The Diplomat on October 15, 2015, published an interview with Professor Francis Fukuyama on the rise of China, East Asia tensions, and the role of the United States. He was interviewed by Emanuel Pastreich, Director of the Asia Institute.

Francis Fukuyama is a leading American political scientist, political economist, and author best known for his books The End of History and the Last Man(1992) and the Origins of the Political Order. He serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Excerpts below:

Q: We have to start with the simplest of questions. If we want to understand the challenges in East Asia today, we must first consider why it is that Asia has become so central in the global economy and why it plays an increasingly large role in global politics. How do you explain the enormous shift that we are witnessing today?

A: Well, there is a significant difference between the economic and the political spheres. Obviously, the biggest shift is to be observed in the economic realm. We can trace it back to the industrialization of China after the Cultural Revolution and rise of the four tigers: South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But the shift in terms of political power is a much slower process than the economic shift.

So if we talk about the rise of Asia, we must be sure that we are clear about what aspect of the rise we are referring to. If we ask the specific question, “Why has East Asia’s economic development been so successful?” We can speak with more confidence about a clear rise, although that rise does not necessarily fulfill all the traditional expectation for growing power and influence. We can be sure, however, that China will continue to increase its influence in global affairs for the foreseeable future.

Q: Why has it been so hard for China, Korea and Japan, in spite of astounding economic growth, to have [a] cultural impact? Certainly the cultures are extremely sophisticated and the level of education is very high.

A: We are seeing some changes these days, but the building of institutions, the growth of global networks, and the acceptance of new cultures takes generations.

Korea has done well in terms of culture. If you look at the spread of K-pop, Korean soap operas and Korean movies, Korea is producing a highly competitive culture that is expanding rapidly, even including spheres like manga and anime that were once exclusively Japanese. But such cultural influence has very little to do with GDP.

Q: I suppose that the dominance of the English language is also an important factor.

A: The power of English has a long history, dating back to the British Empire, but its continued dominance is in part a reflection of culture, and in part a reflection of U.S. dominance in international business. In spite of the remaining dominance of English, we can perceive significant shifts. People are starting to learn Mandarin around the world, and that trend will continue. For some in Africa, Chinese seems like a very significant language. Eventually cultural influence will follow from growing economic power, but the lag time is significant.

Q: Certainly China has a long tradition of good government and of institutional innovation. From the Tang and Song Dynasties to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, China has been able to generate internal reform on many occasions. There have been some scholars like Daniel Bell at Tsinghua University, in his book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, or Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University in his book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, who argue that China is fundamentally different than other nations in that it is a civilization, not a nation state. Is there perhaps something transformative of China, that seeks to remake the entire world, not just expand into new markets?

A: I’m a little skeptical of such efforts to see some sort of new Confucian vision in the chaos that is the present Chinese political economy. I just do not see an integrated package; it’s an incoherent package. The official message coming out of China in its official sources is still taking Marxism-Leninism as its base. Perhaps there is a sincerely interest in the past, but basically Chinese are pretty confused about Confucianism.

Q: But in the West things are at last shifting a bit. Western intellectuals are taking a stronger interest in Asia and reading and writing about China and its culture and politics. How broad is the interest in East Asia in Washington D.C.?

A: Although interest in Asia has risen remarkably, it is probably still far from what it should be.

Q: And what about Europe? How has the rise of Asia impacted France, Germany, Italy and other European powers?

A: What is striking about Europe is just how little attention they pay to China. Although I wish the United States took Asia seriously, compared with Europe, we are doing a pretty good job. You would be amazed to see how much Europeans still are talking about the challenge from America and the American model for business. They are having trouble getting their heads around the fact that China going to be a major player in the world and that what happens in the Chinese economy impacts the European economy.

Q: Let’s talk about the current tensions in Asia, specifically those between China, Japan, and Korea. Although some make grim analogies between Asia today and Europe just before World War I, it seems to me that the conflicts over islands are fundamentally different in its nature from the battle over territory occupied by large populations.

A: I think the conflicts are quite serious because they are powered by the rise of nationalism in Korea, Japan, and China. Young people in each of these countries are growing more nationalistic than was their parents’ generation, and that trend is quite dangerous. Honestly, I am quite worried by what I see happening today. The territorial disputes are not inherently critical, but they take on tremendous symbolic significance and they are at the center of a struggle over geopolitical power. The fight over the future of the Senkaku Islands is not just about a few uninhabited rocks. It is a contest over who will set the rules in Asia, China or Japan. It is this larger question that absorbs the interests of both countries.

Q: What are your thoughts about the U.S. and its position in East Asia? What do you think is the appropriate role for the U.S. to play in Asia going forward?

A: I think the U.S. needs to adjust to growing Chinese power but needs to be mindful of existing commitments. The accommodation of Chinese power cannot come at the expense of traditional allies – Japan, Korea, etc. Doing that is going to be very difficult.

Q: You suggest that the United States must engage China, and recognize its new status, but that there may also be some legitimate reasons for the United States to remain wary of China’s intentions. What specifically must the United States do to create a stable security architecture in East Asia?

A: I feel that the U.S. needs to promote multilateralism in Asia and to consider multilateralism to be in its own long-term interests. The United States has certain advantages in its bilateral alliances. But the use of bilateral relations in Asia can also undermine American influence.

For example, China would like to deal with all ASEAN countries individually, through bilateral exchanges. But can we solve the complex multilateral disputes over coral reefs in the Pacific by a series of bilateral discussions? I think we need to do so through ASEAN, other international bodies, or new institutions that we will build.

Q: Let me close with a question about technology. How do you think evolving technologies (drones, cyberspace and other technologies with dual uses) are changing the nature of conflict and international relations, and what are the implications of those changes for East Asia?

A: I think you can see profound changes already in cyberspace. Already there are essentially no rules whatsoever. For example, if you hack into another country’s computer system, whether the computer belongs to a corporation or to the military, does that constitute an act of war? Who counts as a representative of the government of a country in cyberspace?

We have no agreement about the remedy to growing cybercrime. In fact we do not even agree on what kinds of responses are acceptable. Even if you do know who committed the crime, experts do not agree on how serious it is. And numerous reports of hacking have tended to make the public somewhat skeptical.

I suspect that rules and regulations about online crimes are going to be harder to enforce simply because the technology is so rapidly changing and often it is hard to show there has even been a crime.


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