Howard W. French’s book does not just provide a simple account of China’s history, but also highlights the milestones in the country’s past which are still influencing the leadership of the Communist Party in their foreign policy decisions. The book describes the history of the relations with the countries in the Asian region, with a special focus on the antecedents of the South China Sea disputes. Its most important lesson is that China’s subordinated position in the 19th and 20th centuries, into which China was forced by colonizing powers, was very much a century-long anomaly in the thousands-of-year-long history of the dominant major power of the region.
Chapter One outlines the effect the traditional Chinese worldview, the concept of tian xia, has on their history. Tian xia – that is, everything under the heaven – encompasses all nameable territories, which are governed by the Chinese ruler. This does not mean that they were unaware of territories inhibited by other groups of people who existed beyond them and the peoples treated as “vassals” – they just simply did not regard them as important. They traditionally treated non-Chinese cultures as barbarians: the less similar the traditions of a group of people had, the less significant they were regarded.
In this rank, the Japanese, the Koreans and the Vietnamese took the most prominent place among China’s vassals. These peoples were the most exposed to Chinese culture, they adopted its writing system, and Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – all arriving from China – were dominant in their religious lives.
This system – in which vassal states falling in China’s attraction zone regularly dispatched embassies to the imperial court and by handing over gifts repeatedly accepted the supremacy of the Chinese ruler – was unique in world history, and appeared as early as during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). Although it became symbolic in nature, it remained more or less valid until the end of Early Modern Times, and it still influences the Chinese mindset even today.
That is exactly why Japan’s growing power in the 19th century, and then its attack against China, which shook the system of tian xia for the first time, came as a tremendous shock. The system is vividly illustrated by the example of the Ryukyu Islands, which, before it was incorporated into Japan as Okinawa, had been one of China’s quasi vassals, and they exhibited real loyalty to Japan when its power could definitely rise above China at the turn of the century.
For China, defeats from Japan represented the sorest spot in a century of humiliation, making China realise the decline of its own imperial role. French’s book excellently highlights what the Chinese knew all along: the disruption of the tian xia system was just a temporary situation, and China would soon take the role of the most influential empire in the region again.
China’s current ambitions to gain territories is even more ambitious than that of 20th-century Japan, also considering that they are maritime areas and not continental ones. As opposed to Japan’s ambitions, however, China seeks to expand without the use of force, which, naturally, does not mean that, should it be necessary, its military is not ready.
For China, the Nine-Dash Line deigned to mark the territories controlled by China from ancient times is a development of the 20th century. It was first mentioned in 1947 in mainland China, during the era of the Republic of China ruled by Kuomintang. The significance of the Nine-Dash Line does not lie only in natural resources available in the area, but its notion is also very closely intertwined with restoring China’s position; it is a symbol of revenge for the damage suffered; obtaining it would mean the return of China’s greatness. In addition, the area is important for China partly because of suspected oil reserves, but mainly sea routes and rich fish reserves. However, it could not obtain them through the symbolic power of the tian xia system; it needs to gain control over the territories to exploit these.
However, the steps taken to obtain them caused utter revulsion both in the countries of the region and the greater international community. Pursuant to the Hague tribunal ruling in 2016, islands created by filling up reefs and atolls do not meet the legal definition of an island, and accordingly, cannot generate maritime entitlement to a 200-nautical-mile zone. Theoretically, the court restored the Philippines’ rights in the given areas. Practically, however, the inertia of the Philippines can be seen: entering into an arms race with China would be hopeless, and so far the support of the United States and the international system has not proven to be sufficient to hold back the Middle Kingdom.
The Gullet of the World
The chapter on the Strait of Malacca starts to tell the history of the area with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, who very probably could not have got a foothold in the region if China’s presence had not vanished there a century earlier, as a result of the isolation typical of the late Ming dynasty. Without the missions of Zheng He, the Muslim admiral and court eunuch in the 1400s, the history of the region cannot be discussed; with these voyages, it was possible to extend the broadly interpreted Chinese influence over most of the region. This person of Chinese history has become a symbol of their national pride, despite having been mostly forgotten – until he raised the interest of Western historians in the 20th century. His conquests are proofs of China’s high level of technological development of the time, the extent of China’s influence over the region, and they are also excellent examples for the peaceful intentions of the country which – in the Chinese’ view – China still pursues in its foreign relations.
When the Chinese write that meetings between the admiral and local leaders took place peacefully in most cases when Zheng He’s fleet appeared at the shores of the region, they tend to fail to mention its possible reasons: the world’s largest, wooden ships ever were carrying a large number of well-equipped soldiers on board, thus certain countries’ willingness to cooperate was very likely contributable to the obvious supremacy of the Chinese. Zheng He’s intentions did not have to be peaceful to achieve his goal without fighting in most cases.
Zheng He’s character is usually contrasted with Western colonisers by the Chinese, but this is not fair, as the ships of the fleet were obviously constructed to carry continental troops, whose goal was to boost China’s prestige by intimidating the peoples of the region. Legitimating China’s recent activities with the missions of the admiral is not too fortunate as the routes of his ships avoided the most disputed areas of the region, as they are surrounded by – considering the technology of the time – hardly navigable waters. Thus, although his character resembles to his modern descendants very much from a certain perspective, in other respects his missions cannot serve as proofs of China’s immemorial presence.
As the adventures of the admiral ended and the eunuchs’ influence in the court vanished, the great explorations ceased; the court banned the building of ships suitable for maritime navigation, and the country secluded itself from the impacts of the outside world. The sudden disappearance of Chinese presence allowed first the Portuguese then the Spanish to intrude into the region, and indirectly, of China’s subsequent humiliations and sinking into a semi-colonised state.
A Pacified South
The chapter discusses Vietnam’s relations to China, which determine the entire history of the country and its current foreign relations to such an extent that we cannot speak about Vietnam itself without these.
The Chinese party as an external conqueror appeared first in 7th century BC, and the relationship with China, together with the changing extent of Vietnam’s independence from the empire, has remained an important motif throughout the history of the country ever since. While initially the Vietnamese were treated as barbarians, an under-developed culture, by Modern Times they have become one of the most Sinezed culture, the closest to the Chinese one, in the region. Due to their geographical proximity, the Vietnamese know the system of tian xia very well; their own Confucian mindset and their historical experiences helped them to understand it. For an aggressive behaviour, the Chinese had to do nothing else but call their rules an emperor instead of a king, provoking their northern neighbours to a military strike. They embraced the concept of tian xia so much that, while enjoying regional supremacy, they started to relate themselves to weaker Southeast Asian peoples on an imperial basis resembling that of China, which determined their relations to Cambodia in particular.
Their geographical and cultural proximity to China as well as their regional influence remained dominant in their 20th century history as well – making them attractive for colonisers, who regarded the country as “a rear entrance to China”. China’s influence over the country was not demonstrated only by their help to expel colonisers but the intertwining of the Communist Parties of the two countries is also of great significance. The Vietnamese mimicked the Chinese: Ho Chi Minh, who later united the country, met Zhou Enlai in France in the 1920s, and the Vietnamese Communist Party was established in Hong Kong in 1930.
Ho Chi Minh had a kind of near-tributary relationship with Ma Zedong, and for Vietnam, Beijing’s communism was a role model throughout the Cultural Revolution. Relationships deteriorated as Mao’s paranoia about Soviet influence over North Vietnam was growing, which, with Beijing’s growing isolation, actually led to the Vietnamese’ turning away by 1969; by that time, the Soviets had been supporting them in their war fought against the Americans. A strong, united Vietnam after the end of the war would have meant the worst outcome for China, therefore it tried to cover itself with Pol Pot’s assistance in Cambodia before the end of the conflict, standing by a despised people hostile to the Vietnamese. The conflict led to the Indochina War in 1979, in which both parties declared themselves winners, but actually China did not succeed in achieving its goal, as Vietnamese remained in Cambodia until 1989. This is a war that China tries to forget – because it does not fit in their current rhetoric and contradicts their claim that China has never attacked any of its neighbours.
Sons of Heaven, Setting Suns
French starts the chapter dedicated to the issue of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands by marking 2010 as the beginning of a new era when China’s economy overtook Japan’s. The relationship between the two countries is still definitely one of the most important points of Asia’s international relations, which often culminates in the problem of the islands whose sovereignty is disputed. Actually, it was not China but Taiwan that first made its claim over the Diaoyu Islands in 1971, denying Japan’s sovereignty, which traditionally indicates the year of 1885 as its beginning. In the 1970s, Beijing and Deng Xiaoping wisely turned a blind eye to the issue, in order for, among others, Japan to support a strengthening China with financial aids. In their relations, the events in Tiananmen Square caused a rupture, as Japan was the only Asian country to criticise China and suspend development lending.
After a short period of cooling, the relationship between the two countries returned to normal, although high-level visits became rare. By the time of Jiang Zemin’s 1998 visit to Japan the Chinese acted with more confidence and assertion, demanding an apology from the Japanese similar to the one that they had made to South Korea for their war crimes. Not only were the Japanese unwilling to do so, but their attitude to China has taken a different direction since that period. Japan’s aversion to a submitted role manifested as early as during the Sui Dynasty in the 600s A.D., when they started to refer to their own monarch as the son of heaven; and by the time of the Tang Dynasty they demanded that the Chinese should use the word Nihon instead of the previous, degrading name of Wa country. Subsequently, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a ruler in the 16th century set the goal of annexing Chinese territories to Japan. Thus, the issue of hierarchy led to conflicts throughout the history of the two countries. For China, it was unacceptable that such a strongly Sinezed country as Japan did not recognise China as superior. The island country could do so with Korea and Vietnam, but exclusively due to its geographical features; by today, however, the sea distance between the two countries does not defend Japan due to China’s technological development, which is made obvious by China’s growing presence in Japan’s waters since 2003.
With the end of the peaceful period created by the “harmonious society“ slogan of Hu Jintao’s government and the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the events of year 2010 brought about a significant deterioration of the relationship between the two countries, when the Chinese captain of a vessel fishing near Senkaku Islands did not let the Japanese coastguard inspect his vessel, causing a diplomatic crisis. As a reaction to the issue of the ownership of the five islands, Japan bought three privately owned islands for the state when Beijing was in the midst of a leadership transition, which was conceived as a blatant attempt to weaken the power of the new president, Xi Jinping. This step did not lead to confrontation, but the severance of diplomatic relations meant the greatest crisis in the post-war history of the two countries.
The issue of the islands is still an unresolved conflict in the relationship between Japan and China; and the behaviour of China’s leader during the meeting with his Japanese counterpart perfectly illustrates the persistence of the imperial protocol, which is still influencing their foreign policies. The meeting of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Xi Jinping in 2014 took place according to the conventional choreography of Chinese diplomacy: when a foreign leader and the Chinese president meet, the former one has to step forward to the other for the handshake, in the same manner as expected when meeting an emperor.
In addition, in the photographs made of the handshake it is always the Chinese party who takes the left-hand side, where, right hand and arm outstretched, he does not need to turn away from the cameras to comfortably shake the hand of his partner, while the person standing on his right is forced to do so. In the photograph made of Abe and Xi, the Japanese party may seem displeased because of the conventional position, but Xi’s gloomy facial expression and reticence also made his situation more difficult. The 2014 photo is a perfect example of China’s attitude to the island country, which refuses to admit to being inferior to China.
Claims and Markers
Having faced strong resistance from Japan, China soon shifted its priority to the south, having a confrontation with the Philippines about the Scarborough Shoal. This, however, marked only the beginning of a long chain of events. In May, 2014 China suddenly deployed its self-made deepwater oil drilling platform at the southmost point of the Paracel island group, which belongs to Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, but the protest of its former vassal did not prove to be sufficient to stop China’s activities.
Bending to China’s will threatened Vietnam’s communist government with losing the people’s confidence, while Vietnam’s filing a case before the arbitral tribunal of the United Nations Convention would have meant a loss of face in the region for China, thus the two parties were forced to the negotiating table. Vietnam achieved its goal by threatening with a partnership agreement with the United States, and China withdraw the platform due to weather conditions. At the same time, the announcement on the discovery of rich gas reserves near the island of Hainan provided some face-saving for China.
China’s initial moves in the region have been often likened to salami slicing: Beijing has always sought to cut thin slices of the region without drawing the USA’s attention, and this, combined with the traditional strategy of fang shou, seemed to be working. This latter one means a kind alternation of periods of “squeezing” and relaxing”, which is also closely connected to the succession of seasons in the region: the March to June period raises the potential for clashes with weather conducive to fishing, explorations and naval manoeuvres. Conflicts can be negotiated on high-level forums from May to June, followed by the typhoon season, roughly June to September, which offers a window for de-escalation, and regional October-November summits allow leaders to engage and reaffirm peaceful intentions. The beginning of China’s maritime construction of several islands did not arouse suspicion in the major powers of the region, as they were busy with the Vietnam conflict taking place simultaneously. But the construction of the artificial islands at the Fiery Cross Reef did not begin then, it already started in the 1980s after the country’s economy had strengthened, to which the Vietnamese army reacted immediately – ending up with 64 Vietnamese soldiers killed in the conflict. In August, 2014 China continued its push into the Spratly Islands, and the first reports on their island building were published. By the late spring of 2015, the land fill of reefs had been going on for a year, by the time the United States had publicly noted how Beijing had pulled off a spree of island building unprecedented in scope around the Spratlys, also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. In the satellite images published, the air and naval bases, already finished by then, with a harbor capable of receiving the largest Chinese warships and a 3,000-meter-long runway were clearly visible.
Initially, China justified its activity as creating security of navigation in the region for the benefit of all states in the region, merely for the common good; while, in reality, the construction serves only military purposes: China needs deep-water areas to hide its nuclear submarines from the United States, and they can be obtained exclusively by expanding southwards.
The ruling against China by the International Court of Justice at the Hague – as Beijing had indicated earlier – could not affect the strategy of the country, as it is designed to achieve much longer term purposes for the Chinese empire, which the tiny countries of the region could hardly prevent.
Simultaneously with its activity around the islands, China announced the large-scale strategy of the New Silk Road – with a flair for strategy, first in Central Asia, badly in need for support –, which would boost the trade in the areas stretching between Europe and China by investing in far-reaching infrastructure development. Then the second half of the strategy was announced, which seeks to boost the trade and relationships of the Southeast Asian region in a similar manner, by building railways instead of ports. The choice of Indonesia, the country with the largest population in the region, as a backdrop to the announcement of the second half of the project had significance: its islands are located on the major maritime routes of the region, and the country also has a leading position within ASEAN. Recruiting Indonesia to the initiative’s side can greatly contribute to its success.
The Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, established to finance the Belt and Road Initiative is an integral part of China often-mentioned strategy, which more and more frequently seeks to reconsider the existing international order. This legitimate concept is made understandable by the gap between its payments to the IMF and its share of votes; compared to its economic might, China is not given a sufficient role in the institutions dominated by the United States. Both its ever more aggressive presence in the region and its attempt to transform the international system indicate that China is firmly advancing on the path to restoring its dominance prevailing for thousands of years – that is, the tian xia system.
We are at the dawn of a new era. Although its precise contours will be outlined in the future, as China is becoming a worthy challenger of the United States, there is only one question left unanswered: what will China do with its new position? The author tried to complete existing speculations by naming the geostrategic goals seeming likely on the basis of studying Chinese history.
The United States will need two things to cope with the new situation: on the one hand, it needs a much finer understanding of China and the way it works, and on the other hand, it has to accept that even the best outcomes will involve departures from the comfortable and familiar world order. One of the most important areas where the two parties must make new agreements is the division of power over the Southeast Asian seas, so that it should remain stable and the peaceful conditions could be preserved. In most cases, the best-case scenario for the USA is no more than preventing China from fully realising its strategic objectives.
French believes that there is a lack of confidence behind China’s assertive behaviour; as the successes of dynasties were marked by the expansion or shrinking of the territory of the country throughout history, its growth is also essential for Xi Jiping’s China Dream. Chinese leaders have realized that there has never been a better chance for the geopolitical return of the world of tian xia than today, and maybe such a chance will never return. However, their uncertainty is understandable: the economic growth of the country has slowed down, and its initial advantage seems to be vanishing. Its military spending, with the modernisation of its army, is increasing; its large workforce is not an advantage in this respect, but it would rather need technology- and materials-intensive developments.
In addition, although China is the only conceivable potential challenger to the United States, in modern days the difference between the power of the two countries was larger only in comparison with the USA’s outpacing the Soviet Union. Although the GDP gap has been successfully narrowed by China, this index does not tell anything about such disadvantages as, for example, the relatively lagging technological capacity of the country, or the underperformance of its scientific and engineering base – it will take a long process to make a change in these fields.
China’s opening to the seas, turning away from traditional mainland warfare, however, is a relatively new phenomenon, and, compared to the United States, it is only in the initial phase of building a world-class naval fleet. The price of developing weapon systems is rising extremely rapidly, which will be soon unbearable for China, which, without allies, cannot rely on other countries to acquire required technologies in cooperation with them.
The ageing of the population is one of China’s gravest problems to address – by 2050, the median age will increase to forty-nine years, or nine years higher than in the USA, the labor force of which is refilled through constant immigration. The one-child policy was lifted too late to stop the aging of the society, the number of people born in the 1950s and the 1960s is extremely high, and the pension system dedicated to provide services to them was established only in 2000 and is currently unable to meet the needs of China’s society. The increase of the number of dependent elderly people explains why China abandons Deng’s tactics of buying time under Xi’s leadership – whatever advantage it may enjoy currently, it can soon lose it, therefore it must use its opportunities now.
The China, which is treated as equal with much to contribute to human betterment but, at the same time, is met with resolute firmness if need be, is a China that will mellow as it advances in the future and then most likely plateau – that is a China that will grow more secure in its power, a China we can live with.
Author: Fanni Maráczi