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.

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