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Kindly Seeking Mastery?

October 16, 2012

Pankaj Mishra resurrects, in popular form, the strange argument that the rise of China is of no concern to Asia, let alone America, because Asia and China got along so great during the Ming and Qing periods:

Still, similarly narrow-minded is the Western view in which China, bullying its neighbors and forcing them to seek U.S. assistance, is far from becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

In some extreme versions of Western Sinophobia, China is always plotting, while talking up its “peaceful rise,” to take over the world — a conspiracy insidiously advanced, if we are to believe the U.S. Congress, by such global Chinese companies- cum-Trojan-horses as Huawei.

Mishra is starting here with a strawman. Does anyone in Congress cite Huawei as evidence of a Chinese plot to take over the world, or as a concern about U.S. security that  China could exploit in the event of a conflict of the U.S.? These are the not the same thing. But that’s a minor point.

Such scenarios omit the fact that, unlike Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the U.S., among other erstwhile “rising” powers, China has virtually no record of military interventions in far-off countries.

Indeed, the history of China’s relationship with its neighboring states during its long centuries as the supreme power in East Asia furnishes some remarkable facts: the relative lack, for instance, of violent conflict between major states such as China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

China fought plenty of wars with the nomadic communities on its western and northern borders. But while the map of Europe was continuously and often brutally altered during the last millennium, the boundaries of China’s neighbors — Korea, Japan and Vietnam — remained largely stable for nearly seven centuries. China’s successful intervention on Korea’s side against a Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, for example, did not lead to a Chinese military presence abroad.

In other words, except for all the wars on its conflict-ridden borders, China fought very few wars. The selectivity here is highly amusing. China’s borders with its neighbors, which according to Mishra include Korea, Vietnam and, Japan, omitting the vast majority of historical Chinese neighbors. I am not sure what map of China, modern or historical, Mishra would like us to look like, but I am quite sure the countries here account for an extremely tiny percentage of China’s actual land borders, then or now.

In military historical reality, China’s territory in the Asian interior was frequently seized and re-captured through military conquest, frequently because China itself was prone to periods of internal collapse or disarray. Indeed, Qing China originated from a brew of restive Manchu vassals and peasant revolts. The already enormous territory of Ming China and the difficulty of Chinese governments in consolidating and furnishing military forces from this territory was a huge constraint on overseas adventurism or wars against China’s southern or eastern peripheries.

Even Mishra’s depiction of China’s treatment of Joseon Korea is quite misleading. It is true that the Ming Chinese force helped expel Japanese invaders in the late 16th century. Joseon Korea, though, also contributed forces to fighting the Manchus, as tribute for the protection that China offered from Hideyoshi. In this period of warring Chinese dynasties, the Qing, who would later rule China, not once but twice invaded Korea, subjecting it to plunder and diplomatic humiliations the Koreans considered all the more unacceptable because many saw themselves as more rightful inheritors of the Ming legacy than the apparently barbaric Manchu.

As Reihan Salam notes, what we are being set up for here is an incredibly misleading view of Chinese history:

What I find odd about Mishra’s thesis is that the borders of China have been contested for much of this period, much of which precedes the rise of the post-Renaissance national state, and if we think of Tibet or the Muslim-majority regions of western China as culturally distinct regions, it seems fairly clear that China has indeed gone through expansionist phases. To be sure, Mishra seems to believe that nomadic communities don’t count, which certainly helps his argument along.

Indeed, by dismissing all conflict on China’s borders as simply disputes with “nomadic communities,” Mishra is not simply engaging in egregious selection bias on the question of Chinese militarized disputes with neighbors, but also engaging in the same sort of historical and political de-legitimizing behavior that colonialists uses to justify conquests of supposedly inferior political entities. Beyond the question of whether we should simply dismiss massive land expansion because it was against polities with informal borders (would Mishra accept an explanation of the U.S.’s benign, non-aggressive foreign policy in the 19th century on the basis of ignoring U.S. conquests of “nomadic communities” on its western frontiers?), China did not simply wage wars of conquest against nomads.

In the Qing dynasty, beyond campaigns against the nomadic Dzungar Khanate, Uighur Khanate, Kyrgyz and Badakshan, and the Jinchuan hill tribes, China also incorporated more territory from Tibet into its own directly ruled provinces, suppressed Ming loyalists in Taiwan, China launched several campaigns against entities which, while China may have viewed them as barbaric, were certainly not “nomadic communities.” During the Ten Great Campaigns (during which many of the aforementioned actions occurred) China launched a retaliatory series of wars against Gurkha-ruled Nepal for raiding and plundering Tibet. When the Vietnamese Tay Son brothers overthrew the nominally vassal regime in Vietnam, the Chinese intervened to restore their favored regime, eventually settling for compelling the new Tay Son ruler into tributary status.

Perhaps most importantly, the Qianlong Emperor’s Ten Great Campaigns included several attempts to invade and subjugate Burma, with tribes and militias loyal to China failing to secure the Qing’s objectives in the borderlands. When Burma launched an invasion of Siam, China decided to invade Burma, resulting in attrition and disaster in the first two attempts, a deep offensive which gave way to defeat in the third, and finally, an all-out finale far less successful than its predecessor.

The point of recounting all of this is not just to belabor how much what we know as China today was formed by conquest during the Ming and Qing periods, but what factors actually constrained Chinese military expansion against the countries Mishra discusses.

China’s rate of intervention has far more to do with constraints on its ability and advantages of hegemony rather than constraints on desire. For example, against weaker states, China frequently chose to employ militias and proxies, such as the Shan militias in Burma, rather than directly intervene. Why? Because to deploy regular forces such as the Green Standard Army, even against small hill tribes and nomads, was incredibly costly. The legacy of the Ten Great Campaigns was an enormous financial drain and the repeated humiliation or frustration of a Chinese force even in expeditionary actions against territories China already nominally controlled, such as Taiwan and Sichuan.

Because China frequently faced internal rebellion, warlordism, and extreme capacity problems, its latitude for offensive action was extremely low. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Qing were able to field offensive military campaigns was because the Manchus, which previously drained Ming resources as they attempted to incorporate those territories under Chinese rule, were now running the empire itself. Raiding, punitive invasions, and tributary extraction, rather than extended occupation, proved a more frequent mode of war in many cases because the simple act of launching an invasion made outright occupation of a hostile state prohibitively expensive, a problem that Qing innovations in logistics and incorporation of Manchu and Mongol troops improved but did not solve.

Given the immensely devastating consequences of a Chinese military which frequently plundered and razed the target country, and the high financial cost of fielding this force for long periods of time, a tributary relationship ultimately provided an acceptable resolution to the war. The overall consequence of this sort of behavior by China, though, was contributing to the maintenance of an Asia impoverished and weakened to powers with greater military and economic means.

In other words, the Chinese system was not some well-functioning, harmonious relationship disrupted by the nasty intrusion of Western imperialism and realpolitik. It was, by the 19th century, a  decaying remannt of system running on path dependence and pragmatic acceptance that failed to produce military and economic adaptations that would ensure its geopolitical survival – it was “good enough” for maintaining the status quo against other Asian states, but not much better than that. Geography and political-military capability distributions explain Asian geopolitics far better than a simple acceptance of benevolent Chinese hegemony. China faced massive structural constraints to expansion into South, Southeast, and East Asia. While Mishra claims China was “militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states,” the historical record reveals that Chinese efforts to enforce territorial claims were incredibly difficult and helped weaken and exhaust the empire, particularly because the fighting in northern and western China, and the possibility of revolt, so frequently threatened to distract from any Chinese offensive.

Mishra’s account of the dissolution of the Tributary system is rather odd. He writes:

Within a few decades [of the beginning of China’s century of humiliation], Japan broke free of East Asia’s old tribute system and began its calamitous effort to find a place in the new global order of competitive empires and nation-states ordained by the West.

This is, quite simply, not how it happened. Japan infrequently paid tribute to China during the Ming dynasty, and the Tokugawa and the ruling bakufu never saw themselves as a Chinese inferior in the way the Chinese did. They were not a Japanese vassal or tributary during the Qing period, and indeed the bakufu sought to create a Japanese-centric tribute system to compete with China’s by the time of the Sakoku period (the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam, of course, also attempted to create a Vietnam-centric tribute system). When European forces did arrive in the 19th century, they did not detach Japan from any kind of Sinocentric system. Instead, they convinced and already Japan-centered government to adopt European-inspired innovations in state structure and military capacity. This, in turn, left territories which were isolated and weak ripe targets for Japanese expansion

Indeed, considering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”

Mishra’s account of co-dependency proceeds from this grievously flawed view of imperial Chinese history to a similarly flawed view of current events. Mishra argues that Asian countries will reject U.S. influence because it means war with China, without any reference to Chinese military history after 1949.

Few Asian countries can afford a war with China, even one fought with enthusiastic U.S. assistance. Also, Asian policy makers are unlikely to have forgotten how badly the previous U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia ended in Saigon in 1975, forcing even Thailand, an eager facilitator of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, to start deferring to China.

There is not one portion of this paragraph above logical, factual, or rhetorical suspicion. Firstly, just because Asian countries do not want to fight China does not imply they are unwilling to invest in their self-defense. When China invaded Vietnam in 1979, it beat the Chinese back despite being just years into recovery from a massively costly war with the United States and its allies. It is precisely the high cost of fighting a war with China or the Soviet Union that led Japanese leaders to accept an occupying power and security guarantee for decades from a country which had just engulfed Japanese cities in incendiary and atomic holocausts, so that Japan could recover without fear of a threat from mainland Asia. And it is precisely fears of the cost of a war with China that is leading Vietnam and the Philippines to reconsider their objections to U.S. military presence in the region.

Even so, Asian governments are not relying on a U.S. security guarantee to ensure their sovereignty and interests. Asia is engaging in a massive arms buildup and modernization. Although it would be a mistake to assume that all of this is due to China or even a general “arms race” dynamic, massive Asian military investment is important to establishing these countries as credible partners in an Asian security system, and raising the potential costs of a Chinese intervention.

Invoking the Vietnam War’s historical memory as a deterrent to Asian cooperation with the U.S. is, well, laughable. Vietnam itself is getting over the Vietnam War, and it would take someone totally militarily oblivious to think a U.S. conflict with China, even in the context of a proxy warfare on land in Korea, would resemble that conflict. A U.S. war with China would be challenging for a very large number of reasons, but Vietnam, more recently a victim of China than the U.S., points us to none of them.

Even Mishra’s analysis of the aftermath is dubious. Thailand was not “deferring” to China as some kind of neo-tributary state, but cooperating with China because of their common interest in checking Vietnamese-Soviet power in postwar Southeast Asia. Rather than “deferring” to a massive Chinese power, Thailand, for its own interests, promoted Chinese engagement in Southeast Asia.

In other words, the supposed “fantasies” of “futile and counterproductive” balancing behavior in Southeast Asia continued even after the U.S. withdrew from the region. The Jakarta Post columnist that Mishra cites aside, Asia is indeed balancing against China. Even Burma, as Salam notes, is reducing its diplomatic isolation and increasing military ties with India and even the United States to ensure it is “no longer at the mercy of a single regional power.” In other words, power-balancing against China or with the U.S. is a fantasy, except that Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and Burma are continuing or beginning to engage in it to some degree. Sure, China was able to use its economic leverage over relatively poor states such as Cambodia to disrupt, say, ASEAN negotiations on the South China Sea, but when it has tried to use its economic power to interfere with countries such as the Philippines and Japan, it has increased their desire for cooperation with the United States rather than compelled them to embrace a harmonious neo-tributary system.

Simply implying, as Mishra does, that Chinese nationalist stirrings are at fault for disrupting the fantastical return of a neo-tributary system, is part of the problem with the entire analysis here. The tributary system, which never operated in the manner Mishra suggests anyway, cannot come into being precisely because nationalism cannot be wished or managed away. China indulges nationalists as a necessary feature of its political and developmental model, while Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries now have nationalist mindsets that will refuse to accept Chinese economic centrality as legitimating writ for Chinese political-military supremacy or a downgrading of their sovereignty and international status.

As in the past, the reason to be optimistic are the continued constraints on Chinese military behavior, not any kind of return to Chinese magnanimity or peripheral Asian supplication. While China is unlikely to engage in expansionist wars on its northern frontiers soon, concerns about conflict with India and unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet continue to draw its military attention there. Similarly, the continuing possibility of internal unrest forces China to concentrate to a larger degree than many of its neighbors on internal security. Meanwhile, the simultaneous need to modernize its aging military, enhance its sovereignty-claims against strengthening local rivals, and consider the needs of power projection all threaten, as Andrew Scobell and Andrew Nathan point out, to create an overstretched military.

The geographic and military problems which made Chinese interventions in the Southeast Asian frontier difficult in the Ming and Qing periods largely exist today, indeed, one of the reason that many Southeast and East Asian countries are increasingly wary of a Chinese threat is that China is investing in naval and maritime capabilities which might allow it to circumvent the difficulties that its land campaigns faced. Though China performed well in the Sino-Indian War, India is modernizing its own military with an increasing eye to China. Similarly, the inexperience of the recent Chinese military in recent large-scale conflicts, and its questionable performance in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, mean that a diminished China threat, as before, has less to do with magnanimity than incapacity or risk-aversion.

An honest evaluation of the multitude of internal and external problems which challenge and divert Chinese power from subjugating its periphery does a much better job of explaining China’s place in international relations than an ahistorical and analytically flawed concept of a harmonious tribute system spoiled only by European rapacity. China’s neighbors have long courted external actors, resisted Chinese expansion, raised the costs of Chinese punitive behavior, and tactically engaged in tributary relations, but China has never had the ability to exert the hegemonic role in Asia that Mishra describes. Indeed, China is unable to exert comprehensive hegemony over the territory that China describes as Chinese. To the extent that Chinese military power increases, we should expect to see the role of the offshore U.S. security guarantor and nationalist, military-modernizing Asian states continuing to play a counterbalancing role. Mishra infamously savaged Niall Ferguson for clinging to and romanticizing outdated systems of Western imperialism and promoting latter-day reincarnations. It would do well for him to stop performing a parallel exercise in Asia.

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