East Asia’s relationship with the Middle East today is based mainly on economics and is devoid of grand political projects of solidarity and intellectual dialogue. Countries such as China, Japan and Korea present the Middle East with a model of neoliberal economic development. At the same time, the redemptive transformation of East Asia from a Western-dominated region to a globally powerful one offers a trajectory of development diverging from the Middle East, which struggles with political turbulence, regime crises and regional wars both cold and hot.

One hundred years ago, in 1914, both East and West Asia were dealing with a similar reality of European hegemony and colonialism. It was a time of great convergence in identity as subaltern Easterners, giving birth to several projects of cooperation between pan-Islamic and pan-Asian currents of thought. There was a Japan moment in Middle Eastern intellectual circles in the decades after the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. The interest in the secrets of Japanese progress continued, even as a vision of solidarity with Chinese nationalism also emerged, peaking with the Bandung conference of 1955.

Today, however, while East Asians exhibit clear self-confidence, Middle Easterners continue to talk about the “humiliation” of Arab and Muslim societies, particularly vis-à-vis the West. There is an imbalance between East and West Asia that has created miscommunication in intellectual encounters, leading to an absence of political dialogue or civil society solidarity. Remembering the intertwined histories of the Middle East and East Asia in the last century and a half may help in better understanding the challenges of today and in finding ways to make the intellectual and political ties stronger in ways beneficial to both regions. While keeping their dynamic economic ties, the Middle East and East Asia need a more sustained cultural, intellectual and political dialogue for constructive cooperation on issues of global governance.

Era of Humiliation

European empire came to Islamic areas before it expanded to East Asia, and its impact on Muslim societies was more destructive compared to the East Asian zone, which had strong state traditions enabling resistance. Even after the Opium Wars, China, Japan and Korea were never colonized (and it was Japan that colonized Korea and Taiwan). During the 1880s and afterward, however, East Asians and Muslims in South and West Asia began to realize the parallels between their experiences of subjugation at the hands of European imperial powers. The short-lived period of European global hegemony from the 1880s to the 1910s was not absolute and was always contested. Multiple visions of anti-white racial and intra-regional solidarities emerged across Asia and Africa, fostering connections, solidarities and exchanges. It is ironic, indeed, that the peak of European hegemony in Asia corresponded with the zenith of intra-Asian political conversations. Pan-Asianists of Japan and China began to see Muslims as members of Asia, while pan-Islamists began to look at China and Japan as allies and fellow Orientals.

The first modern Japanese political novel, Kajin no Kigu (Strange Encounters of Elegant Females), presents the characteristics of the new pan-Asian thinking sympathetic to Egyptians and Arabs. Written by Shiba Shiro (1852-1922) under the pen name Sanshin Tokai, this novel reflects the universalism and global consciousness of the 1880s seen through the eyes of a world traveler. The author did indeed travel to British-ruled Egypt and Ottoman Istanbul, where he spoke with leading personalities. His main character, a Japanese student, weaves together multiple stories of a West oppressing subaltern Asians to present a picture of universal struggle for justice and equity in the face of imperialism. The novel includes a conversation with the Egyptian nationalist Col. Ahmad ‘Urabi about British imperialism and the double standards of European powers, urging Japanese readers to learn lessons from how the British subordinated the Egyptian khedive by extending loans he could not repay. The British and Japanese steamships carrying passengers between the ports of Asia and Europe often stopped to refuel in Ceylon, where ‘Urabi was in exile from 1882 following his unsuccessful revolt against the khedive. The Japanese passengers would visit the Egyptian colonel. Kajin no Kigu became the most popular novel during the mid-Meiji period, selling so many copies that it earned the reputation of “raising the price of paper” in Japan.

European orientalism created the initial epistemological foundation of the Asian-Arabian connection. If the same European center “othered” the Muslim world and “yellow” Asians as inferior and in need of the white man’s civilizing mission, Muslim and non-Muslim Asian intellectuals could learn from each other about how to talk back. At this exact moment, the steamship and the telegraph, as well as the construction of the Suez Canal, strengthened the ties among various Asians. The Suez Canal, instead of making Egypt part of Europe as Khedive Isma‘il proclaimed, in many ways made Egypt part of Asia. Japanese and Chinese travelers to Europe often stopped in the Canal cities. Some made negative comments about the poverty of Arabs in Port Said in comparison to the European residents, but not necessarily to imply that these conditions were irreversible. New anti-colonial visions of solidarity would gradually induce the Chinese and Japanese travelers to blame Europeans for the Arabs’ low economic status. Similarly, Arab intellectuals developed an interest in the diminution of Chinese power and the extraordinary progress of Japan. Such figures as the nationalist Mustafa Kamil and the Islamic reformer Rashid Rida argued that the Arabs could be as successful as the Japanese. Middle Eastern intellectuals celebrated the Japanese defeat of Russia as a victory of fellow Asians against a common enemy, the white Christian West. Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen noted the congratulatory messages he received in 1905 from Arab residents of Port Said when his ship stopped in that city on the way back from Europe. Some Arab Muslims even hoped that the Japanese emperor, a Shinto deity, would convert to Islam and take the helm of the “Muslim world” in addition to rising East Asia.

From 1905 to the 1920s, there was a rich debate on Japanese progress in the Arabic-, Ottoman- and Persian-language press. The debate might be considered rather surprising, given that Muslim reformists were promoting European-style modernization to strengthen the Ottoman Empire and Persia and that Japanese empire could not be said to be anti-imperialist. There were three main reasons for the Muslim interest in the Japanese model. First, Japanese progress presented a shortcut to the European level of development. Second, the Japanese example showed that non-Western cultural and religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Islam and Confucianism, were not necessarily obstacles to progress. In Muslim writings on Japan’s modernization, the prevailing consensus held that Japan had intelligently selected the essential aspects of Western civilization for adoption, without appropriating “superficial and harmful” Western habits or denying the Japanese cultural heritage. In truth, the heritage that was preserved was more an invented image of traditional Japan than a reflection of actual pre-Meiji Japanese culture. But the concept of “Japanese selectivity,” a way to create an effective synthesis of Western and Eastern knowledge, was fascinating to Muslim reformists and nationalists, who had been preoccupied with the questions of the East-West encounter and civilizational harmony for several decades. For example, the “good wife, wise mother” ideology that Japan adopted from Europe was depicted as a successful adaptation of Japanese tradition to modernity, since Japanese women could thereby serve the nation through Westernizing reforms without losing their traditional cultural role. As later in the Middle East, the idea was that educated Japanese women would build the nation by assisting in the “modern” education of their sons. Third, the rise of Japan engendered optimism that it was not too late for the Ottoman, Egyptian, Persian and Indian princely state reformers to usher their own societies into modernity and international equality. The Russo-Japanese war and the constitutional revolutions in Persia (1906), the Ottoman Empire (1908) and China (1911) earned a collective representation as the “awakening of Asia” and were seen as a conclusive defeat of the notion of white superiority over colored races. In fact, slogans describing the “rise” or “awakening” of the East associated with the Russo-Japanese war preceded, by a substantial period of time, the image of the “decline” or the “retreat” of the West that gained currency in the post-World War I period.

Middle Eastern and Indian Muslim interest in China carried an anti-colonial and anti-racist charge, but the captivation with Japanese military success and state-centered modernization implied a search for a non-Eurocentric model of political reform and self-strengthening. The grandchild of pro-British imperial loyalist Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ross Masood (who, incidentally, inspired the character Aziz in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India), visited Japan and wrote about the Japanese model especially for the Princely State of Hyderabad. Syed Ross Masood’s interest in Japan illustrated his generation’s disillusionment with racism and the violations of the promise of imperial citizenship in British India. There were many more Indian Muslims, such as Ghadar Party member Muhammad Barakatullah, who frequented Japan on his way to the United States (mostly in Japanese-owned steamships). Many more cooperated with Japanese projects of Asian regional order during the Greater East Asia War from 1931 to 1945. At the same time, there were many Muslim intellectuals who were pro-Chinese nationalists against Japanese imperialism, in a framework of either socialist internationalism or anti-colonial nationalism.

The sympathy for Muslim West Asia, or India, in the name of Asian solidarity was especially strong for early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals, who made a connection between their experience of humiliation and similar struggles in the world. Japanese and Chinese Asianist organizations began to write about Muslim societies in their books and magazines. Two factors complicated the emerging anti-colonial Asian identity: First, identities did not necessarily turn into policies or political projects. Despite Japanese sympathy for Egyptians as fellow subalterns, Japan’s imperial elites were allies of the British Empire and some looked at British rule in Egypt as a model for Japanese rule over Korea. There could be a tension between sympathies and political interests. Second, there was an intellectual desire to substantiate a pan-Asian vision with historical narratives. East Asians had cultural commonality — the Chinese writing systems and Confucianism, for instance — which they could extend to India and Southeast Asia via the Buddhist legacy. But thinking of Muslims as fellow Asians led to discussion of the relationship of Islam to Buddhism and Confucianism. By the 1920s, however, Asianists began to include Muslims in their vision by writing a narrative of world history that evolved around an eternal struggle between East and West. Thus, it was possible for Japanese and Chinese historians to write about Arab-Muslim armies in Spain or Ottoman forces in Eastern Europe as historic achievements of Asia against its Western enemy. At the same time, Muslim travelers to Japan, China and Korea began to depict Buddhism as a great philosophical and religious legacy, and there was an important Muslim-Buddhist dialogue within the pan-Asian solidarity framework.

Era of Redemption

During the long period of decolonization in Asia, mutual interest and sympathies between Middle East and East Asia peaked, yet with a clear difference between pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese discourses. Japanese elites, when they decided to mobilize Asian sympathies for their empire, emphasized race alliance against white Western hegemony and downplayed Japan’s war with Chinese nationalism. Chinese nationalists and Japanese imperialists competed for the political support of Muslims and Arabs by sponsoring pilgrimages to Mecca. Chinese nationalists would ask Chinese Muslims to go to Mecca and tell other Muslims that China was in the right against imperialist Japan. The Japanese government, on the other hand, dispatched pan-Asianist Japanese who had become Muslims for propaganda purposes to visit Mecca. The fact that China and Japan focused their public diplomacy on Mecca illustrates the rising political importance of that city in the twentieth century, as well as the confusion about the leadership of the imagined “Muslim world” after the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924. Ironically, it was the Japanese empire that was most invested in ties with Arab and Muslim societies during the interwar period. Japan developed a vibrant field of Islamic studies, with multiple magazines and research centers, publishing hundreds of books on issues related to Muslim societies. Textbooks for Japanese schoolchildren described Arabs and Muslims as fellow Asians with shared historical experiences of subjugation by the West. During World War II, there were Japanese intellectuals who presented Japanese wars against white European colonialism as “jihad/seisen,” while praising Muslim resistance movements against imperialism. It was during this period that one of the leading scholars of Islam of the twentieth century, Toshihiko Izutsu, gained his first training in Japan. Another important Japanese intellectual, Okawa Shumei, who was indicted at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal as the ideologue of wartime Japan, also translated the Qur’an and compared Mao Zedong’s military victories to Arab victories in Spain.

Arabs and Indians may have been pro-Japanese during the 1905-1920 period, but once Japan colonized China, their political sympathies shifted toward China or remained ambivalent. After all, Germany and Italy also claimed to be friends, if not saviors, of colonized Muslims, so the Arab Middle East approached Japanese propaganda with skepticism. Meanwhile, economic ties between the regions suffered, since it was the British Empire that had facilitated them and Britain was soon at war with Japan.

Japan’s anti-white racial solidarity propaganda during the Greater East Asia War was quite influential in damaging the credibility of European empires in Southeast Asia. Office of Strategic Studies reports emphasized the impact of this propaganda and recommended that the United States never advocate a restoration of white Western empires in the region.

East Asia’s redemption from a century-long “humiliation” resulted in a communist China, a divided Korea and a non-imperial Japanese nation-state under US protection. During the Cold War, communist China became a supporter of Arab independence in the name of Third World solidarity. The encounters between Chou En-Lai of China, Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt and Sukarno of Indonesia at Bandung illustrate the Third Worldist conversation during the Cold War. Even though Bandung was called an “Afro-Asian conference,” it was more like a pan-Islamic and pan-Asian solidarity conference with strong Arab representation. Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq were all at Bandung, as compared with Ethiopia, Liberia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana) from non-Arab Africa. The Bandung conference gave a boost to the Algerian war of independence, with the support of China being particularly important. During the 1950s, the Chinese model overshadowed the Japanese model in the Middle East. Though Japan also attended Bandung, it had to balance its rhetoric of Asian-African solidarity with the crimes of its past empire and its loyalty to the American camp in the Cold War.

At some point, divisions between the communist and capitalist blocs overshadowed the potential of Arab-East Asian cooperation in the post-colonial world, and the Arab-East Asian conversations at Bandung could not be sustained. Meanwhile, partly with the encouragement of US theorists, there was renewed Arab and Muslim interest in the Japanese economic miracle, and trade between Arab countries and Japan and South Korea picked up in the 1970s. During the oil crisis of 1973, Japan deviated from US guidelines on the question of Palestine and took itself off the embargo list, but without much reference to memories of pan-Asianism. Between 1974 and 1979, many Japanese and Koreans learned Arabic in the belief that the Arab world would turn into a great power thanks to increased oil revenue. But there was no new project of pan-Asianism or anti-Western discourse of Eastern solidarity.

In the 1980s, fast-growing Japan had a second rebirth as an economic model for Middle Eastern countries, with Turkey’s Turgut Özal showing particular interest. Hundreds of Middle Eastern bureaucrats and students were sent to Japan to study. At the same time, large numbers of socialist-inclined students were going to China to study the Chinese experience under Mao Zedong. The contrast between the Chinese and Japanese models was stark.

Era of Divergence

One of the ironies of East Asian and West Asian historical development was the growing divergence after 1979, when communist China began market reforms, became richer and gradually retreated from Third World solidarity in foreign policy. Today, China, Japan and Korea seem to offer a similar model of state-led capitalist neoliberal economics, and the earlier competition between China and Japan has lost its meaning for students from the Middle East. From the 1990s onward, China achieved spectacular economic growth without democratization, placing priority on economic rights over political ones. Despite the excitement of Tienanmen Square, the Chinese government was able to forge consensus among middle-class citizens behind the limitations on the path of economic reform. Just 35 years after the beginning of market reforms in China, East Asia is one of the most dynamic, peaceful and prosperous regions of the world, with gross domestic products comparable to Europe and North America. East Asia and Southeast Asia command one quarter of world GDP.

The rise of East Asian economies since 1979 was accompanied by the formation of a relatively peaceful order in Southeast Asia and the growth of India as a world power. Overall, intra-Asian trade is now three times larger than trade between Asia and the rest of the world. Parallel to the economic miracle, however, the countries of China-centered East Asia do not articulate an alternative to the existing international system. The Third World vision of solidarity has been almost completely abandoned in favor of a pragmatic, trade-oriented foreign policy. China is content with its UN Security Council veto, which it does not use for a Third Worldist or pro-Arab agenda (and never has). In the 1960s, Japanese foreign policy was criticized as being that of a corporation rather than a regional power. Perhaps the same criticism applies to China and Korea in the last three decades.

Chinese intellectuals occasionally make reference to Confucian values of tiansha, or harmony under heaven, claiming they are alternatives to the conflictual international relations of the post-Westphalian order in the West. There are many Chinese intellectuals who are proud that China has fought no wars in the last 30 years despite its great power status. Yet this peaceful orientation is a sign of a commerce-based, pragmatic foreign policy rather than Confucianism. Korea and Japan have not gone to war for similar reasons. The East Asian countries have reverted to the mode of the mid-eighteenth century: a highly militarized but peaceful regional order, this time in the name of maximizing global trade. In fact, there is already another symbolic return of the eighteenth century, as China and Japan become two of the top three countries in terms of GDP, with India and Korea in the top ten.

In contrast to East Asia’s transformation into a prosperous region, Middle Eastern countries have been wracked with instability for about four decades. The 1973 oil shock was the last time when the Arab Middle East felt a spirit of unity (with the all-too-brief exception of the spring of 2011, halcyon days of the Arab revolts). The perduring question of Palestine, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the 1990-1991 Gulf war, the regional fallout of the Afghan jihad, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq — all these events cracked open fault lines in the region, causing immense human loss and shattering the normalcy of life in addition to wasting trillions of dollars. The West Asian region is witnessing regional rivalries among medium-sized powers, a hopeless situation in Palestine, sharp Sunni-Shi‘i tensions and unsettled soul searching about good governance and Islam’s role therein.

Over the last three decades, East Asian powers, including China, took a neutral outsider position toward conflicts in the Middle East, keeping a low profile and focusing on economic ties. In the Asian powers’ thinking, Europe and the US were the key imperial and neo-imperial powers in the region — those powers are thus complicit in the Middle East’s problems. It would be unfair, furthermore, to expect Japan, Korea and China to get too involved in the Middle East and thereby risk their own ties with Europe and the US. But this detached pragmatism is unhealthy in that it gives the impression that East Asia cares about little but access to oil and Arab markets. In some ways, a much weaker Russia takes a more active role in the Middle East than the East Asian powers. China, Japan and Korea — with economic power on a par with the West — could surely do more.

East Asian apathy toward the Middle East may partly reflect the belief of Chinese, Japanese and Korean leaders that Arab and Muslim affairs only get more complicated with each passing year. There is no strong popular pressure on any of these governments to adopt a particular policy toward the Middle East, allowing leaders to pursue pragmatic economic policies without any systematic approach, ideology or discourse of identity. As a result, East Asia does not mean much for Middle Easterners in their political and intellectual imagination.

A New Era

There would be many benefits to strengthened intellectual and political ties between the eastern and western parts of Asia, to complement the economic exchanges. The respective peoples and leaders should have a more open and sustained dialogue on trans-regional cooperation. Because of the instability of the Arab world, Arab populations do not benefit as much as they could from the great transformation of Asian economies. Meanwhile, the Middle East’s relationship with Europe and the US will continue to be tense due to entrenched post-colonial alliances and the mutual trust gap. It would be better for regional peace and global governance if China, Japan and Korea would take a more active interest in the political problems of the Middle East and, by the same token, if Middle Eastern leaders would take a more active interest in East Asian affairs.

We no longer live in an entirely Euro-American world. Perhaps we will soon be in “no one’s world” with no hegemon that is above the multiple regional alliances and powers. By failing to engage in political and intellectual dialogue, however, and limiting their relationship to trade, East Asia and the Middle East may end up contributing to the persistence of a Euro-American world. It is time for Middle Eastern and East Asian countries to develop full-spectrum relations and build the institutions that can sustain them.

How to cite this article:

Cemil Aydin "Changing Modes of Political Dialogue Across the Middle East and East Asia, 1880-2010," Middle East Report 270 (Spring 2014).

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