Looking at China’s past to understand its future

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In the midst of one of the most heated presidential elections in decades, the United States faces numerous challenges abroad, including countering ISIS in the Middle East and solidifying the economic relationship with Europe.

Despite the current attention-grabbing challenges at home and abroad, the continually emerging importance of the U.S.-China relationship must not be lost in the turmoil.

{mosads}There are many complexities and challenges in the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship, and yet leaders in both countries seemingly agree that it has become the world’s most important one. However, the paradoxical nature of the relationship blurs the path to a cohesive and effective U.S. policy towards China.

Often China can seem to be our friend, enemy, and middleman all at the same time. Even further, there are many times when communication difficulties and rhetoric between our countries can make matters worse.

I saw this difficulty first hand on a visit to Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress hosted by the China-United States Exchange Foundation.

Our delegation of five former Members of Congress tried many times to convey the American perspective on the South China Sea, and often found ourselves saying, “Let’s agree to disagree on this point.”

However, if there is one thing that my recent trip to China reminded me of, it is the role   the country’s 5000+ years of history plays in all of Beijing’s decisions. China’s deep and complicated history is one that is often overshadowed by the days of Mao and more recent reforms.

The Middle Kingdom, as is the literal Chinese translation of the country’s name, has long considered itself the center of the universe with periphery states, many of them formerly known as “barbarians”, surrounding it.

While having had little expansionary will throughout its history, China has viewed the “lesser” states around it as having elements of Chinese culture. Sinocentric dominance was not sought to be territorial, but cultural.  This is an important historical point.

While China’s territorial claims and cultural impact often stopped at the water’s edge, it did once have one of the most powerful navies in the world during the Ming Dynasty, when Admiral Zheng He explored the world, visiting many kingdoms and continents. Zheng He’s navy was both technologically advanced and large for the time.

However, his voyages were not ones of conquest, differing from the West’s years later, but ones of tribute and encounter. While the superiority of China and the Emperor were to be acknowledged, only tributes, invitations, and rituals followed.

Throughout history, China has been attacked externally and internally, mostly by land. Constantly being exploited and on the defensive has left its mark on the country. China knew it could never conquer all of its surrounding neighbors nor could it ever be completely safe, living in a constant state of insecurity.

To surmount such adversity, China relied on its soft power abilities, including its cultural strength to coerce its neighbors into cooperation and even assimilation. As Kissinger pointed out in On China, “Its goal was not to conquer and subjugate barbarians but to ‘rule [them] with a loose rein’ (jin mi) through its cultural strength.”

While China and the world-at-large continue to discover a post-Cold War world order that includes Beijing, remembering China’s history will be valuable in forming a better understanding of Beijing’s goals and aspirations.

China is without a doubt looking to increase its regional influence and power, but based upon past history, it is not necessarily looking for territorial conquests and victories. It is instead likely looking to increase its soft power capabilities, seen also through its greater involvement in global affairs such as the Paris climate summit, the Iran deal, and North Korea.

China’s threat to the balance of power and the world hegemon is amplified by China’s potential capabilities and growth. Military spending has continued to increase, even with the relatively meager rise in expenditures in 2016.

It is easy to get caught up in the heightened rhetoric and over-magnify the territorial disputes as the beginning of China’s looming dominance, regionally and globally. But history may provide some relief from doomsday analogies and theories that proclaim China and the United States are on an inevitable path to war.

History cannot explain all, and China may be entering uncharted territory. The country’s evolving policy will require a different approach from that of the United States.

In the meantime, a sensible approach, attentive of China’s rich history and aspirations, that doesn’t forget but also doesn’t exaggerate China’s regional actions, will help guide the U.S.-China relationship to unparalleled heights.

Stearns was the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 6th Congressional District from 1989 to 2013 and is President of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress.


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