Thursday, September 08, 2005

A "Deep Historical" View of Chinese Expansionism

Kate Marie over at "What's the Rumpus" tipped me off to an interview with Lee Kuan Yew, former President of Singapore, in the current issue of Der Spiegel. Lee speaks with real depth and insight about the future trajectory of Chinese prosperity and power. He is, for the most part, optimistic about the prospect for peace, but he expresses one qualifying reservation:

"Mr. Lee: I don't know whether the next generation will stay on this course. After 15 or 20 years they may feel their muscles are very powerful. We know the mind of the leaders but the mood of the people on the ground is another matter. Because there's no more communist ideology to hold the people together, the ground is now galvanised by Chinese patriotism and nationalism. Look at the anti-Japanese demonstrations."

Like Lee Kuan Yew, many US defense and diplomacy analysts are concerned about the short-term consequences of China's rise. The particular conditions under which any nation will undertake aggression are not easy to enumerate, the raw fact that a nation enters upon a period of newfound power is no clear sign that it will embark upon a predictable program of military expansionism. While it is true that most weapons are made to be used, the concentration of military might in the hands of a particular state provides no clear indication of when, where, or how it will be used. Lee gives a very plausible short-term scenario for Chinese aggression, one impelled by burgeoning nationalism and decline in the unifying ideology of Communism. Though there is some merit to Lee's concerns, I would argue that a "deep historical" perspective makes Chinese aggression a less pressing long-term concern for global peace and stability than internicine strife within China itself.

The question of Chinese "expansionism" is complicated by the fact that the scope of Chinese culture has been expanding throughout recorded history in a clearly observable progress. Chroniclers in the time of Confucius described the people of Wu as foreign barbarians who tatooed their bodies and spoke a tongue unintelligible to "civilized" people. Wu then encompassed the location of Shanghai, modern China's largest metropolis. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) the Yangtze River delta had become fully integrated into the Sinic world, but even then the region that now holds Canton and Hong Kong sat beyond the civilized pale. That region only became integrated into the Chinese empire during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), which is why southern Cantonese speakers refer to themselves as "Tang people" while northern Mandarin speakers denote ethnic Chinese as "Han people."

The steady outward expansion of Chinese culture and polity was sometimes violent, but historical evidence shows that this process was as often as not engendered by peaceful trade, migration, and conversion as by conquest. This truth is underscored by the fact that many aspects of Chinese culture expanded beyond the scope of Chinese imperial political control. Vietnam and Korea adopted Chinese script, religion, and political forms wholesale (the kingdoms of Korea and Vietnam were virtual simulacra of the Chinese imperial government) even as they violently resisted total absorption into the administrative matrix of successive Chinese empires. Despite China's immense prestige and powers of cultural suasion, by the seventh or eighth century C.E. Chinese political power had reached its greatest natural extent at its eastern and southern frontiers.

The current boundaries of the People's Republic of China embody this deep-historical pattern. PRC territory extends to limits established by the last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The Qing rulers were able, by virtue of being an Inner Asian people with allies among the steppe tribes, to extend the frontiers of imperial power further west and north than any prior Chinese dynasty had accomplished, encompassing Tibet, East Turkestan and Mongolia (regions that native Chinese dynasties had never subdued). Even with such military successes in hand, the Qing were never able to expand Beijing's power beyond the frontiers that seperated its imperial domain from the dynastic realms of Vietnam and Korea, otherwise the boundaries of the PRC might be quite different today.

Though certain "core" heartlands always rested securely within the orbit of Chinese imperial power, the outer scope of imperial political control tended to expand and contract (sometimes splintering between two or more competing dynastic centers) over the long term. The Qing was an expansionary era in Chinese history, though even that expansion was unable to transgress certain natural limits. By Qing terms the current era is already a "contractionary" one- the independent Republic of Mongolia was the vassalage of Outer Mongolia during Qing times. Moving forward, the prospects for further expansion of Beijing's military sway are dubious. The PRC does not possess the cultural resources that helped keep Tibet and Mongolia compliant within Qing suzerainity, and emergent nationalism among East Turkestan's Uighur minority make the continued tight integration of that region into PRC sovereignty unpredictable at best. With the real difficulties it faces in consolidating and maintaining the expanded territorial parameters of the Qing, it is difficult to see how the PRC can hope to accomplish what the Qing did not in regions like Vietnam or Korea.

Moreover, the internal integrity of the Chinese polity has always been vulnerable to powerful centripetal forces. Violent regional schisms plagued every dynasty, like the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 which brought China's wealthiest southern commercial district under the sway of a crypto-Christian monarchy and took as many as 20 million lives. The hegemonic status of nation-state thinking lulls analysts and observers into accepting China's sovereign unity as a given, but this is far from an axiomatic truth. The same forces that tore at the fabric of imperial unity still pulse beneath the surface of the PRC's nationalistic facade. In the final analysis the greatest deterrent to Chinese expansionism is not US military power but the intrinsic fragility of China's internal political coherence. Beijing must work hard and constantly to maintain control over the regions currently "securely" within its recognized domain. Any attempt to expand the scope of its control outward might jeapordize that carefully cultivated homeostasis.

The exception that proves this rule is Taiwan. Pronouncements on Taiwan (like the recently-passed anti-secession law) are often held up as an example of China's aggressive tendencies. It is precisely because Beijing's reins of control are so tenuous, however, that it cannot afford to give up any degree of sovereignty over any square-foot of territory. Even though Beijing's claims over Taiwan are purely symbolic, the dissolution of those claims might precipitate a "stampede toward the exits" upon the part of regions that chafe under Beijing's control. Breakaways might not be limited to "frontier" areas like Tibet and Mongolia, moreover, but might include wealthy southern regions like Guangdong and Shanghai who would happily keep tax revenues that flow northward under the status quo.

If historical events like the Taiping Rebellion provide any gauge, a breakup of Chinese sovereignty would not be a kind or happy affair. Any significant challenge to Chinese sovereign unity would undoubtedly portend a terrible civil war. Such an event would not only create great misery for a world ever more economically interdependent, in an age of nuclear weaponry it would almost certainly have tragic and direct human consequences that spread far beyond China's borders.


Kate Marie said...

Excellent, Madman.

What do you think of this notion that "hegemonic challengers" (e.g. Germany) have tended to launch their bid for power too early (with disastrous results)?

What do you think should be the U.S. foreign policy posture toward China, given the conditions of potential internal strife that you describe?

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's either/or, and I think that the "potential" for internal strife makes a false distinction between visible territorially centripetal forces (rebellions, separtism) and subtler socially/politically centripetal forces (liberalism, economic diversity). China is experiencing dramatic social changes which, whether they burst out into paroxysms of violence or not, qualify as radical and destabilizing to the present order.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Sorry, that last comment was mine.

Madman of Chu said...

Kate Marie,

Thanks. As for "hegemonic challengers," I guess I would hold that every unhappy period of history is unhappy in its own particular way. World War I arose more from unique historical forces like nationalism, colonialism, industrialization, etc. etc. than from a modular trans-historical phenomenon like "an early challenge to hegemony." That being said, it seems to me that hegemony when it exists always dies hard. Can you think of any challenge to hegemony that ended well?

As for what US policy should be with respect to China, obviously I think that we should do what we can (which is very limited) to aid China's internal stability. The most difficult immediate task is negotiating our relationship with Taiwan, in that realm I don't know that we can do anything but continue to cultivate the atmosphere of "strategic ambiguity" that has maintained the status quo since we first recognized the PRC. Other than that, I would favor a continued policy of principled engagement with the PRC. I don't believe that the US can do much to forcibly induce political liberalization in China, but if the experience of the USSR may serve as any gauge continued cultural and economic exchange between the US and PRC will do more good than disengagement would do harm.


Thanks also for your feedback. I would agree that a too-hard distinction between the threats of "internal" strife and "external" instability is inaccurate. However, I think one may also take a "deep historical" view of the "socially/politically centripetal" forces you mention. China has been experiencing profound economic, social, and political change for many centuries. Governing China has always required constant mediation of internally discordant social forces, and no Chinese governments have ever enjoyed much success in channeling social or economic discontent outward toward foreign adventures. Most attempts to project force abroad, in fact, fail because they exacerbate social divisions at home.

Sun Bin said...

great post.

I would add a couple points.

1. China's "expansion" to the south is mainly through migration, either driven by famine (over-population) or war (political unrest) in the north. In fact, many chinese in Vietnam/Thailand/Phillipines migrated there a few hundred years ago for economic reason. Such migration were never driven by military action

2. Qing is, arguably not the orignal Chinese (Han) culture. As soon as Qing settled down in Beijing, and assimilated into Han culture. The military power in neutralized and Qing stopped its expansion. The Han culture itself is very inward looking

3. Confusciusm is anti-war. It promotes "Wang Dao". i.e. win respect by being nice "kingly", with high moral standard. Conucius himself denounced the successful hegemonies of his time (King of Qi and Guan Zhong)

(see also another post here)

Anonymous said...

China need not occupy nations militarily to achieve its hegemonic aims. It has been sabotaging the economies of several of its neighbors through various nefarious diplomatic, economic and other corrupting means. In Vietnam, it has sabotaged an oil exploration deal in India. It tried to get colonial access to mines worth billions but got exposed in time.

It has used Communist parties in Nepal and India (and in Africa) to undermine domestic political forces - especially those uncomfortable with the dumping of Chinese products.

It has won mega-billion dollar contracts in Pakistan, Myanmar and Africa by bribing and arming corrupt dictators or weak civilian governments. It may not be a classical imperial power but it is a neo-imperial power. Those who are in the know about Chinese double dealing and dirty dealing know this.

Others can keep making excuses for the Chinese Communist Party.

Madman of Chu said...


The behavior you describe is certainly not limited to China. Winning mega-billion dollar contracts, bribing or supporting corrupt dictators or weak civilian governments, yada yada yada- the government that you describe could easily be that of the United States. I'm not making apologies for either country, but the degree of nefariousness of either nation's "hegemonic aims" is largely a matter of perception.