China wants to be equal, that much is certain. China wants to have an influence on the world’s economic and political “rules of the game” commensurate with its economic weight. It also wants to recover the position it held until the late 18th century, when it was the dominant regional power in East Asia and controlled the world’s largest, self-sufficient economy. Its exports of silk, cotton, porcelain, tea, lacquer and more comprised approximately 30 percent of international trade. Then, in the 19th century, the Chinese Empire began to unravel under the weight of foreign interference, superior Western technology, and internal unrest. The Imperial Chinese notion of “dominance” mostly meant deference to China and its interests in its broad neighborhood, which had been for centuries under its cultural influence. But it could also mean a tributary relationship with countries and tribes regarded as vassals, or the slow cultural osmosis of less “civilized” border regions. China’s claims do not depend on who will ultimately rule China. During the 1920s and 1930s various maps of “National Shame” or “National Humiliation” circulated in China during Chiang-Kai-shek’s governing Kuomintang regime. The one shown here was published for elementary schools in 1938. It draws China’s borders around a much larger part of Asia than the Chinese ever controlled.
Politicians who hope that a non-Communist China would be easier to handle could be badly mistaken. During the Second World War, China was starving and under Japanese attack. It needed US support desperately, but President Roosevelt found China’s Chiang-Kai-shek extremely difficult and assertive. Reclaiming an 18th century or earlier predominance overlooks the fact that the US did not exist then, but it does exist now. China needs to cope with a fundamental historical change. And no one can guarantee that China will never extend its claims to restore its past power. It could adopt a strategy of wider expansion, particularly if it faces unremitting antagonism from its opponents.
Recent books claiming that China does want more, that it wants to defeat the United States and rule the world, became bestsellers both in China and the US. Song Qiang et al. published Unhappy China: The Great Era, the Grand Goal and our Challenges (2009), and Colonel Liu Mingfu: The China Dream – Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (2010).5 American authors quickly lend credence to China’s alleged revanchism. Michael Pillsbury in The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (2016) discovered a secret Chinese plot to dominate the world – a variation of the infamous anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion produced in Czarist Russia, except that the Chinese were now replacing the Jews.6 In 2019, Jonathan Ward published China’s Vision of Victory7; China wants to rule the world, so he argues, because its ascendency was interrupted by “a century of humiliation.” These books, and similar voices from public figures on both sides rarely express official policy, but they fuel the alarmist tone of the debate.8
Ancient Chinese philosophy thinks in much longer terms: change is permanent, history moves in cycles and empires rise and fall. When General Chen Bingde, Chief of Staff of China’s army made an official visit to Israel (August 2011), he said to an Israeli general: “You will see, in 50 years you will be on our side.” He took the long view. For our generation and the next, what does it mean to “replace America” (Pillsbury) or achieve “victory” over America (Ward)? America and China are not only nation-states, they are civilizations. The century-old global ascendency of the American civilization is one of the most enduring “soft power” successes of history. China will not “replace” American mass-culture, its language, Hollywood, music, literature, Coca Cola, jeans and many more US contributions, but it will compete in science and technology. Henry Kissinger has warned that the relationship between the two giants must not be seen through the lens of 19th century European power politics. Neither China nor the US can “rule” or “replace” the other, they are both too large.
Some mention China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) as proof that China seeks global expansion. For the first time in history, China invests in all continents in order to build roads, railways, and ports. On a more modest scale, China also reached out in ancient times. In 138 BCE the Han Emperor Wudi explored Central Asia in order to establish contacts along the “Silk Road.”9 Much later, Chinese Buddhist monks travelled to India to retrieve Buddha’s original texts. China presents President Xi Jinping’s BRI as a renewal of the more than two thousand year old “Silk Road” tradition. Is the BRI meant to exploit other countries’ resources? Or is it a brilliant long-term strategy to pull the rug from under America’s global power and bring Asia, Europe, and Africa under Chinese guidance? Or, is it designed to help Europe’s former colonies “de-colonize” economically? What if the true genesis of BRI does not fit any of the above hypotheses, what if the underlying ideas came slowly together in a more haphazard way? Did the BRI start as a slogan that was converted into a mega-project? We do not know.