Historians make lousy prophets. In fact, we find it hard enough to predict the past, much less tell the public what is going to happen in the future. Nonetheless, in the spirit of “modelling” which has provided so much accurate information about our current viral plague, I am going to attempt here to predict some imminent geopolitical strategy.
As the People’s Republic of China makes threats against Canada for detaining an executive of a Chinese corporation, as it warns the USA of “stern counter-measures” and as it outrages its Southeast Asian neighbours by its claims to the South China Sea, it is not hard to portray these moves (and American counter-manoeuvres) as parts of a new Cold War. If such is the case, what historical model can we use to assess China and its future actions?
Will President Xi’s PRC, for example, resemble Stalin’s or Brezhnev’s USSR in the wake of the Second World War? There is the similarity of two superpowers with massive nuclear arsenals facing off over a number of possible flashpoints – Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam on one hand, and Taiwan, Hong Kong, and intellectual property theft on the other – but the difference today is significant. The economy of the Soviet Union was its weakest point whereas it is China’s economic muscle that gives it such clout on the international stage. Neither Stalin nor Brezhnev was able to make cowards out of world leaders by threatening to withhold supplies of vital rare earths or bribe whole continents with financial aid and technical expertise. Moreover, China, unlike the USSR, need not occupy neighbouring countries to exercise sway over them.
Should we, perhaps, look to Nazi Germany as the model? There are a number of interesting similarities between Hitler’s National Socialists and Xi’s People’s Republic. Both are run on the Führerprinzip of an unchallengeable leader who is head both of the state and the ruling party apparatus, both love to stoke jingoistic levels of patriotism directed against foreigners, both claim to be threatened by a dangerous internal enemy – Jews for the Nazis, Uighurs and Falun Gong for the Chinese, and both are quick to snatch chunks of weak neighbours; much as the Germans grabbed the Sudetenland and Austria, China has grabbed Indian border territory and vast areas of the South China Sea. But, so far, China has shown no inclination to use its military might outside of its border territories unlike Hitler’s ambitions to rule conquered lands from the Atlantic to the Caucasus.
But, to this humble observer, the state that most nearly resembles the PRC is the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty that ruled China from 1644 to 1912. The key elements in this model are the notion of sino-centricity, a visceral dislike of foreigners, refusal to accept global diplomatic norms, and a winner-takes-all approach to trade.
Sinocentricity is the idea that China is the centre of the world, the only true empire – “Zhongguo”, the Chinese name for their country means “Middle Kingdom.” All other states must be regarded either as tributary nations, acknowledging their inferiority to China and receiving trade privileges in return, or as barbarians. The Qing refused to accept other countries as in any way equal, or worthy of having a permanent diplomatic presence in the capital. When at the end of the 18th century Britain sent a mission to negotiate a treaty with the Emperor, their emissaries were refused an audience and instead were given a note telling them that “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures. Therefore, O king, as regards your request to send someone to remain at the capital, while it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.”
Sinocentricity can be seen today in the way the People’s Republic behaves on the world stage. It aggressively hacks foreign governments, corporations, and news agencies; it has sanctioned intellectual property theft on a massive scale; it suborns international organizations such as WHO and Interpol as well as politicians in other countries’ parliaments. Chinese living abroad as students, scientists, businessmen, or emigrants are used as agents of influence and espionage. China demands that its actions not be criticized and that its enemies, such as Taiwan or the Dalai Lama, be treated as enemies by the rest of the world. The rules that are supposed to govern international behaviour mean nothing to the PRC: when one of its grandees is detained in Canada (in luxurious house arrest) innocent Canadians are taken hostage and we are told to stop our “wrongdoing” and warned of “grave consequences”.
In terms of commerce with the rest of the world, China under the Qing dynasty insisted on making the rules, running an enormous trade surplus, accepting only silver for its exports, and severely restricting foreign imports. This mirrors the enormous trade deficits that the PRC is content to profit from in its dealings with most western countries including Canada and the USA.
Like the Qing, the People’s Republic of China is not interested in foreign expansion. The world, in general, need not worry about Chinese colonies or invasions but it will seek to ruthlessly maintain its dominance of east Asia. It will not hesitate to use force in dealing with Hong Kong or Taiwan or in defending its interests in North Korea or the South China Sea. We can expect that, unless checked, China’s economic muscle will continue to be used to acquire increasing influence in Africa, South America, and in exercising illegitimate pressures on countries in the west.
In 1840 it took the Opium Wars to open up China to trade and respect for diplomatic usage. It is essential for the world order of the 21st century that China is made to realize that the rest of the planet does not regard it as the Middle Kingdom, unhampered by the accepted standards of behaviour.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.