that he is occupying the lowest official rank. Thus, he walks out of the stables and fights against the empire.
To appease Monkey, t he emperor appoints him administrator of the peach garden. Monkey, as expected, devours all the peaches and goes uninvited to the Queen Mother’s feast. He wreaks havoc in the imperial court and is finally subdued by the Bodhisattva Guanyin. Centuries later, Monkey is released from prison to guide the monk Tripitaka on a journey to obtain sutras. To control Monkey’s mischievous behavior, Guanyin tricks him into wearing a magic hat that causes headaches whenever the monk recites a bandtightening spell. Thereafter, Monkey accompanies the monk and defeats all the fiends that block their way to enlightenment.
Although the Chinese Communist Party ( CCP) is not known to pattern its foreign policy after literary works, Monkey’s rebellious nature may shed light on China’s revisionist policy. The Monkey- as- rebel interpretation fits with the “revolutionary” image that the CCP has cultivated in the Chinese mind. Both the party and Monkey project rebelliousness and contempt for the status quo.
In the context of international relations, the CPP- like Monkey with newfound powers will not be satisfied with the status quo in maritime disputes for it ultimately aims to control the South China Sea. This project, which is clothed in narratives of “unification” and recovery of “lost territories,” is now being implemented before our eyes. “Indisputable sovereignty” is no longer just an empty phrase.
For three decades, however, Chinese revisionism was not clear. Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “bide our time and conceal our capabilities” guided China’s foreign policy. Avery Goldstein characterized it as a transitional strategy that aims to manage China’s rise during the era of U. S. unipolarity. It emphasized development of national capabilities and cultivation of international partners, while avoiding the “provocative consequences” of “hegemonic and balancing strategies.” More- over, Allen Carlson saw a “more flexible, less confrontational position” on territorial disputes. In “Unifying China, Integrating with the World” ( 2005), Carlson explains that “this conservatism is indicative of the relatively status quo agenda” guiding Chinese behavior. He thus belittles “the din warnings issued by many of those who tend to emphasize China’s apparently aggressive and revisionist agenda in Asia.”
China’s recent actions shat- ter this optimism and signal a radical shift in policy. Caution has been replaced by daring, and stealth by open defiance. No more biding their time, no more hiding. China is already revising the balance of power in its maritime backyard. As a result, the waters from the northeast to the southeast boil as China transforms the high seas into a huge territorial sea.
Like a taunting Monkey, China declared an air defense identification zone that provoked Japan into revising its military policy. It also pulled a prank by bringing an oil rig to disputed waters, which led to skirmishes between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guards and caused riots in Vietnam.
But nothing beats the trick played by China on Philippine diplomats. We lost Scarborough Shoal without hearing a single shot. As our foreign affairs secretary whined, “The aforementioned state refused to abide by a mutual agreement to deescalate tensions by not withdrawing its vessels from the said rocks.” Our diplomats thought they were dealing with Confucius, practitioner of “xin” ( trustworthiness), not knowing it was Monkey the trickster in disguise.
Nowadays, Monkey’s magic is at work transforming rocks and shoals into islands armed with artillery. It does not matter that he signed the “2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which obliges him to “exercise self- restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
All these acts form an image of China as the Monkey King of international society. In the eyes of its neighbors, it seems that no norms and rules of the international community will be honored by the New China. Only the maximization of power matters. No wonder the attraction of mutual economic benefits under Chinese leadership is neutralized by fears of how Asia would fare if China achieves regional hegemony. No wonder calls for a balancing coalition against China are becoming louder.
Lest we take a one- sided view of things, we should not forget Monkey’s leadership qualities that may be harnessed to produce the common good. If only we can find a way to temper his tantrums. Unfortunately, in the anarchical society of states, there are no bodhisattvas and magic hats that can allay our insecurities. And even if there is one bodhisattva around, will she bring succor to us and subdue the unruly Monkey King?
Jose Duke S. Bagulaya teaches Chinese literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman and works as a lawyer in his spare time.