What Happens If China Leads the World * SuperPower


What kind of superpower will China be? That’s the question of the 21st century. According to American leaders such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, China will be a rapacious authoritarian nightmare, intent on destroying democracy itself. Beijing, needless to say, doesn’t quite agree.

Fortunately for those of us seeking answers to this question, China was a major power for long stretches of history, and the foreign policies and practices of its great dynasties can offer us insights into how modern Chinese leaders may wield their widening power now and in the future.

Of course, Chinese society today is not the same as it was 100 years ago—let alone 1,000 years. But I’ve long been studying imperial China’s foreign relations, and clear patterns of a consistent worldview emerge that are likely to shape Beijing’s perceptions and projection of power in the modern world.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated Beijing’s oft-stated claim that it was committed to peaceful development, and there is a widely held view that Chinese emperors of the past generally eschewed the use of force. It is certainly true that the country’s dynasties enjoyed stable relations with some of their East Asian neighbors for extended periods of time—unlike in Europe, where competing monarchies were almost constantly at each other’s throats. Modern Chinese like to contrast brutal European colonial adventures with the 15th-century voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He and his treasure fleets, which sailed across the Indian Ocean but conquered no one.

But this quaint picture of Chinese pacifism ignores that the country’s dynasties were almost constantly at war. Sure, many of these wars were defensive, mainly against a panoply of invading northern tribesmen. But at the height of their power, the emperors were quite aggressive expansionists, too. The Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) and the Tang dynasty (618–907) had armies marching from Central Asia to the Korean peninsula. The Song dynasty (960–1279) fought wars with and sought territory from rival states; it just wasn’t very good at it. The most acquisitive of the dynasties was the Qing (1644–1912), which carved up and controlled Tibet and conquered today’s Xinjiang. The Qing emperors were Manchu, a northern people, but lands they acquired are now considered indisputable parts of the motherland. (Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army had to reclaim Tibet, which had drifted away from China amid the chaos of the Qing collapse, while the Xinjiang region, which had attained a high degree of autonomy, had to be reintegrated as well.)

The states China didn’t or couldn’t overrun were absorbed into the Chinese world through a system of diplomacy and trade that the emperors controlled. Other governments were expected to pay tribute to the Chinese court as an acknowledgment of Chinese superiority, at least ceremonially, and the emperors then considered them vassals. Whether such a tribute system really existed as a hard-and-fast or consistently applied foreign policy is debated among historians. But it is clear that the Chinese usually tried to foist their diplomatic norms and practices onto those who desired formal relations with China. Think of it as the rules of the game of foreign affairs in East Asia, dictated by China.

This order was rarely challenged, at least by the more established East Asian states. Unlike Europe, where states of roughly similar muscle contended for territory, trade, and influence, China had no real rivals. Generally speaking, its neighbors accepted Chinese dominance and followed its rules of engagement.

When China faced a challenge, however, it could resort to force. The short-lived Sui dynasty (581–618) and the Tang spent decades, for example, trying to destroy the strong Koguryo kingdom in Korea. Zheng He, the supposedly peaceful admiral, launched a military expedition on the island of Sumatra (now part of Indonesia) against a rival to the local king and Chinese vassal. When the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula in 1592, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) sent troops to help the Koreans expel them. As late as the 1880s, the Qing dynasty went to war to aid its Vietnamese tributaries against the French. The Chinese would also police their system in other, coercive ways—by, for instance, denying proper trading rights to unruly foreigners.

So while Xi told the UN in September that Beijing “will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence,” history suggests that China will use force or coercion against other countries when they contest Chinese power. This has implications for Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries that dispute China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, and for Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.

What Happens If China Leads the World * SuperPower What Happens If China Leads the World * SuperPower Reviewed by Anson Moore on December 03, 2020 Rating: 5

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