China Says Its Intentions Are Peaceful, but History Offers a Warning

News Abroad
tags: China

Tonio Andrade is professor of Chinese and global history at Emory University and the author of The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History. Click here for his website.

This week President Obama is meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping, and by all accounts, the talks are likely to be tense. The two superpowers are in disagreement about the China Seas, where China has been building artificial islands with airbases and radar stations. Beijing declares that the new airbases are not military – the Xinhua News Service calls the airstrips “our country’s most southern airport” – but many analysts are concerned. Xi Jinping has been more militarily assertive than his three predecessors, and there is no doubt that the rise of China will eventually bring a sea change in the balance of power that has existed in Asia since the end of WWII. Just as the rise of Germany in the late nineteenth century led people to talk about the German Question, so China’s rise has raised "the China Question." We all know how the German question was answered – – two world wars and unprecedented devastation. Can the China question be resolved more peacefully?

There was no historical precedent for a powerful Germany, because Germany didn’t exist before 1871, but China has a long history as a unified and powerful state. What lessons does China’s long history offer to understand its military assertiveness today? First, China has traditionally been a powerful, militarily-advanced country. Americans -- and Westerners in general -- have long had a tendency to underestimate China’s militarism and denigrate its military prowess, an attitude that dates back to the Opium War of 1839–42 and that was famously reinforced during the Second World War, when Western and Chinese propaganda portrayed the Chinese as inherently peaceful. As the Frank Capra film The Battle of China put it, “In all their four thousand years of continuous history they have never waged a war of conquest.” Chinese officials themselves still make similar claims, suggesting that China has never, as former Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has stated, “waged a war of aggression.” China’s president, Xi Jinping, has stated that “we Chinese love peace. No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion.”

Yet even as he publicly speaks such words, president Xi has made no secret of the fact that he thinks it is time for China to assert itself more firmly on the world stage. The artificial islands that China has built on these disputed reefs -- along with the increasingly firm rhetoric that surrounds them -- is just the most recent of many signs of a new military confidence in China. And why not? China now has one of the largest, best-funded, and most technologically advanced armed forces in the world, and its trajectory is sound. Its budget grows each year. Its weapons get better and more numerous.

In this respect, China today is reminiscent of the China of the last two imperial dynasties at comparable points in time, i.e., a half century after their establishment. At that stage, both of those dynasties, having finally consolidated control over the realm and attained a measure of stability, began to assert themselves militarily, eventually undertaking massive wars of expansion. In the early 1400s, the Ming dynasty sent forces armed with guns, bombs, and rockets to invade Mongolia and Vietnam, even as it sent out huge fleets to demonstrate its might from Okinawa to the Eastern coast of Africa. In the late 1600s and the 1700s, the Qing dynasty sent even larger forces to invade Central Asia, Tibet, Burma, and Vietnam. These armies were huge and powerful. The wars were not all successful, but in each case – both Ming and Qing – they ended with China in a position as the unquestioned hierarch of the Eastern Hemisphere.

Today, six decades into the communist period, China finds itself in an increasingly favorable position in the world. China is stronger than at any time in its modern history. Is it ready to use its muscle in the same way as its imperial predecessors? Is it looking for an excuse to assert itself against the USA?

It’s impossible to know, and neither the Ming nor the Qing faced any rival as powerful as the USA is today. Xi Jinping and his comrades are aware that they must tread carefully, and fortunately, the USA’s current leadership is also being cautious, avoiding anti-China bluster. But what will happen if one of the GOP candidates who crow about being “tough on China” wins in November? What will happen if naval and aeronautic brinksmanship leads to a downed plane or sunken vessel? The chance of military conflict may be low, but there is considerable friction, and it wouldn’t take too much to set off a conflagration.

In any case, history suggests that China, with its deep and rich military heritage combined with a huge military that is rapidly becoming one of the most technologically advanced in the world, would not prove an easy enemy.

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