Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s declaration at the close of the National People’s Congress last month that his country would never seek hegemony or engage in expansion is likely to ring hollow in Western corridors of power.
Such is the entrenched mindset of many Western politicians and their advisers on strategy and foreign policy that they just cannot conceive of a rising power not wanting to lord it over others, especially those within the sphere of its influence through sheer economic and military might.
In the case of former imperialist powers like the United States, Britain and Japan, it is perhaps natural that their default mode of thinking is to extrapolate from their own shameful history of colonising weak nations and arrogate to China the same rapacious behaviour. The pot just cannot accept that the kettle may not be black. An illustration of this line of thinking can be found in an essay entitled “Life in China’s Asia – What Regional Hegemony Would Look Like” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs by Associate Professor of Government Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, a private Ivy League research university in the US. Her starting point is that China is likely to supplant the US as the region’s economic, military and political hegemon before long. As that day approaches, she says, America’s allies will face difficult choices – accept Chinese dominance or step up their own defence capabilities as well as join forces with others to counter Beijing.
WATCH: Xi says China “will never pursue hegemony”
Referring to Xi’s past assertions that China has never engaged in colonialism or aggression because of its “peace-loving cultural tradition”, and Beijing’s frequent insistence that it rejects the notion of “spheres of influence”, she says it may be tempting to believe China will be a relatively benign power. “But this is not how regional hegemons behave,” she writes. Contending that China will start breathing down the neck of weaker nations as its power and ambition grow, she writes: “China’s neighbours must start debating how comfortable they are with this future and what costs they are willing to pay to shape or forestall it.”
Lind then recounts the many instances when the US, the former Soviet Union and Japan exercised their hegemony over weaker nations. In one startling example, she points to how US forces had invaded Latin American countries more than 20 times since the beginning of the 20th Century.
On how the US has always claimed the right to intervene in its neighbour’s affairs, in the name of safeguarding its national interest, she quotes American diplomat Robert Olds who said in 1927: “Central America has always understood that governments we recognise and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognise and support, fail.”
That arrogance persists today – President Donald Trump’s new National Security Adviser, Ambassador John Bolton, is clamouring for regime change in Iran.
Is there any evidence to suggest that China has thought, spoken and acted in a similar vein or will do so very soon? Here is where Lind, in her search for instances of unvarnished Chinese hegemony, cites the elaborate system of tribute which the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties adopted.
Under this system, neighbouring countries sent diplomatic missions, brought gifts and kowtowed to the Chinese Emperor in exchange for trading privileges. But there is consensus among most students of Chinese history that these tributary states accepted the system because they stood to gain more from it – rather than out of fear of retribution for not playing ball. In short, it was not gunboat diplomacy. Use of force was rare.
What she also omits to mention is that the countries that paid tribute to Imperial China received far more in return for their elephants, pearls and other gifts, not just in favourable trading terms and even more lavish reciprocal presents but more important, in being granted a place in a geopolitical order that, essentially, kept interstate peace in the entire region for more than 1,500 years.
Most historians are agreed that China seemed to care more about recognition of its cultural superiority and civilisational glory, than demanding political or economic subservience from the tributaries.
This argument is well amplified in a paper by Professor Khong Yuen Foong of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in which he compares the Chinese tribute system with how the US has conducted its foreign relations.
His thesis is that the way the Americans have taken is not unlike the Chinese system. This Lind also acknowledges when she says the US has used the same playbook as the Chinese.
But there are key differences between what China expected of its tributaries and what the US still wants from countries accepting its hegemony. As Khong notes, the US seeks deference to it as a hegemon or power, and emulation of its ideas like liberal democracy. It imposes its values and preferred rules of engagement, if not by direct force, then through institutions like the International Monetary Fund that it dominates and directs. And its rewards for tributaries are military protection and access to its market.
In contrast, the various dynasties of Imperial China, even in their heydays, never saw the need to demand tributary states emulate their system of government or other values. As Khong notes, they left it to these countries to come to their senses and copy what made China such a glorious civilisation.
Of course the US is not ever going to concede that it behaves like a hegemon. As generations of the American political elite have told it, the US merely exercises global leadership. This was how Danielle Pletka, vice-president for foreign and defence studies at the American Enterprise Institute, put it in an article for The New York Times in 2012:
“Americans must know that it is not for mercantile benefits alone that it has exerted leadership. It is because no other power, and no other people that can, or if able, would exert the benign influence that has characterised our role in the world.”
Neither would countries that accept American hegemony – sorry, leadership – ever agree to being described as tributaries. Friends, allies, partners, yes, even though these terms imply an equality in hierarchy, which, well, is not immediately apparent.
Be that as it may, the challenge they must face soon, as US power wanes in relation to an ascendant China, is whether and how they should adjust to Chinese hegemony, if that is indeed what awaits. To return to the question Lind poses at the start of her essay: do they accept Chinese dominance or try to counter it?
In her concluding passages, she leaves little doubt she thinks they should not succumb, and argues that Japan, the only Asian country with the potential power to balance China, should lead a core group of like-minded nations sharing similar values and overlapping interests and, together with the US, offer the region an alternative to Chinese dominance.
“But the first step on this path is a Japanese – and broader East Asian – debate about the prospect of living in China’s Asia,” she writes.
There should indeed be debate – but about whether a China that is not going to be a hegemon will be needed to balance the emergence of a not so benign US governed by populists who are increasingly contemptuous of established rules of conduct between nations, and who will ride roughshod over everyone else as they seek to make America great again. ■
Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times