Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs

This recent Tweet by the always enjoyable Dr. Daniel Drezner got me to thinking: Many IR scholars and policymakers seem to misunderstand the way China accumulates and uses power in the pursuit of revisionism.

The question of whether a great power is “revisionist” hinges on its degree of satisfaction with the international system, whose rules—in the current incarnation—are largely set by your friendly neighborhood hegemon, the United States, along with its friends in Western Europe. Putin’s Russia has emerged as a revisionist force because Russian imperialism in its near abroad, not to mention its general obstructionism in international institutions, amounts to a very public rejection of the rules of the game written and enforced by the West.

Expressed geopolitically, Putinism is an unsettling echo of 19th century imperialism of the blood and soil variety, the imperialism we are most familiar with: A great power gains control of territories directly, either by placing military forces throughout the annexed territory and exerting politico-military control behind the scenes while allowing a figleaf of local governance to continue, by annexing a “slice” of territory which happens to be home to the imperialists’ ethnic group, or else by eliminating both the government and the borders of the entire annexed country, swallowing it up as a hungry amoeba swallows hapless bacteria.

Those countries we think of as imperial powers—Britain, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Spain and (yes) the United States, among others—have all used these “19th century methods” to gain territory and carve out spheres of influence. Following World War Two and again after the Cold War, however, Western policymakers attempted to impress upon the international system the notion that imperialism, like aggressive war, is illegitimate. Neoliberal institutions at the international level—the World Bank, the IMF, and the GATT/WTO—were meant to allow for peaceful post-imperial exchange of resources, much as the European Coal and Steel Community (and later the EU itself) was meant to solve the problem of European resource warfare.

(Let us call modern imperialists “hard power revisionists,” after Dr. Joseph Nye’s oft-quoted distinctions between “hard” and “soft” power.)

One must also admit that all this focus on Western ideas and the European theater limits the explanatory power of theory. “Hard power revisionists” in Europe are easy to spot, whether they are real (Vladimir Putin) or dubious (Slobodan Milošević), but Asia presents us with a very different situation. To be sure, there are outposts of “hard power revisionism” such as North Korea, but no one thinks seriously of the Kim Dynasty’s ability to rewrite the rules of the game normatively or militarily.

And then there is China—what kind of great power is the Middle Kingdom?

China’s revisionism is clearest to Western observers in the way China prosecutes maritime claims—that is, territorial claims over the East China Sea and South China Sea. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has at times attempted to treat the region as a quasi-territorial sea, which would allow China to deny the right of passage, rather than an Exclusive Economic Zone, which would only allow China the exclusive right to harvest sea resources in a 200-nautical mile zone of control as outlined in the treaty.

More importantly, China has thus far rejected all methods of arbitration outlined in Part 15 of the UNCLOS treaty, which establishes four methods for handling disputes—(1) a hearing before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS); (2) a hearing before the International Court of Justice (ICJ); (3) ad hoc arbitration in accordance with UNCLOS procedures; or (4) a hearing before a special tribunal for the purposes of arbitration. China’s position is that other claimants can only negotiate with China bilaterally (as in the South China Sea disputes with ASEAN member-states) or that the other claimants have no claim (as is apparently the case in the East China Sea disputes with Japan). Most of the states involved have rejected China’s methods of handling maritime disputes, with the Philippines now bringing its claim against China in ITLOS. Not only has China actually refused to join the hearings, it has even gone so far as to accuse of the Philippines of “immorality” for turning to the UN for help.

To underscore the theme of revisionism, the Chinese attitude towards UNCLOS is perhaps best outlined by Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan-yew:

I don’t believe the Chinese will submit their claims, which are based primarily on China’s historical presence in these waters, to be decided by rules that were defined at a time when China was weak.

Bear in mind that when Lee says “when China was weak” we’re not discussing unequal treaties of the late 19th century—China ratified UNCLOS in that distant year of 1996.

Despite the rhetorical warfare employed by China in its unrelenting pursuit of maritime claims, the country prefers clever logistics strategy to old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. In an excellent multimedia presentation on how the Philippines and China have vied for control over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the New York Times detailed China’s “cabbage strategy”:

In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.

“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

The more ships China sends to the East China Sea and South China Sea, the more the country looks like a “hard power revisionist,” and the more American policymakers sound like they’re dealing with a country like Russia. But this is only one layer of China’s imperial strategy. The other involves softer power—and is much older.

About a decade ago, China made a big push to celebrate Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who led “Treasure Fleets” in seven trips around Asia in the 15th century. Sinophilic accounts note how Zheng He’s ships spread Chinese culture, linked up Ming China to the Chinese diaspora in the near abroad, and peacefully demonstrated Chinese greatness to nations as far away as the Horn of Africa. More realistic accounts hold that Zheng He was not afraid to use military force to play regional kingmaker, secure trade routes, or even to acquire wealth. Naturally, the Chinese Government has emphasized the more pacific aspects of Zheng He’s Treasure Voyages, linking Zheng He to the ongoing propaganda narrative of China’s “Peaceful Rise.”

With these accounts of Imperial China as background, a new generation of revisionist scholars have painted a sympathetic portrait of the Chinese imperial project. Martin Jacques has certainly dabbled in this line of thinking, but Pankaj Misrha is the most compelling of these historians. Mishra has argued, in an unconscious echo of Samuel Huntington’s civilizational thesis, that Asia has long been comfortable with China as a civilizational leader:

For China was not only the Greece of Asia, imparting its Confucian cultures: Its empires were also at the center of a trade and diplomatic web extending from Nepal to Java, and the Amur region to Burma. China’s economy was central to the region; overseas Chinese merchants and traders were later to become crucial in the economic development of Southeast Asia.

China’s neighbors benefited both materially and politically from acknowledging its hegemony; they didn’t seek to “balance” its power in the European way by forming alliances.

The emperors in Beijing, in turn, seemed content with recognition of their legitimacy and authority as the dominant power (no one back then bothered with the nominal “equality” of our nation-state system that gives Vanuatu as many voting rights at the United Nations as India, but allots the greatest power and influence to the U.S.). Though militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states, China refrained from making them.

These historical accounts—of Zheng He and the tributary system—point to the possibilities of Chinese statecraft in the future. While Mishra doesn’t come out and use the “I-word,” China’s historical mode of imperialism was built around soft power, and insomuch as China is a revisionist today, it is mostly a “soft power revisionist.” As I noted on Twitter, a key difference between Putin’s imperialism and Chinese imperialism is that Putin’s path to regional hegemony is based on threats—“join us or else”—whereas China offers rewards to those who follow Beijing’s line. For Chinese, Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “bide one’s time and hide one’s capabilities” remains operative. China’s policies are far more subtle than Russia’s, yet given China’s sheer size, even its “subtle changes” to geopolitics can be earthshaking.

Russia talks louder in part because it is a smaller country (in terms of population and GDP) with perceived security threats directly at its very long borders. Despite the security alliances between the United States and other countries in Asia, China faces no threat comparable to the NATO alliance. US engagement with, say, Vietnam is not as dangerous to China as expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep is to Russia. But Russia is also louder because Eastern Christendom has deep-seated suspicions of Western powers going back to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

If Russians seem to inhabit a Hobbesian moral universe, it might be because the West has proven itself an unreliable ally at best—and an outright enemy at worst. Although China also has a history of negative interactions with the West, and the Communist Party propagandizes it in every museum and textbook, that history is conspicuously short compared to the thousands of years China spent all-but-isolated from the West. Rather than fume about the West for hundreds of years like the Russians have, China spent most of its history just like Don Draper, not thinking of us at all.

At this point we must ask what the actual effects of Chinese revisionism would be. As we’ve already mentioned, China’s maritime claims would alter Asia’s status quo by giving China the right to control passage by sea and air. At present, the right of passage in the South China Sea is guaranteed by Western-influenced international law—and American firepower. China’s rise seems sure to change the balance of power in East Asia, whether or not the United States can shift resources to the region. In addition, China has flexed its diplomatic and economic muscles with ASEAN, ending nearly fifty years of ASEAN consensus at the hands of China’s client state, Cambodia. China added insult to injury by offering an inadequate response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, leading some to believe that China was punishing the Philippines for defying China on its South China Sea claims. In these cases and others, Chinese revisionism is being felt at the regional level before it reaches a global scale.

Let’s talk about China’s influence on human rights and development for a moment. This is an area where China is already shaping the global discourse. Henry Kissinger has always been fond of China for a reason: In contrast to the missionary socialism of the Soviet Union or the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, China prefers realpolitik, in which no regime is too authoritarian (or too democratic!) to do business with.

Of course, American policymakers are already used to great and minor powers deviating from the liberal internationalist agenda for reasons of realpolitik. In the 1990s, the Clinton State Department was often vexed by countries citing self-interest while undermining peace, security, and human rights efforts in Africa. There’s a case to be made, for instance, that France inadvertently prolonged the Rwandan conflict and genocide by siding with the Hutu government. China is cut from the same cloth, but is potentially immensely more powerful than France. China’s recent history in Africa is illustrative. For instance, even after South Africa turned its back on Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, China has remained a stalwart friend of the regime. Under Hu Jintao, China characterized Western calls for African aid to be tied to reforms “bullying” and offered money without strings attached.

Of course, there are always strings.

During the history of the Chinese tribute system, one of the most important things for the Empire was that the tribute riches continued to flow. It didn’t matter if a country offered tribute to China and a regional rival, as the Ryukyu Kingdom did to both China and Japan. But if regime change in one of the tributaries threatened the status quo, China might intervene, as it did in the 15th century Ming-Ho war with Vietnam, which was fought to restore the pro-Chinese Tran Dynasty and ended in the outright annexation of Vietnam. Today, business deals and international trade have replaced past forms of tribute, but China is still mainly preoccupied with keeping the status quo in its relations with other countries.

When Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata campaigned against violence and labor rights violations in Chinese mining operations, China threatened to pull out investment in advance of the 2006 Zambian elections, a move which may have helped the incumbent government win reelection. China was then rewarded with a special economic zone in Zambia in 2008, which further inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment, despite promises of nearly $1 billion in Chinese investment. When Sata finally came to power in 2011 following violence at a Chinese-associated mine in 2010, Chinese policymakers scrambled to justify themselves to the new government. To Sata’s credit, his administration has kept up the pressure on China, though he hasn’t exactly kicked China out.

Elsewhere, as the Arab Spring kicked off in North Africa and the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, China’s primary concerns have been protecting Chinese nationals and economic interests. China was uncomfortable doing business with Egypt’s then-President Morsi when he came to Beijing in August 2012, but Morsi still managed to gain pledges of cooperation and promises of investment. In Ukraine, China has had to balance its traditional alliance with Russia with its desire to stay on friendly relations with the new government and get back some part of the $3 billion China loaned to Ukraine for agricultural development. Thus, for reasons of realpolitik, China has appeared to be on both sides of Putin’s great Ukrainian adventure.

On the face of it, China’s development aid strategy is an improvement upon Western demands which have often saddled African countries with shaky neoliberal foundations and/or done little to improve African infrastructure. Furthermore, although it is fashionable to accuse China of “imperialism” in Africa, China is not guilty of anything resembling Europe’s horrific legacy of imperial brutality on the continent. Compared to the history of Belgium in Africa, for instance, Beijing looks like a moral giant. That said, by focusing mainly on economics we are missing half of the picture. In terms of human rights in Africa and elsewhere, China has begun to shift away from its Opening Up Period policy of neutrality towards active opposition to Western attempts to enforce human rights norms.

Throughout 2012, China joined Russia to veto several UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to human rights abuses in Syria. This year, China has come out strongly in defense of its client state North Korea and has, unsurprisingly, condemned UN discussion of human rights in China. Although China wielded its UN veto to protect client states in the past (one thinks of China protecting Mugabe the junta in Burma), there’s a new assertiveness in China’s use of the veto. Of China’s seven UN Security Council vetoes since gaining its seat in 1971, five have been used in the past seven years.

Finally, we must not forget that all of this is happening against the impressive backdrop of China’s emergence as the largest economy in the world, which begs the question of who will be able to rein in pariah states when the Chinese market alone is big enough sustain them, much as Russia today sustains Belarus and China sustains North Korea. In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

That is a kind of revisionism that Vladimir Putin might dream of, but would never be capable of bringing about.

The Secret Orientalism of Martin Jacques

Writing for the BBC, Marxist journalist Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, joins the most important discussion foreign policy elites will have in the next ten years — how will China behave as a superpower?  Sadly, Jacques begins well, talking about the weight of China’s population upon the country’s massive economy, but then immediately falls into the same trap as Pankaj Mishra, namely, recycling the Chinese government’s own narratives about Chinese history rather than doing critical research.

The milk of Jacques’ argument begins to turn sour around this point in the article:

In fact we should not expect China to behave in the manner of the US. It will be very different. And nor should we assume that it will necessarily be worse.

Why will it be different? Because its history is so different. Articles about China’s growing involvement with Africa – in terms of trade and investment – often talk of the “new colonialism”.

If we hold China to the same standards that America and Britain have been held to by the left, then its cultivation of client states in Africa and Southeast Asia is precisely that —  a neo-colonial power.  If, on the other hand, we discard dependency theory as warmed-over Marxism and look at China through a traditional realist lens, Chinese behavior in Africa is balancing behavior, not neo-colonialism.

And while I’m sympathetic to this argument, I can’t imagine that Jacques or other admirers of China in the new left would excuse Western behavior the same way Jacques is prepared to make excuses for China.  This is, as we shall see, the key flaw in Jacques’ argument.

We continue:

Beware historical ignorance. China has never colonised any overseas territories. Overseas empires were a European speciality, with Japan getting in on the act for a short while too.

China could have colonised South East Asia, for example, in the early 15th century. It had the resources, it had enormous ships, many times bigger than anything Europe possessed at the time. But it didn’t.

These passages are bizarrely, totally, wrong.

For starters, China, like Russia, India, and the United States, is a continental empire-state.  All of these countries grew out of a strong core nation that, after acquiring sufficient resources, proceeded to conquer and subjugate surrounding nations until obtaining a large contiguous landmass with fairly stable natural borders (e.g. mountains, rivers, seas).  Colonialism doesn’t enter into the picture like it did for, say, Belgium, because an empire-state has enough resources within its own borders that it doesn’t necessarily need colonies.

Understand that colonies qua colonialism are largely a function of distance.  If a country can control the territory of its neighbors first with puppet governments and increasing military presence, outright incorporation usually follows.  How, for instance, is China’s final incorporation of Tibet — which was an independent country for most of its history — different than what Japan attempted to do in China proper?  In fairness, Jacques goes on to acknowledge the massive growth of Chinese empire during the Qing Dynasty, yet this doesn’t trouble him because China didn’t have any colonies.  Except it did.

Let’s look at just one example.  As any good historian of Vietnam will tell you, the Ming Dynasty spent the early 15th century subjugating Vietnam, which led to a guerrilla war against Chinese occupation — a Vietnamese specialty — and the withdrawal of Chinese forces after their defeat by Vietnamese hero Le Loi.  In summary, the Chinese invaded Vietnam in 1406 and administered the country as a colony for two decades.  Perhaps this doesn’t count to Jacques because the Chinese didn’t move to crush Le’s forces with the totality of their might, but the British don’t get any credit for letting India slip away, so why should China?

Jacques gives himself a little leeway to address the Vietnam case, but never does so directly.  He continues:

That is not to say China ignored its neighbours. On the contrary. For many, many centuries it dominated them – as a result of its sheer size and far more advanced level of development. China’s relationship with them was based not on colonialism but what we now know as the tributary system. It neither ruled them nor occupied them. Rather, in return for access to the Chinese market and various forms of protection, the rulers of tribute states were required to give gifts – literally tribute – to the Emperor as a symbolic acknowledgement of China’s superiority.

The tributary system comprised what we know today as East Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population. It stretched from Japan and Korea to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia.

It proved remarkably stable, lasting for at least 2,000 years and only coming to an end around 1900.

What we see here is that Jacques, the Marxist, begins to paper over classical power relations where China is concerned, and Jacques, the Orientalist, begins to raise his ugly head.  Focus on the Chinese tributary system as a kind of benign empire that doesn’t carry the taint of colonialism was also a thrust of Mishra’s piece, so allow me to quote Dan Trombly’s excellent response to Mishra:

[C]onsidering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”

We should also remember that many of modern China’s territorial claims, including settled questions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Chinese nationalist fantasies of seizing the Korean peninsula and Okinawa, are based on these lands once participating in the tributary system under their former feudal rulers.  A troubling paradigm within official Chinese scholarship treats Chinese vassal states as the equivalent of Chinese territory, and China’s neighbors understand that when China engages in political archaeology such as the Northeast History Project, the goal is the Sinification of the past to achieve the Sinification of the future.

Returning to the article, Jacques outlines the staggering reach of 19th and 20th century Western colonialism and contrasts it to humble Ming Dynasty China, which, as we have already seen, was not as benevolent as Jacques would have his readers believe.  (An aside here for my materialist friends:  how much of the power wielded by Western imperialists, compared to the Chinese 300 years earlier, was actually a function of technology rather than ideology?)  Consciously or not, Jacques reiterates Chinese national propaganda about Zheng He, the “can-do eunuch”:

The seven great voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 around the East and South China Seas and across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa left no permanent mark – they were about demonstrating the glory of the Middle Kingdom rather than a desire to conquer. Those who left China to settle in South East Asia were seen as leaving civilisation and deserving of no support or protection by the Emperor.

This account of Zheng He, which closely follows the official Chinese history, would have us believe two things:  that Zheng He’s expeditions didn’t have a military function, and that the Ming saw the Chinese diaspora as pariahs.  As for the first point, history records that Zheng He was as much an enforcer of Chinese hegemony — a MacArthur figure, if you will — as he was an explorer.   His fleets pursued pirates throughout Asia, and in Sri Lanka he led the Ming forces in a two-year war against the kingdom of Kotte, installing a puppet ruler who was deposed by the Sri Lankans in 1414.  Rather than piracy, it seems the Chinese fixation on Kotte — they had invaded under the Yuan Dynasty as well — had to do with acquiring the Tooth of Buddha and taking it to China.  (Attempting to steal another country’s artifacts is downright … European.)

As for the second point, Zheng He interacted freely with the Chinese diaspora and they were vital parts of the Ming’s trading network.  If there was any schism between the diaspora and the emperor, it may have been because many of them moved abroad during earlier dynasties.  Zheng He himself referred to these overseas Chinese as “Tang Dynasty men.”  Yet they, along with local peoples in Southeast Asia, venerated Zheng He, which undermines Jacques’ characterization of overseas Chinese, and also calls into question the next passage:

Compare that with the way in which Britain and France celebrated the heroes of their colonial expansion. Our cities are littered with statues and street names in their memory.

Zheng He, while not being a hero of colonial expansion per se, is certainly a hero of hegemonic power.  His are not the only statues of a maritime hero one finds in China, however.  Monuments to Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga, have been erected throughout coastal China as well as in Taiwan.  A Ming loyalist and pirate, Koxinga operated from southern China during the early Qing Dynasty before invading Taiwan in 1661 and overthrowing its Dutch rulers.  With the Europeans out of the picture, Koxinga was left with the task of brutally subjugating the aboriginal Taiwanese — a fact deemed so inconvenient to the official Chinese narrative that the Koxinga scholar Tonio Andrade was told to censor his recent book on the subject or risk being unable to publish a translation in China.

At this point in the article, Jacques makes the correct argument that Chinese rulers remain more internally focused than Western leaders; that, when Xi Jinping becomes president, his agenda “will be overwhelmingly filled with domestic rather than foreign issues.” Jacques also argues, correctly, that Westerners are fixated on exporting their values to the rest of the world.  But he falters when he suggests China is uninterested in spreading its values.  The doctrine of “non-interference,” which Beijing regularly upholds with its UN Security Council veto, is itself a universal value.  The friends Beijing makes through the non-inteference doctrine leads to the contradiction of Chinese becoming more cosmopolitan as the country becomes richer, then looking at their country’s list of allies with shame. And when one of those allies abruptly changes course and becomes freer than China, the envy can be palpable.

Next, Jacques reduces Western influence over the world to a byproduct of Western (read: American) military power and argues,

That kind of overweening military power has never really been a Chinese characteristic.

Instead the quintessential forms of Chinese power will be economic and cultural. Over time, China’s economic strength – given the size of its population – will be gigantic, far greater than that of the US at its zenith. Already, even at its present low level of development, China is the main trading partner of a multitude of countries around the world. And with economic power will come commensurate political power and influence. China will, if it wishes, be able to bend many other countries to its will.

Cultural power will also be important to the Chinese. Theirs is a remarkable civilisation – having enjoyed a place in the sun not once but several times. During the Tang dynasty, for instance, from the 7th to the 10th Century, and most remarkably during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th Century, with major advances in a host of fields from biology and hydraulic engineering to architecture, medicine, mathematics and cartography.

The economic power of the ascendant China will unquestionably great, and as Beijing’s shameless monkeywrenching of ASEAN shows, China has already begun to “bend … countries to its will,” but cultural power remains a giant question mark.  Chinese cultural malaise has paradoxically increased even as China grows economically stronger, which suggests that either the patterns of cultural development have changed considerably and thus economy and culture are no longer fungible, or else the current Chinese government, despite its merits, lacks the openness and vision of the Tang and Song Dynasties.  The Chinese critique, from the Heshang documentary series in 1988, to Wolf Totem twenty years later, to Han Han’s writing today, is that, for various reasons, Chinese culture is backwards and lacks vitality.  Perhaps this self-doubt will change “when China rules the world.” Perhaps not.

Martin Jacques has no room for Han Han and the fierce urgency of now, though.  By the end of the piece, Jacques the Orientalist is fully in charge, telling us that Chinese have a different way of looking at history:

The Chinese have a completely different conception of time to Westerners. Whereas Americans think very short, the Chinese think very long.

For them a century is nothing.

For Chinese peasants and their feudal lords, a century was nothing.  But can we say the same for Han Han’s generation?