Sri Lanka soldier

Tamils can have Scouting events again… but ONLY with armed guards there. Image source: National Geographic

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island just off the southeastern coast of India, occupies a peculiar place in the global imagination. For the most part, it evokes positive images: lush jungle, frolicking elephants, picturesque hills covered in tea plantations, glorious beaches, peaceful Buddhist temples, and a laid-back lifestyle. And indeed, it’s thrived as an international tourist hotspot, offering visitors a culture similar to India’s without the crowds, hassles and abject poverty that besmirches its neighbor’s reputation.

But there’s another side to Sri Lanka, and it’s almost as well-known: the terrible civil war that gripped the island for 26 years. This was a large-scale, serious conflict with heavy weaponry and lots of civilian casualties. Although tourism has certainly picked up since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka remained a tourist destination for most of the war, and dire reports of terrorist attacks and fierce battles didn’t do much to dent its image.

The war may be over now, but it’s left a lasting legacy of ethnic estrangement and damage. This blog post will delve into how the war started, how it ended, and where the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka stands now.

Like oh so many wars in the postcolonial world, Sri Lanka’s civil war was an ethnic conflict. Most of Sri Lanka’s people — 75% — are Sinhalas, a Buddhist ethnicity unique to the island. The rest are almost all Tamils, an ethnic group based in the far south of India — unsurprisingly, the part that’s next to Sri Lanka. They are based in the north and along the east coast.

Sri Lanka has an ancient history, but modern conflict has shrouded its nature in some degree of mystery. Both Sinhalas and Tamils originally came from somewhere else: the Tamils, obviously, from neighboring Tamil Nadu, but the Sinhalas from somewhere in north India — they are racially Aryan like the people of north India. Buddhism thrived in India in ancient times (especially under the Maurya dynasty of the 200s BCE), but diminished in popularity during the Middle Ages, so the Sinhalas’ fervent Buddhism points to a migration sometime before then. Whether the Sinhalas were there first, or whether they were mainly responsible for the impressive civilization whose monuments dominate the island’s central plain, is a contentious debate. Suffice it to say that for most of Lanka’s* history, the two ethnic groups coexisted.

Sri Lanka has a strategic location next to India and along the trade route that spans the Indian Ocean, connecting Arabia and Persia in the west with the Malay archipelago (modern Malaysia and Indonesia) in the east. This meant that various foreigners stopped by throughout its history, including possibly Greeks and Romans. Arabs introduced Islam and converted many Tamils, but most of the population stayed Buddhist or Hindu. In modern times, the Portuguese, Dutch and British each conquered part or all of the island (which they called “Ceylon”), with the latter making the deepest, most permanent inroads, seduced by its ideal climate for growing their all-important tea. Ceylon became a colony where Britishers could get a taste of India without having to deal with its complicated religious conflicts, huge population and political unrest.

That’s not to say that Ceylon didn’t have these things, of course. Like their counterparts in India, British colonists in Ceylon sponsored a minority group in the civil service — in this case, the Tamils — to create a loyal cadre of locals to help stymie native opposition to their rule. Thousands of Tamils were also brought in from India to help pick the tea too, creating a pocket of Tamils in the south (today called “Indian Tamils”). Tamils were better-educated and more likely to speak English than the Sinhalas, further creating the sense of a gulf between them and a connection with their masters.

As a result, when a Ceylonese nationalist movement did emerge in the 1920s, it was mostly Sinhala-led. Sinhalas formed the first government of an independent Ceylon in 1948. In 1956, faced with Sinhalas disgruntled that 2/3 of the civil service was represented by Tamils, the prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, introduced a “Sinhalese-only” policy: Sinhalese, and only Sinhalese, was to be Ceylon’s official language. Tamils, who rarely speak Sinhalese, protested, and Bandaranaike tried to conciliate them at first, but when Ceylon’s revered Buddhist monks protested in force in favor of the law, Bandaranaike backed down, which incited riots.

The situation continued to deteriorate into the ’60s and ’70s. Politicians found that discriminatory policies played well with Sinhalas, and since they make up such a big proportion of the country their votes were enough to carry elections. So curbs on civil rights continued. Tamils found themselves passed over for university admissions. The army became Sinhala-dominated. Indian Tamils were denied citizenship and encouraged to head back to India. Links with India — student exchanges, media, trade — were severed on socialist grounds, which hurt Tamils disproportionately due to their cross-strait links. Tamils were marginalized economically. The government encouraged Sinhala migration to Tamil areas.

This all contributed to a tense and edgy atmosphere. Parties were split along ethnic lines, and the main issue for Tamil ones was how to cope with the discrimination. Some wanted to work within the system, others argued for a federal system to protect Tamil autonomy, and by the late ’70s an independence movement had emerged. The burning of a library in Jaffna, the largest Tamil city, in 1981 was provocative, but what really pushed Sri Lanka (which had been renamed in 1972) over the edge was a riot in Colombo, its biggest city, in 1983. Provoked by the massacre of a military patrol, Sinhalas took out their anger on ordinary Tamils all over the city by beating, burning, raping and murdering them. The government turned a blind eye to it and never punished anyone for it. To Tamils, the message was clear — they were not welcome in the country any longer.

Some Tamils reacted by emigrating, but the immediate result was civil war. The group that had carried out the ambush in the first place muscled rival parties out of the political arena, sometimes bloodily. The Tamil regions of Sri Lanka were reorganized as an independent country, Tamil Eelam. It had its own flag, government, courts, bank, radio and TV stations, and most of all, military. This military dominated the ersatz country and shaped its life for the next few decades, and although it was called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the world knew of them as the “Tamil Tigers.”

Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers’ flag made it clear they weren’t anyone to f*** with.

The Tamil Tigers were hardcore. Led by an intense guy called Velupillai Prabhakaran, they knew there was no way of achieving their objectives by being nice. They perfected the art of guerrilla warfare, living in the jungle and pouncing on their prey at opportune moments, only to melt away again before reinforcements arrived. They recruited soldiers from throughout Tamil Eelam and focused on children to indoctrinate them at an early phase. They learned to survive in rough conditions on basic food and to absorb devastating attacks. They targeted Sinhala civilians far away from the war zone with suicide bombs — back in the ’80s, before anyone else did. They tunneled deep underground to withstand air raids. They even developed their own little air force and navy, complete with a homemade submarine. They exulted in a cult of martyrdom, self-sacrifice and martial heroics.

The war raged on, mostly monotonously, for 2 decades. The Tigers were never powerful enough to pose much of a threat to the Sinhalas, but they were too tenacious to be defeated, either. India, eager to play a role as regional hegemon, intervened in 1987 with a peacekeeping force meant to separate the 2 sides long enough for talks to be held. It didn’t work: the Tigers saw the Indians as uninvited interlopers and attacked them, while Sri Lanka stood back and let them die, anxious for their departure as well. After only 3 years and no progress with those talks, the Indians left, and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi paid for the whole episode with his life (he was assassinated in 1991 by a Tiger agent).

The Tigers put up a good fight, and gained fame/infamy internationally for their intensity/cruelty, but they were always on the defensive. Sri Lanka simply had too many resources. After 2005, when a hardline president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected, their fate was sealed. He bulked up the army with a massive recruitment drive until Sri Lanka had a military 30 times bigger than it was in 1983. He attracted military aid from a random mix of friends (China, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia) tired of the fighting and waiting to invest in Sri Lanka’s development. He stocked up on ammo, vehicles, and new weapons like multi-barrel rocket launchers.

Norway and Sweden had negotiated a ceasefire in 2002, but it was tense and no one really wanted to stop fighting yet. By 2006, the war was back on, and reached its final phase. The army was ruthless and held the territory it reclaimed from the rebels. Aid from sympathetic Tamils in India was interdicted. Since Sri Lanka is an island, the Tigers had nowhere left to escape. By May 2009, they were cornered on a beach in the northeast with no hope of a comeback. Prabhakaran and his remaining groupies died in a blaze of glory, or after surrendering, or while trying to escape by sea — journalists were barred from the war zone, so once again the true story is unknown. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the crossfire, and many of them died. But with a finality rare among long-running guerrilla wars like this, the Sri Lankan Civil War was over. The Tamil Tigers and their regime passed into the history books.

Tamil Eelam

The territory of Tamil Eelam at its maximum extent.

There was some disgruntlement among the Tamil community about their government’s ignominious trampling, but for the most part the war really did end suddenly. After 26 years of mostly continuous fighting, Tamils were exhausted, and Sri Lanka has undergone a demographic shift that favored more sober 30-somethings and not fiery, violent 20-somethings. Northern Sri Lanka went through the process of rebuilding. Landmines are gradually being removed. IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are being emptied. Shattered infrastructure is being mended or rebuilt.

Peace, and all its attendant blessings, has dawned on Sri Lanka. Tourism has always favored the south, but links with the former Tamil Eelam are now rebuilt. Foreign investment is pouring into the Tamil cities of Jaffna and Trincomalee. Kids are going back to school instead of boot camps in the jungle.

But there’s still an air of disquiet and sadness in the Tamil lands. The war grew out of Tamil disenfranchisement, after all, and little has been done to reverse this since the war ended. The government is still Sinhala-dominated. Sri Lankan society still promotes a Sinhala-dominated national discourse that dismisses minorities and crows over the Sinhalese victory. Buddhist monks, like their counterparts in Myanmar, stoke a siege mentality and a chauvinistic interpretation of Buddhism. The military is still thick on the ground in the north, and valuable properties expropriated from Tamils during the war remain in its hands. The language barrier is still high, and since the government, police, military and courts are so Sinhala-dominated, many Tamils can’t even understand them unless both sides speak English.

The most obvious positive step in terms of reconciliation so far was the 2015 election of Maithripala Sirisena, mostly because Rajapaksa and his brothers were behind the most egregious policies. The military presence in the north has become less stifling, and thousands of Tamils are no longer abducted in the middle of the night. Sri Lanka’s constant denial and protests over any international criticism of its conduct of the war, which by most accounts involved torture, massacres of civilians, bombings of hospitals and rape, have abated, and Sirisena has promised to allow a more impartial accounting of war crimes. Tamils are allowed to talk openly about their problems, and a Tamil press has revived.

But the fundamental problems remain. Sinhalas continue to see Tamils as foreigners and cling to their own self-congratulatory narrative. Riots in March between Sinhalas and Muslim Tamils show that religion remains a flashpoint and source of distrust. Tamils traumatized by years of carnage find it hard to see their southern neighbors as friends. The military still occupies the north, jails dissidents without charges, and gets subsidies in its businesses there that crowd out locals. Sirisena shielded a popular general, Jagath Jayasuriya, from war crimes charges to cater to his Sinhala base. For now, Tamils are too worn out and beaten to raise much protest, but if their grievances are not heard, political conflict and war might erupt again.

Two very different perspectives on the war.






Image source: Daily Sports Online

On April 5, Isao Takahata died. His is not a name familiar to most people. Even though he made films at the renowned Studio Ghibli, which has done more than any other studio to make anime (Japanese animation) respected and admired worldwide, he sort of flew under the radar. Hayao Miyazaki is more associated with Ghibli, and might even eclipse it in fame. This is fair given the quantity and quality of his filmography, but Takahata always seemed to get less credit than he deserved. Without Miyazaki, he would be considered a giant of the industry.

Takahata’s career stretches all the way back to the early days of the anime industry, or at least the period when it was reconstructing itself from the shakeup of World War II. He got his start at Toei, Japan’s biggest studio and the creator of movies like Legend of the White Serpent and Journey to the West that provided Eastern rivals to Disney’s fairy tale stories. His first film, Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968), was groundbreaking for its time, with excellent animation, violent action sequences, and political subtext to lure in an older crowd. But it flopped financially, and Takahata went on to work in TV for the next decade. That being said, the shows he worked on then — Heidi, Girl of the Alps, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Anne of Green Gables — were very influential and beloved by both Japanese and European viewers of all ages.

Grave of the Fireflies

Image source: Naze-no Chibenkaku

But ultimately, what Takahata will be remembered for most is Grave of the Fireflies (1988). This is one of those movies that’s on the short list of most Anime You Need to See Before You Die lists (even if it didn’t actually make it onto my own…). Based on the memoir of a World War II survivor, it recounts the struggles of two kids, a little girl and her teenage brother, to get by in the devastation of the war. It pulls no punches. While it is part of an unfortunate narrative Japan has embraced that portrays itself as a pitiful victim of a war it had started through its own imperialist aggression — indeed, it’s become one of that narrative’s central texts — it’s an incredibly powerful story, and a great way of getting a sense for what it’s like to live in a war zone, when any given day could be your last. Along with Akira, which also came out in 1988, it exploded the notion that animation is inherently childish and blew several unsuspecting viewers’ minds. While it will always be remembered for its tearjerker ending, it has a more sophisticated emotional range than just melancholy: the movie is really about the boy doing whatever he can to take care of his little sister. His love for her is touching, and he does everything from flips on monkey bars to firefly-catching to keep his sister happy and distracted from her grim reality.

Yesterday Yamadas

Image sources: So-net Blog and The Rising Sky

This is probably Takahata’s most enduring legacy: his penchant for making movies that draw out the viewers’ emotions and leave them deeply moved. Grave of the Fireflies is most direct in this regard — it makes you depressed — but his other movies usually aim for a more wistful, reflective tone. Only Yesterday (1991) languished in obscurity for decades because it’s not the kind of movie easy to market internationally: it’s about an adult woman reminiscing about her childhood while on a visit to the Japanese countryside to pick safflowers for a while. That means it’s too slow and emotionally complex for kids, yet too culturally and demographically specific for most adults. But it combines heartfelt reflection on the direction of your life with touching, often funny, anecdotes about childhood in Japan in the ’60s. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), a series of anecdotes about a mostly ordinary family, is more sitcom-like, but it’s still very sentimental in its portrayal of the Yamadas’ quirks and foibles, and its ending song, “Que Sera, Sera,” is a surprisingly wistful way of closing the movie. (Takahata also directed an obscure movie in 1981, Chie the Brat, which also portrayed domestic life in ’60s Japan comically, but with a darker edge since the family is more low-class.)

Despite Fireflies‘ reputation, I actually think my favorite Takahata work is his last, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013). Takahata never did any animation work himself and had a reputation for workmanlike art in his movies; Kaguya is basically him showing the world what he was capable of before dying. Based on a famous Japanese fairy tale, it looks like an old Japanese scroll come to life, with lines drawn sketchily and coloring evoking watercolors and storybooks. Some of its scenes depict emotional turmoil in a raw, evocative way live-action never could, and watching it is like watching a literal work of art. (This was before Loving Vincent took animated art to the next level.) The story is about a girl mysteriously found inside of a bamboo stalk by an old couple who grows much faster than usual. Despite her happy life in the countryside with her loving parents and kid friends, she is soon sent off to live in the capital and marry into nobility. But she can’t quite feel at home there and can’t shake the feeling that she doesn’t belong on Earth at all. It’s a poignant story, very weird, as most fairy tales are, and while you may be conflicted over how to feel about its resolution, it’s hard not to feel something, given how we’ve followed this girl’s life for so long.

Takahata’s movies were always less marketable than Miyazaki’s. Starving kids in World War II, a grown woman coming to terms with her own childhood, anthropomorphic tanuki (raccoon-like animals) scheming how to save their hill from human development, an idiosyncratic fairy tale with a meandering plot — these aren’t the kind of movies that bring huge crowds, and ever since Horus, Takahata’s films performed underwhelmingly. As a result, he ceded the limelight to Miyazaki, even though he was older and more or less mentored Miyazaki early in their careers. He took long breaks to do things like make live-action documentaries about canals. I’ve never heard someone gush about him or cite him as an inspiration or their favorite anime director. But Takahata’s movies deserve a prominent place in the anime pantheon. They thoughtfully portray life’s challenges, sometimes tragically, sometimes comically, often with great subtlety. They challenge the notion that animation is for action, wacky gags, epic spectacle or speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy). They tend to leave you lost in thought or even sobbing at the end. I couldn’t help thinking after seeing Kaguya that this was someone the world had drastically underrated and overlooked, and it was partly his fault: for all its charms, a movie like Kaguya is awfully old-fashioned for the 2010s. But it’s a towering achievement, as is Takahata’s filmography overall. Watching his films is a way to get a sense of a quieter, more mundane side of Japan, but with flights of fancy you don’t get in most live-action movies. With his death and Miyazaki’s decline, the sense that Ghibli has moved on from its glory days only grows more and more acute; and knowledge of how sensitive and moving his work was made his demise that much more painful.


China Dragon Claw

Image source: Financial Times


China has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing and anxiety in the rest of the world for centuries, thanks to its massive population and alien culture. Napoleon deemed it a “sleeping giant” and urged Westerners to let it be. Chinese immigration to the West later in the 1800s produced the notion of a vague “Yellow Peril” that would swamp and ruin the West somehow. This merged in the 1900s with the “Red Peril” of Communism when Communists took over China. Southeast Asians have long had an uneasy and mostly unhappy relationship with China, and Chinese immigrant communities there haven’t always integrated well, even centuries later. Japan’s invasions and subjugation of China were partly intended to suppress its economic and military potential. All kinds of little things, from the air of superiority Chinese maintained even under foreign occupation to the bluntness and constant tone shifts of Chinese, have reinforced the idea of China as a threat.

And yet, China has also held an allure at the same time. Mostly, this is economic: it has always been the world’s biggest market, and combined with its well-organized administration and its people’s business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit, this has made it almost irresistible for foreign businessmen. Partly, it’s sentimental: there is genuine admiration for a culture that built the Great Wall, administered a merit-based civil service, and invented mapo doufu. Richard Nixon asked his ambassador to Taiwan to “just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that main land [China]… you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be the leaders of the world.” Naturally, this is part of what led him to “open up” China to the outside world in 1972; he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967 that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors…. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”

China’s relationship with the outside world has thus been defined by simultaneous anxiety and hope, as my series on its foreign relations has shown. But lately, especially since Xi Jinping took over as China’s dictator in 2012, foreign feelings on China have leaned noticeably toward anxiety. Partly, this is because of the international climate: America and Britain are in disarray over their own stupid political decisions, the EU is struggling to stay united and harmonious, Russia has gone rogue and rising powers like Brazil and India are still mostly preoccupied with their own development and their immediate neighborhoods. It has provided an environment ripe for Chinese influence.

But China has done its part to appear as a threat. It is relentlessly authoritarian, maybe even totalitarian: since Xi took power, surveillance and censorship have tightened, the grounds for jailing political dissidents have widened, and any mass movement is controlled and monitored by the Party or shut down. To the alarm of freedom-lovers everywhere, Xi discarded term limits last month, completing a process of consolidating his own position as China’s unchallenged dictator. After the Beijing Olympics and global financial crisis in 2008, China went through a period of smugness and assertiveness overseas; even though this mostly amounted to backing up its friend, North Korea, at the UN when it torpedoed a South Korean ship and more aggressive defense of its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, it was clear to many foreigners that China felt confident in its new wealth and strength and increasingly willing to make itself felt on the international stage.

Xi has pushed China toward a more expansive role abroad too. Some international security analysts see China as trying to make itself the regional hegemon of East Asia and ultimately shove America out of the region; whether or not that’s true, it has militarized the South China Sea, made vague threats against Taiwan, provoked a border stand-off with India, bickered with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and Japan’s attempt to beef up its military, and bullied South Korea with a boycott. It has propped up the North Korean dictatorship in the face of international sanctions and implicitly encourages human rights abuses in countries like Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sudan through its no-strings-attached support. Laos and Cambodia have become Chinese satellites thanks to the amount of Chinese investment there; the “Belt and Road Initiative” envisions Chinese infrastructure linking China with Europe, and has already led to massive Chinese investments and construction in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. At his big speech to the Party Congress last year, Xi spent a lot of time bragging about China’s development model and encouraged other countries to adopt it.

At the moment, trade is the biggest bone of contention. Salivation over China’s giant, juicy market recommenced pretty quickly after Deng Xiaoping’s opening of the Chinese economy in the late ’70s. Beyond appeasing drooling businessmen, governments had political justifications for trading with China: more trade with the outside world meant more interaction with it, which would mean subordination to more powerful countries and exposure to their superior models of government and economics. Japan’s experience after World War II was the model: it grew back into a Great Power and seemed like it would grow into an economic superpower. It delivered prosperity to its people without being an imperialist scourge and developed cool cars and technology the whole world used. The similar development stories of the “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) and the rapid collapse of the Communist Bloc after Mikhail Gorbachyov loosened political controls in the ’80s seemed to justify the strategy even more.

Although history hasn’t somehow ended, so far it seems that foreign expectations were wrong. Yes, China has become an economic powerhouse, the primary source of low-end manufacturing and the second-biggest consumer market (it’s still not as rich as America). Yes, China is now much more open than before and exports students and tourists more than any other country. But it’s come at a cost to foreign business. The Party has been careful to protect its state-owned enterprises and keep huge sectors of the Chinese economy under their control. Foreigners may have been willing to share their technological expertise with China when it was a struggling rival to the Soviet Union, but it is now a competitor to the West and outright steals intellectual property from foreign businesses, either through joint ventures in the country or by hacking overseas. There are export restraints and health-and-safety measures that stifle agricultural imports. Technology is the most valuable sector now, but the Giants of Silicon Valley are barred from the Chinese market. Meanwhile, the West’s manufacturing sector has been gutted.

China’s economic expansion has awakened fears of a new wave of imperialism from an unfamiliar source. Chinese demand is instrumental in keeping Latino economies afloat. China is now the largest player in Africa and builds everything from roads and railways to soccer stadiums and palaces. Sri Lanka is deep in debt thanks to a Chinese-built port it couldn’t quite afford. Myanmar reconciled with the West due to fears that it was becoming a Chinese satellite. The Philippines dropped its objections to Chinese naval activity in its waters in the hopes of attracting Chinese investment. Even Western places like the Balkans and Australia are being reshaped by Chinese intervention.

Pundits on China have always been split into hawks who fear China and urge toughness and suspicion and doves who are enamored with it and downplay the problems. These days the hawks are ascendant. China-bashing wins votes in America and Japan and popular support in Vietnam. America is hitting China with tariffs, threats and patrols in the South China Sea; Australia is undergoing a sweep of politicians under Chinese influence. Murmurs about World War III are becoming regular. Talk of China democratizing or even loosening up has basically died out. The businessmen and consultants who have traditionally urged for a cozy relationship with China have become gloomy and pessimistic.

But I believe that Nixon’s logic still holds. China is simply too powerful, important and large to ignore or shun. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle; the giant can’t be put back to sleep. The world has to cope. Relentlessly bashing China or trying to isolate it would be unwise or even disastrous. It is a proud, prickly country with a strong sense of entitlement and nationalism. Past humiliations have made it ultra-sensitive to anything resembling mistreatment. As the linchpin of East Asia, a war with it would devastate arguably the world’s most important region, set back decades of economic progress and raise unpleasant possibilities like a mass cyberattack or nuclear pulverization.

Besides, China still has much to offer the world. For all their misgivings and anxieties, developing countries mostly look up to China. The West probably doesn’t appreciate how well its development model has worked. Impoverished African countries, long overlooked by the West and Japan for their human rights abuses, are attracting desperately needed investment that for the most part actually helps. If it lives up to the hype, the Belt and Road Initiative could actually help bind Asia, the world’s biggest continent, together and encourage more trade and transit between its countries. In recent years China has pioneered technological innovation and is pouring investment into R&D in burgeoning fields like renewable energy and artificial intelligence. Even with all the hassles, its consumer market is still enormous. And expecting the Party to pursue policies that would weaken its own hold on power is a little unrealistic.

That being said, I wouldn’t classify myself as a China “dove” either. Chinese leaders tend to have an unsentimental view of the world and will continue pushing if external forces are pliant enough. They have already changed their tune in the past decade: while in the ’00s they emphasized China’s peaceful rise and its lack of interest in interfering overseas, they are now cockier, more involved and openly ambitious. China’s so-called “sharp power” (its increasing ability to pressure foreigners peacefully but aggressively) is worrying and could get sharper. Foreign leaders, especially in the West, will have to stand up for their own principles and make sure the Chinese stand by theirs. Shenanigans like China’s trade violations that rankle a lot of countries would make good opportunities for united fronts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a pan-Pacific grouping of East Asian, Oceanian and American countries focused on lowering trade barriers). Bullying over issues like the Dalai Lama and Taiwan should be resisted. During the Cold War, the “containment” policy of limiting Soviet influence ultimately worked; although outright containment would be inappropriate for a country as integral as China, America, Japan, India, Vietnam, the EU and Australia would do well to coordinate efforts to counter its influence and offer small countries alternatives.

I am not altogether hopeful that this strategy will be adopted. Great Powers don’t like to cede influence willingly, and there will have to be voluntary cession of power and influence to accommodate China peacefully. “Accommodate China while remaining firm on our core interests” isn’t going to pump voters up. Non-Western countries are too diverse and conflicted about China for the West to ally with without a lot of friction, and it might be too much. But navigating a middle course between caving in and lashing out is the most prudent way for the world to cope with China. Look at East Asia, which has the most experience with it: countries like South Korea and Singapore have been careful to be friendly with China without alienating America or ceding their sovereignty. Even Vietnam, traditionally very suspicious of its neighbor, has been careful not to be too confrontational. The world would do well to listen to Master Kong, who declared that “the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony without being weak.”