How Does China’s Imperial Past Shape Its Foreign Policy Today?: A China File Conversation

Throughout most of history, China dominated Asia, up until what many Chinese refer to as the “century of humiliation”—when Japan and Western powers invaded or otherwise interfered between 1839 and 1949. Now, with China on the rise again, are Beijing’s leaders looking to establish a new hegemony by drawing on the playbook of the distant past, when China’s neighbors were forced to pay tribute? Or will China's international relations be shaped less by an antiquated tribute system with China at its core, and more by the principles of the Westphalian treaties that brought peace and the concept of co-existing sovereign states to Europe in the 17th century? —The Editors

The ChinaFile Conversation is a weekly, real-time discussion of China news, from a group of the world’s leading China experts.

Chinese exceptionalism rests on several hoary myths, but perhaps the most perplexing is that of China as the ultimate pacifist nation, the victim of all and an aggressor toward none. In this narrative, China, as presently constituted, emerged fully formed from the mists of history and expanded to its current size by entirely (or mostly) peaceful means.

It is a view of regional history that often bemuses and frustrates China’s immediate neighbors, not the least Vietnam where the phrase “1000 Years of Chinese Domination” holds near as much resonance as “100 Years of Foreign Humiliation” does here in Beijing.

This exceptionalist narrative ignores the fraught history by which the former frontiers of empire became the borders and boundaries of a nation. This month, my students, undergraduates from several different U.S. colleges and universities who are studying in Beijing, are looking at the legacy of Qing imperial expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries during which the Qing Empire fought wars in both Burma and Vietnam on the pretext of enforcing regional order.

The Sino-Burmese Wars of 1765-1769 began, ironically enough for historians of the Opium Wars, when a local official escalated a trade dispute into an ill-fated attempt to expand Qing imperial power and prestige. In 1788, Qing armies intervened and occupied Hanoi when the Lê dynasty was toppled by the Tây Sơn army. Unfortunately, the commander of the Qing forces, Sun Shiyi, failed to capitalize on his early success and was forced to flee with his surviving troops back into China only a few months later.

A cynic might suggest that it’s not that China didn’t invade other countries, it’s just that it wasn’t very good at it.

In the nineteenth century, the Qing Empire would also fight wars with France and Japan when those powers aggressively challenged Qing influence in Vietnam and Korea. As Professor Crossley has noted, that influence came about through a diverse set of practices and rituals described as the “Tributary System” by John K. Fairbank and many other twentieth-century historians of China.

In the cases of the Sino-French War of 1884-1885 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Qing faced bellicose and aggressive powers who were unwilling to respect existing regional power relationships and had the military means to push back forcefully against the Qing assertion of its perceived rights and responsibilities as a great power.

What happens when the inevitable challenges the exceptional? If China’s aggressive assertion of territorial claims leads to conflict again with its neighbors in the present-day, how will that be squared with the collective self-image of timeless pacifism? Will future wars be explained as a preemptive defense of inherent Chinese territory, as in the case of the border wars with India in the 1960s, or will they be intentionally and conveniently forgotten, like the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979?

Ultimately, China’s efforts to spread its influence in the region beyond may depend on how the Chinese government can reconcile the extension of power beyond China’s borders with a self-congratulatory exceptionalist narrative of its own creation.