China on Our Minds: History and Policy in the Asia-Pacific World

By Reed, James | International Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

China on Our Minds: History and Policy in the Asia-Pacific World


Reed, James, International Journal


"One aspect of a country's greatness," writes a Yale historian of modern China, "is surely its capacity to attract and retain the attention of others." By this standard China must rank among the most important and interesting of contemporary societies, perhaps second only to the United States. Paradoxically, China is also among the least well known. And the cultural and geographical region of which China formed the historic centre, what we now call east Asia or more broadly the Asia-Pacific, is still largely terra incognita to western students of international affairs. Even foreigners posted in China for some considerable period, a category of expert once known collectively in Britain and North America as "old China hands," have been the first to acknowledge how little they know of a country so ancient and vast, so unique and multifaceted. Above all China is acknowledged by those who know it best to be utterly unpredictable in its politics. In the words of an old Chinese proverb much quoted by the old China hands of an earlier day, "The Yellow River may change its course/But its waters will always be muddy."'

Today, China's course seems clear enough: to make itself the equal of the modern west through its self-proclaimed "peaceful rise" to great power status. By concentrating on economic growth over the past generation, China's leaders have transformed a longtime economic backwater into one of the world's leading trading states. With its system of political economy resolutely dirigiste in the east Asian mould, China has amassed enough wealth and raw productive potential to make its clout felt throughout the developing world and among the leading industrial countries.

This deliberate buildup of economic strength has been systematically translated over the past several years into far-reaching diplomatic and political influence, so that China now increasingly commands the world's political attention. In Canada, the Globe and Mail of 23 October 2004 devoted its entire Saturday edition to the rise of China, with enormous front-page headlines in Mandarin as well as English. One year later, Canada's newspaper of record repeated the exercise in a special issue called, "China rising 2." Moreover, Canada's prime minister of the day rarely gives a speech on foreign affairs without invoking the rise of China. In France, Le Monde Diplomatique, in a comprehensive survey of China's vigorous, worldwide diplomatic initiatives, including its oil diplomacy, informed its readership that "China upsets the global order." In the US, the Washington power elites debate whether China should be viewed as an economic, political, and military "threat" to American hegemony. On the academic wing of the American establishment, eminent political scientists argue whether the rise of China to great power status, with that country's growing military strength, implies that China will inevitably follow the imperial German model of military power leading ineluctably to aggression and World War. China, dearly, is on our minds.2

Exactly why we should be so obsessed with China at this particular moment, when China's power is largely futuristic, and America's power, whether rising or declining, is present for all to see, would make a fascinating study in the psychology of international relations. But it is the welcome burden of contributors to this section of the International Journal to discuss the lessons of history rather than the insights of psychology, and China's international relations abound with lessons from the past.

THE STRUCTURE OF POWER IN EAST ASIA AND THE PACIFIC: RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT

To appreciate those lessons and their bearing on current policy, it is essential to locate China in its unique historical and geographical setting. Analogies and parallels drawn from the international relations of the North Atlantic world, or from social science theory, are more often misleading than not. Western-style diplomacy, which was invented in the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, had no parallel in traditional China. …

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