Future of Asia

“Nice” China? The Aloofness of Pax Sinica

Given its inherent sense of superiority, could China — once a global hegemon — be more peaceful than its Western (and especially U.S.) predecessors?

Credit: Nicolas Raymond www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • China is not a nation-state, but a civilization-state. For that reason, it sees itself as a fulcrum of Asia and by extension of the world.
  • The Chinese concept of flexible or “tributary rule” differs less from the one used by the Western powers in the past 150 years than we in the West tend to think.
  • In the past half-century, China has been involved in only one foreign military adventure and several very limited border skirmishes. The USSR and the US were much more belligerent.
  • China’s sense of superiority vis-à-vis other nations translates into aloofness and perhaps paradoxically, may imply a relatively peaceful rule.

In 2009, Martin Jacques published a tome that, at 700 pages, was as comprehensive as it was emphatic and gutsy at the time, “When China Rules the World” (no question mark or conditional tense).

China: Civilization state

In today’s context, Martin Jacques’ most interesting reflections concern the question of how China’s rise affects the international political order. Jacques argues that China is not a nation-state, but a civilization-state. For that reason, it sees itself as a fulcrum of Asia (and by extension of the world).

It is at ease with “tributary relations” that leave to each dominated party full freedom in its domestic affairs as well as considerable freedom in its foreign policy.

The second important element he points to is a deeply ingrained racism or inability to comprehend “the other” which, as I will argue below, may be linked or might underlie the rather benevolent approach to international relations.

The “tributary” approach is contrasted with the current Western-based theory of international relations that is built on the concept of the nation-state. This difference between the West and China is, in Jacques’ opinion, a lens through which we should look at the type of international system that China might build.

The Western approach

But the difference may actually be less than it seems. After all, the two recent global hegemons, the United Kingdom and the United States, also had a somewhat similar approach to international relations.

The UK ruled half of the world using a very flexible system spanning everything, from almost fully independent nations like Australia and Canada, to protectorates and colonies.

Meanwhile, many U.S. allies were (and are) similar to protectorates. Italy or South Korea could more or less do wherever they wanted in domestic policy (short of bringing Communists to power), but very little in their foreign policy domain.

So, under the recent hegemons, countries were neither fully equal as the theory would have it, nor were the allies of the hegemon obliged to blindly align all their policies.

Given that, the Chinese concept of flexible or “tributary rule” may differ much less from the one used by the Western powers in the past 150 years than we in the West tend to think.

China: More peaceful than the West

However, perhaps because of China’s lack of interest in “others” and its inherent sense of superiority, Pax Sinica may be more peaceful than its Western – and especially the United States – predecessors.

If we look at it empirically, in the past half-century China has been involved in only one foreign military adventure (a war against Vietnam) and several very limited border skirmishes.

Other hegemons, the USSR and the United States were much more belligerent: The USSR invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, while the United States invaded or attacked Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Serbia, Iraq and Libya, in addition to overthrowing a number of unfriendly governments.

In other words: China has, up to now, been, on the international stage, a peaceful country. Chinese pacifism might have deeper roots: As Martin Jacques writes, the Chinese are fond of drawing a contrast between the exploratory and friendly mission of Zheng He and the rapacious, slave-grabbing European conquests.

Hiding its strength and biding its time

The empirical evidence still does not answer one important question: Was China peaceful because it was weak and needed international peace and domestic stability for at least 100 years and, in Deng Xiaoping’s words, thus had “to hide its strength and bide its time”?

Once strong enough globally, would a dominant China do “regime-changes”? Martin Jacques does not pose the question directly, but his answer would likely be negative because China does not care to export its model.

This is where China’s ingrained sense of superiority comes in. If a nation believes that other nations are fundamentally different (and inferior), such a nation also may not care under what governments the other nations live, so long as these regimes accept your suzerainty and do not pose a threat to you.

Viewed in that framework, China’s sense of superiority vis-à-vis other nations translates into aloofness, and perhaps paradoxically, may imply a relatively peaceful rule.

Whether this will happen or not—and even whether China will become a global hegemon—is everybody’s guess (I am certainly less convinced of that than Jacques).

But one thing, Jacques writes, is certain: “The emergence of China as a global power relativizes everything. The West is habituated to the idea that the world is its world; that the international community is its community, that international institutions are its institutions….that universal values are its values…This will no longer be the case.”

And therein lies China’s implicit appeal, at least in the eyes of all nations that have been, or feel to have been, under the “thumb” of the West in their past history. In this conception, China benefits from what might either be termed the “new kid on the block” phenomenon, or simply happiness about the fact that at least the “Western-led” order, with its grainy history of colonialism, is over.

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About Branko Milanovic

Branko Milanovic is the Presidential Professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, and Senior Scholar at Luxembourg Income Survey.

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