Xi’s Imperial Ambitions Are Rooted in China’s History

Foreign Policy, 27.04.2024
Michael Sobolik, académico del American Foreign Policy Council (Washington, DC)
  • Myths of peacefulness belie a record as expansionist as any other power

When Richard Nixon defied expectations and went to China in 1972, Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor, packed the president’s briefcase. Among Nixon’s reading materials was The Chinese Looking Glass, a book by British journalist Dennis Bloodworth about understanding China on its own terms. In his opening pages, Bloodworth sets the stage by going back to the beginning: “The gaudy catalogue of China’s disasters and dynastic glories, whose monumental scale has given the Chinese much of their character … brings us to our true beginning.”

Kissinger, one of America’s most consequential foreign-policy leaders in recent memory, clearly internalized the centrality of China’s “true beginning.” In his 2011 tome On China, Kissinger marveled at China’s “singularity” and staying power. Indeed, even the hardest of hearts cannot help but be moved by the continuity of a civilization that predates the birth of Christ by hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Awe, however, is no substitute for knowledge. In the opening pages of On China, Kissinger writes of China’s “splendid isolation” that cultivated “a satisfied empire with limited territorial ambition.” The historical record, however, contradicts him. From the Qin dynasty’s founding in 221 B.C. to the Qing’s collapse in 1912 A.D., China’s sovereign territory expanded by a factor of four. What began as a small nation bound in the fertile crescent of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers morphed into an imperial wrecking ball. In the words of Bloodworth, the very author Kissinger recommended to Nixon in 1972, “It would be absurd to pretend that the Chinese had never been greedy for ground—they started life in the valley of the Yellow River and ended by possessing a gigantic empire.”

To be sure, China was not the aggressor in every war it fought. In antiquity, nomadic tribes regularly raided China’s proto-dynasties. During the infamous Opium Wars of the 19th century, Western imperialist powers victimized and preyed upon China at gunpoint. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regularly refers to China’s “Century of Humiliation,” when European empires brutalized China and killed or wounded tens of thousands of Chinese men, women, and children. Indeed, the party has memorialized these grievances in a permanent exhibit of the National Museum of China, just steps away from Tiananmen Square.

For all of Beijing’s legitimate and long-standing security concerns, however, the sheer scope of China’s expansion is undeniable. Western leaders often deny or ignore it, usually at the behest and prodding of Chinese leaders. When Nixon finally gained an audience with Mao Zedong, he reassured the chairman, “We know China doesn’t threaten the territory of the United States.” Mao quickly corrected him: “Neither do we threaten Japan or South Korea.” To which Nixon added, “Nor any country.” Within the decade, Beijing invaded Vietnam.

At the time, Nixon’s gambit was to split the Soviet bloc and drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Nixon and Kissinger saw the Sino-Soviet split and took stock of the PRC’s trajectory: a growing population that, once harnessed, was poised to dominate the global economy. It was textbook realpolitik: cold, dispassionate tactics divorced from moralism. If Washington could turn the Soviet Union’s junior partner, the West could significantly hamper Moscow’s ability to project power into Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

During the final years of Nixon’s life, his presidential speechwriter William Safire asked him about that fateful trip to Beijing in 1972. Had opening up to the PRC made Americans safer and China freer? According to Safire, “That old realist, who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: ‘We may have created a Frankenstein.’” Over time, many in the United States have come to realize this predicament. Unfortunately, articulating that problem well has proved difficult.

During her brief stint as director of policy planning at the State Department in 2019, Kiron Skinner previewed the shop’s keystone intellectual project: a strategy to counter China, in the spirit of George Kennan’s “containment” strategy. At a public event in April 2019, Skinner tipped her hand and revealed her philosophy of U.S.-China competition: “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.” She went on to add, incorrectly: “It’s the first time that we will have a great-power competitor that is not Caucasian.” Skinner received widespread criticism for these remarks and was soon after dismissed for unrelated issues.

Skinner’s mistake was twofold. First, she simply got the history wrong and ignored imperial Japan in World War II. Of deeper consequence was her failure to explain what strategic culture actually is, why it matters, and how China’s past shapes the CCP’s behavior today. In fairness, these errors aren’t unique to Skinner. Understanding Chinese history can be difficult for most Westerners. In some ways, it’s difficult to think of two more different nations. The United States is less than three hundred years old. China was unified more than two hundred years before Christ was born. Immigrants founded America. Denizens established China. The United States was born out of revolution against a colonial power. China came into being from a regional conflict of gigantic proportions. Favorable geography allowed America to grow economically and territorially on its own terms and at its own pace. China came into being surrounded by rival kingdoms and tribes on every side.

Americans turn to one source more than any other to make sense of these differences: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. One of his more recognizable dictums, “All warfare is based on deception,” has captured the imagination of many Western thinkers. Instead of investigating the history that informed Sun Tzu’s counsel, however, many policymakers take the easier path of Orientalizing China. “China thinks in centuries, and America thinks in decades” is a well-worn trope. Another well-meaning but vapid cliché is, “America plays chess, but China plays Go.”

These statements are often left untethered from history and offered as self-evident axioms. What’s left are useless clichés that offer no actual understanding of why Chinese strategists advised cunning and deception, or how China’s unique historical experiences informed military tactics. In the absence of curiosity, an impression easily forms of China as “the other,” a mysterious, inscrutable competitor. A shallow understanding of Beijing’s past leads to incomplete conclusions about its present behavior.

More often than not, policymakers find it easier to avoid China’s history entirely. In late 2020, the policy planning office finished the 72-page report. It was a commendable attempt to reprise Kennan’s strategic clarity, but China’s dynastic strategic culture received a single page of attention.

Reducing strategic culture to vague racial differences helps no one except Chinese President Xi Jinping and his party henchmen. The CCP works to enmesh itself with the Chinese people and regularly uses them as a rhetorical human shield. To criticize the CCP, according to the well-worn rhetorical trope of Beijing’s diplomats, is to “hurt the feelings of 1.4 billion people.” As a matter of course, Beijing uses this specious logic to construe anti-CCP policies as evidence of racism. Years before former U.S. President Donald Trump fell headlong into this trap with his careless rhetoric about the “Chinese virus” and “kung-flu,” a young generation of China hawks had vowed to evade this pitfall.

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote about this resolve in his 2021 bestseller, Chaos Under Heaven, which documented the collective decision of Washington, D.C.-based China hands to blunt Beijing’s attempts “to divide Americans by party or ethnicity, to divert attention from its actions.” I was a regular member of those meetings and still believe America’s leaders must differentiate the party from the Chinese people—not only out of respect for those who daily live under the CCP’s jackboot, but also for the safety of Chinese Americans, who faced a rise of race-based crime in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in doing so, America must avoid a separate trap: equating the party with China.

China’s history did not begin in 1949 when Mao and the CCP established the PRC. Nor did it start with China’s “Century of Humiliation,” when European imperialist powers forcibly opened China in the mid-19th century. Chinese civilization predates America and the West by orders of millennia. That context gives meaning to the party’s contemporary behavior. The themes of greatness, fall, and restoration hidden in Xi’s remarks in 2013 constitute the essence of Chinese history.

They are the four-act play of China’s story, or “strategic culture”—without which it is impossible to understand the CCP’s strategy today. Strategic culture explains how a country’s unique experiences shape distinct national identities that translate into foreign policy. These three elements—story, identity, and policy—reinforce and shape one another. To be sure, the CCP has its own story, identity, and policies, but the party is one tributary in a long river. American leaders cannot prevail against the CCP without understanding the story and identity that belong to China.

From the start, China has been a civilizational juggernaut striving for political hegemony. China has often attempted to conceal this ambition with conciliatory diplomacy, but its neighbors know from experience the struggle to live—and survive—in the dragon’s shadow. CCP diplomats often bully China’s neighbors by claiming sovereignty over part or all of their territory “from time immemorial”—an inadvertent admission that the party is the latest crusader in a long line of imperialists. This struggle that was once relegated to the nations of East Asia is now a challenge for every country in the world.

Beijing is approaching the world not to embrace it, but to rule it. The Western world has no excuse for missing this reality, and American politicians have badly misjudged Beijing for decades. Washington’s China policy will continue to be a “two steps forward, one step back” affair until it reckons with the Middle Kingdom’s penchant for imperialism.

This reality calls into question the unspoken objective of American policymakers: seeking a democratic China. For all their differences, both hawks and doves in the United States have framed the “China problem” as an ideological challenge. Proponents of engagement believed that economic contacts would necessarily lead to political reform, a belief rooted in liberal internationalism. Advocates of confrontation couch the CCP regime as the problem, which implies an ideological solution.

The one unchanging constant in America’s China policy since Nixon’s meeting with Mao in 1972 is the steady commitment to regime change, either by commerce or competition. The underlying belief in the universal power of democracy has proved intoxicating. “If we can just make them like us,” the thinking goes, “we can turn an enemy into a friend.”

Perhaps this self-delusion is inevitable. America’s national identity is steeped in beliefs about liberty, equality, and opportunity. But the CCP’s heritage raises an uncomfortable question for the United States: Even if modern China were to become a democracy, would it cease to be the Middle Kingdom?

If the CCP collapsed and China followed Taiwan’s path of economic and political liberalization, would it suddenly lose its appetite for hegemony? Maybe. Then again, perhaps simplifying Beijing’s behavior to its current Communist Party overlords ignores thousands of years of China’s own history, as well as the strategic culture that informs those decisions.

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