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Tea Leaves

Chinese diplomatic cookery lessons

Superpower policy recipes leave a sour taste

American high school students make dumplings during a Chinese-language class. Would the Qianlong Emperor have approved?   © The Washington Post/Getty Images

In imperial China, those beyond the pale of Chinese civilization -- either foreign barbarians outside the Middle Kingdom or the non-ethnic Han domestic population -- were divided into two categories described in terms indicative of the importance of food in Chinese culture.

They were known as either "cooked" or "raw." The "cooked" barbarians were those who had assimilated into the mainstream of Chinese culture -- steamed and steeped in the melting pot of the Middle Kingdom -- like the Confucian Koreans. Those who were still "raw" were those not fortunate enough to have received the benefits of civilized Chinese society.

The Han settlement of southwest China came rather late, and local non-Han peoples had to be controlled. They were expected to make the pilgrimage to Beijing, offer tribute, and culturally genuflect before the Chinese throne. In return, the emperor granted titles to local ethnic warlords, and sanctified foreign kings and regimes.

As the Qianlong Emperor said to British envoy Lord Macartney in 1793, China did not need anything from abroad -- it was self-sufficient in everything that was desirable. The reciprocal presents that the Chinese gave to those bearing tribute usually exceeded the value of the tribute itself. Prestige and power remained exclusively on Chinese terms, and the balance of trade was favorable to the Middle Kingdom.

But times and conditions have drastically changed, while attitudes have evolved more slowly. Residual prejudices often hinder effective modern policymaking. Today, the pseudo-autonomous ethnic areas in China are modern residuals of imperial largess. Externally, the imperial tribute system has been replaced by Chinese public and private overseas trade and investment. The state-sponsored Confucius Institutes overseas are designed to bring the benefits of Chinese civilization by parboiling "raw" foreign ingredients in soft culture.

China exports both hard and soft power. Although most Southeast Asian states cannot be considered completely "raw," they are still not easily digestible. "One Belt, One Road" is a new manifestation of the very old imperial concept of bestowing culture, but now through external economic influence and financial lending rather than the tribute system.

But if China has cultural baggage in dealing with Southeast Asia, so has the West, and it is not just confined to 19th century European colonialism. Traditional prejudices often linger beneath the surface and continue to influence policies.

U.S. concepts have somewhat evolved from missionary impulses -- President William McKinley wanting to "Christianize" the already mostly Catholic Philippines in the late 19th century -- to realpolitik. Attempting politically to remake societies, such as South Vietnam, in the image of U.S. democracy was often viewed as a moral necessity and a claimed universal right.

If the domestic American model can be described in culinary terms, it has now shifted from a homogenizing ethnic melting pot or mixing bowl to a salad, whose individual elements retain their characteristics in a delectable, holistic amalgam. That contrasts with multiethnic Southeast Asia, where uniform national unity has too often been attempted by forced, destructive cohesion. The "salad" concept may offer greater chances for unity.

The greatest weakness of both China and the U.S. in Southeast Asia is the same -- arrogance. The U.S. believes that power and manifest destiny are germane and based on economic, moral and, most importantly, military power. China views the region in terms of traditional spheres of influence and its people as somewhat "raw" despite the presence of overseas Chinese populations.

The "pivot" to Asia by President Barack Obama represented the potential assertion of a positive U.S. role in Asia and welcome attention to the region. But it turned out to be only the hors d'oeuvres rather than the main course.

Under the current administration of President Donald Trump, there has been an absence of informed and articulated U.S. policies toward the region, combined with growing questions of U.S. reliability and a reassertion of conceit and arrogance as summed up in the term "America first" (or maybe we should call it "America only.")

The U.S., despite many flagrant past abuses, has a moral argument to make if only there were those in policy circles in the administration who knew the history of the region and displayed focused interest in it.

Long-overdue changes in policies and attitudes are needed to treat Southeast Asia with the dignity and equality it deserves. If the Chinese have historical reasons for their cultural arrogance, American arrogance is based on more contemporary, but no less destructive, causes, reflecting indifference and self-centered policies. We are seeing the U.S. salad model wilting even as the Chinese model remains half-baked.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University

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