By Gang Lin
Asia Program Associate

Warren I. Cohen
Distinguished University Professor of History
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Wilson Center Senior Scholar

East Asia, China in particular, had been one of the world centers for several thousand years before the dawn of modern civilization. While the region has been buffeted by Western power for much of the past two centuries, it is worthwhile to remember that East Asia began to engage with the world as early as four thousand years ago.

At a January 23 book launch co-sponsored by the Asia Program and the Cold War International History Project, Warren I. Cohen, Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Wilson Center Senior Scholar, discussed his new book, titled East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World, with an audience consisting of government officials, academics, journalists and businesspeople. Covering both East and Southeast Asia, from the Arctic tip of Russian Siberia to the tropic borders of India, this book is a history of not only emperors and armies, but pirates and smugglers, sweet potatoes and chili peppers, and ceramics and tobacco spanning a period of four thousand years.

According to Cohen, China was one of the richest and strongest countries in Asia for several thousand years before it was overshadowed by Western powers as well as Japan after 1840. The Chinese developed a sophisticated collective security system as early as two thousand years ago. While recognizing the role of morality in Chinese thinking on foreign affairs in ancient times, Cohen reminded the audience that the theory of realpolitik was invented by Chinese two thousand years ago. The tributary system, highlighted by the Chinese eunuch Zheng He's extraordinary voyages to Arabia and East Africa early in the 15th century, was a way for regulating relations between unequal sovereign states and a vehicle for trade relations. It was a system the Chinese found useful when they lacked the will or the power to crush another state.

While exploring Chinese domination of ancient Asia, Cohen's presentation also revealed several little-known facts, such as: Tibet's status as a major power from the 7th to the 9th centuries, when it frequently invaded China and decimated Chinese armies; Japan's profound dependence on Korea for its early cultural development; the enormous Indian influence on Chinese culture, including Buddhism, art, and cuisine.

From a historical perspective, Cohen emphasized the persistent record of Chinese imperialism. China tends to behave aggressively when it is strong and defensively when it is weak, just like other countries in the world. Cohen suggested that China's territorial claim is not limited to Taiwan or Tibet, it may include Mongolia in the future. The American government and people must prepare for the worst case scenario regarding China's foreign policy orientation in the new century, which has been hailed by many Chinese as a century for Asia. And yet, Cohen also noted that in the past, preparing for a worst case scenario frequently leads to that worst case scenario.

This program emphasized the importance of East Asia, China in particular, on the world stage throughout history. It also highlighted the region's extensive involvement in world affairs beginning thousands of years ago. Cohen's rediscovery of East Asian history has shed fresh light on contemporary international relations in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.