National myths and obsessions have long and consequential half-lives. In the 1590s, Japan’s feudal ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, envisioned his country’s conquest of all of Asia. Its fateful decision to embrace modernity fueled Japanese economic and military power and reinforced its sense of racial superiority. On the other side of the world, as Yale’s Timothy Snyder writes in Black Earth (2015), Hitler conjured a dark ideology mixing distorted history, a radical interpretation of Darwinism, eugenics, and age-old anti-Semitism. These visions enabled the destructive reality of World War II and its enduring consequences.
It is now China that is succumbing to the dangers of national mythmaking, according to Howard French’s new book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. In a breathless opening chapter, French, a former bureau chief for the New York Times, abandons the cool observation that marked his last book on China’s growing influence in Africa, to warn that the risk of conflict in Asia is high and potentially unavoidable.
French subscribes to the belief that China joined the Westphalian system of equal states under force and, in the words of Singaporean scholar Wang Gungwu, doubts “whether the Chinese ever believed that equality really existed in international relations.” Over a brisk 352 pages, French surveys the potential flash points, notably Japan and Vietnam, emphasizing that behind these countries’ rivalries and disputes are back stories that go back as far as millennia.
From a country that once followed Deng Xiaoping’s injunctions to “hide one’s strength and bide one’s time” and leave tricky problems for future generations to solve, it is clear that some Chinese believe that time has come. Speaking to his Singaporean counterpart at a regional meeting in 2010, then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi said “China is a big country and other countries are small countries. And that’s just a fact.”
Evidence of the resurgence of China’s historical hubris exists within and beyond its borders. From Hong Kong and Thailand, China abducted Hong Kong booksellers who peddle salacious stories about the mainland’s leaders as well as a businessman with close ties to those leaders. This was done in clear defiance of Hong Kong’s separate legal identity and the fact that those individuals held foreign passports. In the South China Sea, the country has all but ignored the United Nations ruling on its territorial disputes over the islands and features that could bestow military and economic control over their waters. The country’s artificial island building, the aggressive presence of its coast guard in disputed waters, and the military’s metastasis have almost unilaterally served to heighten tensions.
A new ideological dimension is also emerging in China’s blurring the distinction between Chinese ethnicity and nationality – most obviously in its Hong Kong renditions. Speaking to the Financial Times, an unnamed western diplomat called the trend “deeply troubling” – Russia has twice invoked the defense of ethnic Russians to justify its invasions of Georgia and Crimea. So far, China’s blurring has been reserved for those caught in high-level political and criminal crosshairs. It is worth watching whether this conception of Chinese immutability will lead to more active efforts to influence the worldwide Chinese diaspora – the American broadcast of CCTV’s annual New Year gala, for instance, spliced in direct messages from the country’s consular officials.
Of course, the flip side of hubris is rightful confidence and legitimate disagreement about whether America is fully giving China its seat at the table. The Obama administration’s policy of military rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific, while strategically sound, only reinforced Beijing’s perception of encirclement. In addition to its military expansion, China has pushed back diplomatically with its desire to create an “Asia for Asians” through the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Its One Belt and One Road initiative spanning Eurasia will also seek to shift loyalties in its favor.
Although China’s sense of its centrality may be little changed, how that will manifest in its contemporary foreign relations will have significant departures from history. China’s tribute system was almost fantastically one-sided, not in favor of China, but against it. In exchange for tribute, the country expended vast sums to demonstrate its largesse upon its subordinates; the country saw trade as a gift for others’ benefit, not China’s, which believed it had all the world could offer. Beyond these expectations of loyalty, the Chinese empire involved itself little in the affairs of peripheral principalities. This time will be different. China recognizes it needs the world’s resources and, the more challenged its domestic growth, the world’s markets as well. If this becomes full-on neomercantilism, China will be more heavily involved in the affairs of other nations than it ever has.
French’s book is written with the spirit of Michael H. Hunt’s classic, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, in mind. That work documented America’s own quasi-religious, racial, and civilizational neuroses as it carried out its Manifest Destiny west and south, to the West Coast, into Latin America and the Caribbean, and throughout the Pacific. But despite his attention to history, French’s prose leaves no doubt that he is a journalist, not a historian. Hunt’s masterpiece made relentlessly damning use of how elite thinking and popular culture reinforced America’s guiding ideology and shaped state action. French instead darts quickly from heavy use of block quotes to capture other historians’ and analysts’ arguments before turning to his natural strength as a journalist capturing the play-by-play of recent events.
Crucially missing is a deeper examination of the contemporary Chinese intellectuals who are rebuilding the case for Tianxia, the reinforcing propaganda and rhetoric of state media, nor an examination of the risky accountability of a Chinese government which knows it plays with fire with the stoking of nationalist fervor which could potentially consume it. It is more examples, like the study that Chinese films produced in 2012 portrayed a combined 700 million Japanese on screen, that are needed, but missing. As a result, this book fits awkwardly between history and ideological history, reportage and analysis.
By the conclusion of French’s sprint through time and space, his belief in the possibility of conflict becomes more moderate and nuanced. He looks over the horizon to see a China whose remarkable growth has come to an end within this generation, undone by the unprecedented burden of its aging population. French believes that the threat of conflict is higher in the nearer-term as China’s leaders race against time to consolidate gains before its leverage is lost. This is questionable. Whenever China were to act, it is surrounded by neighbors that would not hesitate to take advantage of China’s distraction. If China moves too soon, it takes a risky gamble on a military most analysts believe is unready to fight a modern war.
And, yet, the longer it waits the more the endurance of its political system will be tested by the lost legitimacy of economic growth, the inadequacy of its welfare state, and the fault lines of Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang that will play out over a generational scale. At the same time, by 2025 Goldman Sachs estimates that more than 220 million Chinese will be traveling internationally (up from less than 5 million in 1995), just one manifestation of how Beijing will lose its grip on citizens able to form their own judgments on China’s place in the world. French believes the continued development of other nations in the region and the difficulty of surpassing the United States military’s technical superiority will create what Dartmouth’s Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth call a “no man’s sea” that rules out military aggression.
French makes no mention of President Trump, who went well beyond the typical “tough on China” campaign rhetoric with threats and the appointments of several deeply anti-China advisers that threaten trade war at minimum. His willingness to put in play the “one China” policy that keeps the delicate peace between China and Taiwan risked a real war had he not made a rare come down in his first phone call with Xi Jinping. Trump presents a unique risk even if he were to actually do little to actively provoke or harm China. If the country’s economy were to experience an economic slowdown or outright crisis over the next four years, Trump presents Beijing with an all-too-convenient excuse.
If wisdom prevails in the Trump administration, it will seek to strengthen not just individual alliances with Japan and Korea but to deepen their and the broader region’s interconnections. It would be resolute in defending international norms through its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and crucially, supporting a rules-based trading system. It would invest unhesitatingly in engagement, opening the country to more Chinese students and going over the Great Firewall to spread American perspectives on Chinese social media.
China’s neighborhood is incredibly complex with Vietnam and the Philippines particularly important to watch. Vietnam has been historically resistant to China and exerts its own competing force of gravity on Southeast Asia. Here, Trump should build on the Obama administration’s opening with Vietnam. The Philippines is a rare example where Trump’s instinctive brashness may yet serve US interests. That country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, is similarly known for his tough talk. In the final months of the Obama administration, Duterte drew markedly closer to Beijing in words despite the continued support of most Filipinos for the United States and its treaty alliance. Months later Duterte would publicly revel in retelling his first conversation with President Trump and the Philippines government confirmed in January that the United States military still had the green light for expansion agreed under both countries’ previous presidents. As the world’s fourth-most populous nation, Indonesia may too emerge as a regional power if it can manage conservative Islamic pressures. Last, Russia is by no means certain to remain as close to China as it is today, particularly if Beijing’s forays in Central Asia and Eastern Europe begin to threaten Moscow’s influence.
Throughout his book, French makes much of China’s economic heft, but it is conditional upon a web of regional supply chains and, despite its growing consumer market, considerable foreign demand. As such, it is striking that French does not seriously consider how much self-harm the country would subject itself to were it to weaponize its economy. Nor does French much consider the influence of multinational corporations on their home governments’ policies. US corporations, long a moderating influence favorable to China, have grown increasingly wary by China’s continued and, in some cases increasingly, protectionist environment. S&P 500 corporations, with some company and industry variance, derive just 2% of their sales from China (a measure that understates the country’s importance to their supply chains). The value of these companies’ partnership with local firms is undoubtedly worth much more to China’s uncertain struggle out of the “middle income trap” and into higher value-added activity.
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An unspoken question of French’s book is whether the United States has learned from its own history, notably the Cold War. The US should do nothing to constrain China’s ability to peaceably develop and, particularly support Beijing’s ability to secure stable supplies of energy and other resources, denying it with a basis for aggression. The US should also heed the warning of southeast Asian leaders to “don’t leave us, but don’t make us choose” between Washington and Beijing, opposing efforts by China to deny the region’s countries their rightful independence. That is not to say that spheres of influence aren’t real. The difference is that legitimate ones are imposed not by force of will, but earned by good will.
French makes a point of translating China’s Chinese name as the “Central” as opposed to “Middle” Kingdom by which it is commonly referred. In most languages, China’s name is derived from that of the Qin dynasty. This difference is reminiscent of the historical self-deceptive asymmetries French documents between China and its neighbors. The former saw what were in fact only nominal “tribute” missions from smaller states as proof of its rule, where the smaller states saw these as deceptions that secured their independence. There is no reason to believe that the persistent manifestation of China’s self-perceived centrality in its name is no less intoxicating today, and if French’s warnings are believed, potentially dangerous. There is another historical name that China’s people still use to refer to themselves, Huaxia, which evokes a benign Chinese equivalent of something akin to Deutschland. The surest possible expression of China’s peaceful intent and check against dangerous self-delusion would be for the country to adopt that older name.