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Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Entrap, exploit and repeat

WESTERN POWER IN ASIA: Its Slow Rise And Swift Fall 1415-1999, by Arthur Cotterell. John Wiley & Sons, 2009, 439 pp., $29.95 (paper)

This is three-dimensional historiography at its best. From the first European voyages of exploration to the Indian Mutiny and the independence of East Timor, British historian Arthur Cotterell traces the decline of Western power in Asia with a sense of astonishment at its labored beginnings and swift end. Like hyenas, the European powers struck their Asian prey when they sensed a weakening body politic, sick state or failing kingdom. The impunity with which this was done epitomized the colonial powers' sense of entitlement toward occupied territories.

The author contrasts, for example, the early marine expeditions of the Ming and those of their Portuguese contemporaries. Whereas the latter built fortresses, spread terror and enlarged their slaving trade, Chinese fleets engaged in diplomacy free of missionary and crusader zeal. As Cotterell puts it: "There was no Chinese equivalent of the Portuguese habit of sailing into port with corpses hanging from the yards."

To his credit, Cotterell (known for his authoritative works on Chinese history) does not spare his fellow countrymen the cut and thrust of critique, impartially examining the powerful and complex forces and personalities — warlords, politicians and military leaders; British and French and Japanese — that oversaw the vivisection of China.

At least some of the long-suffering Chinese leaders, it seems, kept their wit even under the most appalling circumstances. Li Hongzhang, commenting on the bestial ransacking of the Summer Palace outside Beijing by British troops, proposed that the last commandment be amended to "Thou shalt not steal, but thou mayst loot," which was an almost institutionalized practice. British soldiers were given carte blanche to ransack the ports and towns they overran, while high-ranking officials and appointees like the notorious Lord Elgin discreetly helped themselves to the city treasuries.

The author illuminates each era with stage lighting that adds drama and clarity, demonstrating that no country is blameless. The degree of oppression exerted by each may have differed, but the intentions of European nations and their Japanese colonial imitators — to entrap and exploit the peoples of Asia — were identical. The Burmese nationalist leader Aung San couldn't have put it better when he said, "If the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones!"

While the Dutch and French come in for perhaps the strongest drubbing, Cotterell also ponders the irony of Americans annexing the Philippines after their own struggles against colonialism. We learn that, in an alarming pre-enactment of the sentiments that directed a more recent American leader, President William McKinley went down on his knees in the corridors of the White House and prayed for guidance, receiving a request from the Almighty to "educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize them."

Cotterell holds a later U.S. commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "whose lack of respect for Japan verged on outright contempt," responsible for America's poor start in the Pacific War. The general's costly inability to grasp the determination of the Japanese defenders in Luzon, and the horrors of his bundled liberation of Manila, prompted one native of the city to write: "The carpet-shelling by the Americans went relentlessly on, long after the last Japanese sniper was a carcass on the rubble." Here was an early hint of the over-strenuous carnage that would typify the next six decades of U.S. military policy for quelling resistance.

Events as recent as Washington's disappointment at the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998 keep doubts alive about its ability to make ethical decisions and alliances in the region. In Cotterell's view, "Not until the Americans, as have the other Western colonial rulers, have finally withdrawn from Asia will it be possible to foresee Asia's future."

The author concludes with a commentary on Hong Kong, the last jewel in the crown of British colonialism. Cotterell is rightly cynical about the attempt by the colony's final governor, Chris Patten, to introduce a democratic system of assembly, casting it as window dressing on behalf of a colonial power that had ample time to achieve the goal much earlier, had it so wished. With the handover under way, Beijing's main concern, as Cotterell puts it, "was the disappearance of the last of the 'Ocean Devils' into the mists of the South China Sea."

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