By now, even the most casual observer of goings on in Asia will have noted the aggressive geopolitical maneuvering of China, a country news outlets have taken to calling “resurgent.”
To understand how apt that term is, it’s necessary to visit China’s distant past. By examining the ancient roots of its self-regard, it’s possible to bring the nature of its relations with neighboring countries into sharp focus. This is the idea at the heart of “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” a new book by Howard W. French, a former New York Times bureau chief whose posts included Tokyo and Shanghai.
After more than a millennium of being the dominant cultural force in Asia, China spent the 20th century either locked in conflict with foreign powers or mired in internal strife. After a return to relative stability in the 1980s following the self-destructive nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, the country began a period of growth that would lift millions from poverty, sparking breathtaking expansion in its economic and military spheres that still continues apace. For the first time in recent memory, China is daring to reclaim its past.
In this book, French has curated a history of China’s foreign relations by the light of which current events can be read, with the titular tian xia providing the central thread. Across changing dynasties and political systems, the leaders of China steadily regarded the known world, “everything under the heavens,” as their dominion by divine right. The view that China’s power and authority stemmed naturally from a superior culture and the “mandate of heaven” dies hard, according to French.
Resting his arguments on wide and thoroughly referenced reading, he follows the trail of this manifest destiny of the East through time, showing that in its dealings with other nations and peoples — whether exacting tribute and supplication from Okinawan royalty during most of the Edo Period (1603-1868) or playing Vietnamese and Cambodian interests against each other in the 1970s — China has seen itself as the cultural and economic center to which all else is peripheral.
For Japan and other countries nearby, this becomes clearer by the day. Citing ancient history, China has laid claim to everything within the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea, which contains vital shipping arteries. In addition to ignoring a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that rejected the legal basis of such claims, China has engaged in large-scale land reclamation projects near the Spratly Islands within the nine-dash line and, by 2016, it had established anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on some of these artificial outcroppings. Meanwhile, tensions regularly run high around the Senkaku Islands, which lie roughly halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan and are claimed by Japan (which controls them), China and Taiwan.
“Today, in ways that are increasingly unmistakable, China’s geopolitical play draws on Chinese conceptions of the world and of the country’s own past traditions of power,” writes French, who is today a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “Everything about its diplomatic language says that it views the Western Pacific as it once did its ancient known world, its tian xia, and that it intends for this region to return to its status as a place where China’s paramount standing goes unchallenged.”
French pauses at telling points in history to examine China’s attitude. He hovers above Zheng He, a eunuch admiral whose voyages at the head of a massive fleet in the early 1400s through Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa have been dredged up as an example of both China’s historical control of sea lanes and the abiding benevolence of its culture. And he expends considerable ink detailing the ancient and fraught relationship between China and what is today Vietnam.
Reading French on China’s sudden switch of allegiance in the 1970s from Hanoi to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, it’s hard not to think of North Korea: “Ideology explains little about Beijing’s strategic choices in the region. China’s real motives stemmed from a calculus that was far older and ran much deeper. Its basic instinct, which is still operative today, was to cling to and shelter states that behaved like tributaries and to oppose, cajole, subvert or subdue those that stood in the way of its project to hold on to an old-fashioned realm.”
French ends with a detailed summation of recent developments and a demographic analysis. We are, he concludes, likely on the cusp of the roughest wave of tensions from China’s attempts to control its maritime surroundings. China is mounting this push, he believes, before it succumbs to complications from a graying cohort that dwarfs similar problems in Japan.
“Everything Under the Heavens” was completed just before the advent of the Trump administration, but in an interview with The Japan Times, French had this to say about China’s view of the current U.S. leadership: “I remember during my time as a correspondent in Tokyo being told by a Japanese diplomat that the most remarkable thing about the United States is its capacity for course correction, renewal and resilience. There are surely people among the Chinese intelligentsia who share this thought and are wary about reading too much in the present state of things in Washington. One must hope that this capacity will remain intact.”
Whatever happens, this book will remain a valuable resource for the continuity in the Chinese approach over time that it lays bare. “It is important never to lose sight of bedrock concepts like these, because they provide insights into how (Chinese President) Xi Jinping imagines ordering the world of today and tomorrow,” French writes. “They help to understand the China Dream itself.”