Using the very word “country” is actually deceptive. The nation that we now instantly identify on the map as China hasn’t existed long. Throughout most of its history this dynastically ruled land would not even have recognized itself as a country, let alone seen its neighbors as such. It was an empire, and a largely borderless one, both in its geographical form and in what it considered to be the relevance or applicability—what the French would call the rayonnement—of its ideas. One could argue that there has never been a more universal conception of rule. Practically speaking, for the emperors of the Central Kingdom, this place we call China, the world could be roughly divided into two broad and simple categories, civilization and non-civilization, meaning the peoples who accepted the supremacy of its ruler, the Son of Heaven, and the principle of his celestial virtue, and those who didn’t—those who were beyond the pale.
For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven, a concept known in the Chinese language as tian xia. It is not a term to be taken too literally. From very early times, China had an awareness of faraway places, including other great empires, like Rome, but contact with such distant regions of the world was tenuous at best and hence both economically and politically marginal.
In the geopolitics of Chinese empire, what was most vital to the Central Kingdom under tian xia, sometimes interpreted as the “known world” in this context, was a vast and familiar swath of geography that consisted of nearby Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. Among these regions, Central Asia constituted a near-constant challenge to Chinese power, and quite often an outright threat. The dimensions of the Central Kingdom ebbed and flowed, mostly as a function of the shifting balance of power between Han (Chinese) and the peoples to the west and northwest, be they Turkic, Mongol, Manchurian, Tibetan or others. (China itself would come to be ruled by invaders from two of these cultures, the Mongols, from 1271 to 1368, and the Manchus, from 1644 to 1912, at the very end of the dynastic era.)
In geographical terms, we usually think of oceans as barriers that effectively separate countries, regions and continents, and in the faraway past nearly sealed them off from one another. But the littoral of East Asia, which runs in a gently articulated crescent from the Korean Peninsula south to the Strait of Malacca, has more typically served as a transmission belt for Chinese culture and prestige, Chinese commerce, and ultimately for Chinese power, although only occasionally hard power. From at least the Tang dynasty (618-907) nearly to the chaotic end of dynastic rule in China in 1912, to one extent or another, the peoples of this sea-bound region often found ways to defer to China, acknowledging its centrality and loosely following its lead.
Functioning in this way, Chinese power came to underpin one of the most remarkable international systems that human civilization has ever seen—a unique form of what has sometimes been described as an extremely loose and distant brand of indirect rule by China over a very considerable slice of humanity. This description is inadequate in part because there were important variations in China’s relations with its eastern neighbors, including degrees of intensity of both contact and obeisance. But at the foundation of this remarkably resilient Pax Sinica lay a basic proposition that was reasonably consistent: Accept our superiority and we will confer upon you political legitimacy, develop a trade partnership and provide a range of what are known in the language of modern international affairs as public goods. These included policing the maritime commons, mediating disputes and granting access to China’s would-be universal system of learning, broadly based on Confucianism. In the core states of this region—Korea, Vietnam and, albeit with growing ambivalence, Japan—Chinese values, Chinese culture, the Chinese language, Chinese philosophy and Chinese religion were all regarded for long stretches of history as essential references, and even universal standards.
The “system” referred to here has long been known in the West (and yet never among Chinese themselves) as China’s tribute system. Throughout this period, beginning as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), peoples in China’s imperial orbit regularly dispatched “embassies” to perform ritual submission before the Chinese emperor. The granting of trade rights by the imperial court by way of reward represented a tremendous boon that served as a powerful lubricant in bilateral relations. When the Chinese spoke of this system, their language was often full of euphemism and self-regard, frequently referring to the task of what would today be called in foreign policy “barbarian management.”
“To control the barbarians the sage rulers punished and resisted them when they came [to invade China], and prepared and guarded against them when they left,” reads one 19th-century account. “If attracted by China’s civilization, they came to offer tribute, they would be treated with courtesy, and kept under loose rein without severing the relationship, so that the blame of being crooked would always be on them.”
Within this system, foreign leaders often owed their very titles to the grant of recognition via patents of appointment bestowed by the Chinese emperor. Even as they sat on their thrones, new rulers in compliant tributary states had to content themselves with the title of heir apparent until they could receive their letters of investiture from the Celestial Emperor, for fear of infringing protocol.
Just how seriously this business was taken is vividly conveyed by a story from second-century BCE Vietnam, when a local king got it into his head to proclaim himself emperor in his own land. The response of the Han dynasty emperor Wen-Di was swift and unequivocal. “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed . . . struggling and not yielding is not the way of a person endowed with humanity,” he wrote to scold the Vietnamese ruler, whose response can only be described as one of abject submission. “I hear that two heroes cannot appear together, that two sages cannot exist in the same generation,” he stated in a public proclamation. “The Han emperor is the sagacious Son of Heaven. Henceforth, I shall suppress my own imperial edicts.” This pushback from China operated at two levels. Most explicitly, it was a direct statement that in its home region, the Han emperor would not countenance any would-be peers. Beyond that, China was signaling its determination to intervene anywhere in the world where it felt its central role or its vital interests might be challenged. In 1979, more than two thousand years later, as we shall see, China would mount an invasion of Vietnam aimed at making these precise points.
In fact, China would invade Vietnam numerous times during the succeeding centuries, which still resonates powerfully in their relationship today. But using violence to get its way was far from the ideal. As the Japanese scholar Takeshi Hamashita has written, “Like any hegemonic order [the tribute system] was backed by military force, but when the system functioned well, principles of reciprocity involving politics and economics permitted long periods of peaceful interaction.”
It has often been argued that the tribute system cost China more in trade concessions and in the constant hosting of visiting foreign delegations than any economic benefit it might have derived from commerce with an assortment of much smaller neighboring societies. But this is to ignore the domestic political value of the system for China’s emperors. As important as it was for neighboring rulers to enjoy the recognition of the Central Kingdom, it was equally important for the authority of a succession of Chinese emperors to have symbolically obeisant foreigners bowing regularly to their moral prestige and power.
In other words, the willing subservience of others to prostrate themselves before the emperor provided domestic proof of his unassailable moral authority, of his possession of, in the well-worn phrase, the mandate of heaven. This was as true near the end of China’s imperial era as it was during early dynasties, such as the Han. When Britain, approaching the apogee of its global power in the late 18th century, sent a mission to China to try to establish relations on an equal footing with the Qing dynasty, Emperor Qianlong exceptionally granted permission for the envoy of King George III to visit Beijing, on the basis that it would “contribute to the Emperor’s glory.” Finally arriving in China after a nine-month sea voyage, the British were disconcerted to find that all along the route to the capital were hung banners written in large characters proclaiming that the European delegation was led by an “envoy paying tribute to the Great Emperor.” Indeed, Qianlong’s court had informed the public that the head of the foreign delegation, the Irishman George Macartney, was a member of the British royal family who had traversed the oceans in order to “contemplate Civilization.”
“Most dynasties collapsed under the twin blows of ‘inside disorder and outside calamity’ (nei-luan wai-huan), that is, domestic rebellion and foreign invasion,” wrote John King Fairbank, the eminent Harvard scholar of the tribute system. “Every regime was therefore under pressure to make the facts of its foreign relations fit the theory and so confirm its claim to rule China.”
The essence of this thought survives even in contemporary Chinese political thought. As Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, wrote in 2015, “Ever since the founding of ‘New China’ in 1949, China’s foreign and domestic policies have both served the same goal: to maintain internal political stability under the leadership of the Communist Party.”
It is scarcely appreciated in the West today that the “international system” we so readily take for granted is actually a recent creation. It took shape between the middle of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries, and started to be cobbled together at the precise moment that China was being subjugated by others and the world order it had sustained, and that had in turn sustained it for so long, was being replaced.
As our modern world was being born, China was plummeting toward a historical nadir in its relative regional power and influence. The norm for it had long been an unshakable conviction in the enduring universality of its values and ethics, its own culture, and its unquestioned centrality. The new, Western form of global universality was based not on a presumed natural hierarchy in the world, with China at the apex, but rather on the presumed equality (at least legally and theoretically) of clearly defined nations, on a raft of Judeo-Christian ideas and institutions, on spreading principles of electoral democracy, on open trade instead of managed tributary exchanges, and finally on a fast-emerging regime of international law. Underwriting all of these fine-sounding notions was, of course, Western and, in the 20th century above all, American power.
China’s experience of its own successful and long-lasting international system, and of its long and mostly unchallenged status as the standard-setter of civilization itself by right, would have necessarily made a shift to almost anything new a difficult downgrade.
But to an extent that is underappreciated in the West, the brutal circumstances of the transition to what is our now familiar world, coming at a moment of unprecedented Chinese weakness, feeds an unusually deep-seated ambivalence toward contemporary norms, which is becoming more and more apparent with each passing year of increasing Chinese power.
Fairbank wrote with considerable understatement nearly 50 years ago, when China was ruled in largely autarkic fashion by Mao Zedong in near-permanent, revolutionary tension with the postwar system,“Modern China’s difficulty of adjustment to the international order of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries has come partly from the great tradition of the Chinese world order. This tradition is of more than historical interest and bears upon Chinese thinking today.”
In its most familiar form, the narrative of the demise of the Chinese world order is the story of rampaging Western imperialism’s triumphant march into East Asia. In its textbooks and in its nationalist propaganda, China itself has styled the one-hundred-year period during which the modern world was built as its Century of Humiliation, with Britain’s Opium Wars and the sack of Beijing by both Britain and France accorded pride of place. Although the aggressive expansion of Western powers into the China-centered world of East Asia was a critical fact of that period, it seems more likely that what the West achieved was in reality the early transformation of the old Chinese world that would soon lead to even more dramatic changes. Principally these would be wrought not by Westerners but rather by historically subsidiary nations in East Asia, as the yawning discrepancy between China’s self-image and geopolitical reality became unsustainable.
Although there were many actors in Asia seeking their own separate accommodations with the nascent international order, the main driver of the change that definitively closed the curtains on the two-millennia-old Sinocentric order in the region was without doubt imperial Japan. It defeated its much larger neighbor in 1895 in the Sino-Japanese War, and thereafter surged ahead of it according to almost every measure of national power over the next half century, only to be driven out of China and defeated in World War II, mostly as a result of reckless military overreach. But even in the decades following its ultimate defeat by the United States, Japan has remained well ahead of China in numerous ways, most obviously in per capita wealth and quality of life, but also, even if the lead here is shrinking, in things like technological advancement and global cultural influence. If nothing else, Japan’s grab for great power, coming very largely at China’s expense, proved the enduring relevance of the previously quoted maxim “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.” Indeed, up until the present day, East Asia has never proven large enough for two great powers to coexist peacefully, and the question of whether this will be possible in the future looms darkly over the region.
Seen from this angle, the lingering place of the tribute system in the Chinese psyche takes on a new importance. It was one thing for China to be humiliated by the West; Chinese thinkers have taken comfort in the idea that barbarians from afar could never have been expected to accept the Central Kingdom’s virtue and cultural superiority. But the defeats administered beginning in the late 19th century by an upstart Japan, for the Chinese an intrinsically inferior nation whose very origins lay in immense cultural debt to China in everything from writing systems and literature to religion and governance, were a different matter, and the energies unleashed by this history are still profoundly at work in the world today. The towering early-20th-century Chinese intellectual and seminal figure in the birth of the country’s modern nationalism, Liang Qichao, wrote that China’s loss in the Sino-Japanese War “awakened my country from the long dream of four thousand years.”
During most of the second half of the 20th century, including most of the Maoist era, Beijing took a relatively relaxed attitude toward Japan, eagerly absorbing its technology and increasingly massive investments and studying its successes once China’s so-called reform and opening period got under way in the early 1980s. As it did so, Beijing mostly deemphasized the divisive past. China similarly took a largely accepting view of American military primacy in East Asia in the post-Mao era. In hindsight, with both of these positions recently having changed dramatically in the space of less than a decade marked by sharp national ascent, one is tempted to say that China simply made a pragmatic calculation that it was too weak to do anything about either of these situations and should therefore concentrate on quietly building its strength.
This it has certainly done, and today, as China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye; the focus of Beijing’s approach to the country (and indeed to the entire sea-bound region that once defined the tribute system, and especially Vietnam and the Philippines) is to restore what from the perspective of the Central Kingdom is considered the natural order. This, it must be said, is not merely the preoccupation of the Chinese state, though. It has also increasingly become a consuming obsession of rising populist nationalism. Success or failure in this grand pursuit, therefore, will go far in determining the legitimacy of China’s leaders, from the assertive incumbent president, Xi Jinping, onward, and indeed could well decide the survival or failure of the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s ultimate goal, however, is not merely to restore a semblance of the region’s old order, an updated kind of tributary system in which the nations of Southeast Asia or even a wealthy and customarily diffident Japan will have no choice but to hitch their fortunes to it and bow to Beijing’s authority. A larger, more ambitious goal is already edging into view. This ambition, evident from behavior even if still not fully avowed, involves supplanting American power and influence in the region as an irreplaceable stepping-stone along the way to becoming a true global power in the 21st century. Shi Yinhong, one of China’s most prominent foreign policy realist thinkers, has written that Xi’s goal is “to give [China] a dominant role in Asia and the Western Pacific—at the cost of the US’s ascendancy.” In a conversation with me, he added, “The West shouldn’t think so much about integrating China into the Western liberal order, but rather try to accommodate China.” This, he said, would ultimately mean having the United States accept military parity with China in the Pacific, the ceding of what he called a “narrow but substantial span of strategic space” for China in the nearby seas, and a loosening of America’s alliance structure in the region.
Even though he is a respected insider, Shi’s vision is provisional and anything but official. It points us nonetheless toward perhaps the most important question there is in this era’s realm of international relations: What kind of power is China likely to become?
This article by Howard W French was originally published by The Literary Hub