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Adventus Amicorum (20) – Pan-Asianism, Anti-Imperialism, and International Law in the Early 20th Century


On April 22, the twentieth lecture of the “Adventus Amicorum” seminar series, hosted by Institute of Area Studies Peking University (PKUIAS), was held in the No. 66 Yannanyuan. The lecture, “Pan-Asianism, Anti-Imperialism, and International Law in the Early 20th Century,” was delivered by Prof. Mohammad Shahabuddin, from the University of Birmingham, UK. The lecture was moderated by Zhang Yongle, deputy director of PKUIAS. Participants included Zan Tao, deputy director of PKUIAS; Song Nianshen, a professor at the Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences; Zhang Minyu, assistant professor at the School of Foreign Languages, Peking University; Lin Zhaoran, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Ocean Studies, Peking University; and students from various schools and departments.

In simple terms, Pan-Asianism represents a regional alliance of Asian nations based on historical ties, common heritage and a sense of solidarity. Conventionally, Pan-Asianism refers to the ideology of Asian countries forming regional alliances based on historical connections, shared heritage and a sense of unity. However, the term is often associated with Japan’s imperialism during the Second World War. In particular, in 1940, Japan proposed the concept of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” using the pretext of Asian unity and revival to engage in rampant expansionism. As a result, Pan-Asianism became synonymous with the hegemonic discourse of Japanese imperialism. In contrast, Prof. Shahabuddin argued that Pan-Asianism had a far more complex legacy in the early twentieth century, as it was used both as an anti-imperial ideology and a strategy. The historical legacy of Pan-Asianism is quite intricate and contradictory, and it profoundly influenced many Asian countries outside Japan, becoming a source of thought for nationalist movements in colonial regions.

On the ideological level, Pan-Asianism advocated that Asia should stand on its shared spiritual culture and historical heritage, freeing itself from the colonial rule of Western powers. This ideology aimed to transcend the Eurocentric narrative of civilization in existing discourses and construct a vision of civilization rooted in local traditions. Rabindranath Tagore developed this idea in his discussion of nationalism, which was later systematized by Okakura Kakuzo (also known as Okakura Tenshin), producing a strong anti-imperialist connotation. Indian independence movement leaders such as Tarak Nath Das used Pan-Asianism as an ideological basis to mobilize support from Japan and China for the anti-colonial movement in India. In the early 20th century, the slogan “Asia is One” became increasingly popular in India, calling for an end to European colonial rule in Asia while acknowledging Japan’s leading role in the anti-colonial movement. However, the victory of the Allied Powers in World War I consolidated Britain’s international position, and Japan’s domestic shift toward imperialism ran counter to the initial conceptions of Indian Pan-Asianist supporters.

In terms of strategic actions, Pan-Asianism influenced and promoted the development of several areas of international law as a source of thought for Asian independence movement leaders. Prof. Shahabuddin identified four key areas impacted by the Pan-Asianist movement:

1. Principle of Neutrality: During World War I, Indian nationalists engaged in activities within the US, leading to diplomatic disputes between Britain and the US over the rights and obligations of neutral countries.

2. Right to Self-Determination: During the Paris Peace Conference, the Indian Home Rule League submitted a petition to the League of Nations demanding Indian independence based on the right to self-determination.

3. Racial Equality Principle: At the Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese delegation called for including a racial equality clause in the League of Nations Covenant to counter the prevalent “Yellow Peril” rhetoric of the time.

4. Asian Monroe Doctrine: After their setback at the Paris Peace Conference, Japanese thinkers formulated the “Asian Monroe Doctrine,” which influenced the leaders of the Indian independence movement.

Overall, Prof. Shahabuddin emphasized the complex and diverse historical legacy of Pan-Asianism. He pointed out that Western countries dominating the 20th century used the existing rules of international law to crush national independence movements, deny the legitimate right to self-determination and refuse to recognize the equal status of Asian races. Revisiting the historical evolution of Pan-Asianism in the early 20th century provides crucial insights into the perspectives of Third World countries, highlighting an important chapter in the development of international law.

During the discussion session, the participating scholars engaged in in-depth interpretations of Pan-Asianism’s concepts, origins, forms and intersections with 20th-century international law. Song Nianshen highlighted the intricate and contradictory historical narrative of Pan-Asianism, noting that it was easy to replicate Western modernization programs under the guise of opposing the West. However, its unrealized potential lies in transcending Western modernization programs. Zhang Minyu explored the potential roles of Buddhist imagination and the Pan-Islamic movement in constructing an Asian community by drawing on South Asia’s religious and cultural traditions. Lin Zhaoran analyzed the uncertainty of legal discourse in international law and its nation-centric nature by examining territorial claims and historical rights. Zhang Yongle summarized the discussion session, expressing his appreciation for Prof. Shahabuddin’s approach to this highly complex issue and further exploring the types, dissemination paths and influences of the Asian Monroe Doctrine discourse mentioned in Shahabuddin’s lecture, as well as the complex relationships between Japanese imperialism and the national liberation movements in South and Southeast Asia.