December 22, 2005

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Peace Through Superior Buying Power

The title is a subversion of a silly, immature T-shirt often sported during the cold war, replete with a mushroom cloud, that read: "Peace Through Superior Firepower".

I refer to the issuance today by China of a White Paper on Peaceful Development. The full text, for anyone with a lot of time on his/her hands, is here. It is basically saying that China is big, it just wants to make money for its people and leave the world alone, and by doing so it will make the world a better place. Let's leave aside the environmental challenge posed by China's coal-based industrialization for the moment, and discuss how it will really affect the international political environment. Little has been written on this subject so far.

Discussion below the jump.

I would argue that China's rise, particularly if the United States retreats from some of its international obligations, will actually mean that the United Nations will become an organization more closely aligned with its original founding principles.

China has been a big fan of the UN since taking its rightful place on the Security Council in 1972 from Taiwan - indeed, it has been a bigger fan of democracy in international relations than in domestic policy. In recent years, the UN has become rather activist, and has been brought in on several occasions to effect nation-building. Overall, too, after the end of the Cold War there has been a greater willingness worlwide to tolerate multilateral interventions in states the world community considers to be failing, whether due to human rights violations, the persecutions of minorities, or otherwise.

But the chief purpose of the United Nations, when it was founded in 1945, was to stop countries from invading each other (specifically, Germany and Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland) and the most sanctified virtue of the original UN Charter was that nations always had the right of sanctity in its own internal affairs. But the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain, and the many momentous events during and after, made that principle subordinate to other considerations (with the exception of Bush I invoking the sanctity of sovereignty of Kuwait after Saddam invaded it).

Now China, given its political set-up, rather likes that principle, and does not really care for countries being able to attack one another, particularly over differences in how a country should treat its own people. The guiding philosophy for Chinese international relations in the 21st century is set out in this white paper - we make money, you'll make money too, and we'll all be happy - happy enough to leave each other alone in terms of internal issues. It invokes Chinese history constantly to prove its point.

The trouble, as I've said before, that what China considers 'internal affairs', its own 'Monroe Doctrine', if you like, has been a continually shifting set of territories. France and China went to war in 1884, for instance, over who had a stronger sphere of influence in Vietnam (China lost, but evidently tried to re-establish it unsuccessfully in 1979). China has throughout history tried to exert its influence in much the same way a Godfather (in the Puzo sense) does, in setting up tributary relations for all bilateral ties. Let us hope China does not revert to historical norm on this front as well.

posted by HK Dave on 12.22.05 at 04:14 PM in the China category.


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i think the 2 wars on vietnams are quite different

1st war: france was trying to colonize vietnam, while china was defending a protectorate (presumably at the request of the country being invaded) -- this is what i thought but i haven't done the research yet. anyhow, the objectives were quite different. (this is not to say Qing did not want to make vietnam a province if it could). but to the vietnamese, being a protectorate is a lesser evil than being colonized.

2nd war: it is not about vietnam, it is about cambodia. to drag away vietnam's army so that there was less pressure on the cambodian pro-china force.
another view (e.g., Liu Yazhou) inside china was that carter needed some reassurance that China was indeed breaking from USSR (so that US would be supportive of its reform), and Deng showed the proof to Carter by warring vietnam.

IMO the 1979 was perhaps the only real invasive war of CCP China, and perhaps the only invasiion since 1842. i.e. one motivated by something outside china's own territorial view or self-defense. However, the objective was not for 're-establishing' the 18th century order.

posted by: sun bin on 12.22.05 at 04:41 PM [permalink]

Hi Sun Bin, I quite agree that the two wars were quite different. I was only extracting one similarity from them, which was that in both China was trying to maintain or establish its role as regional hegemon. China was certainly not a welcome force in Annam in the late 19th century, except of course for the ethnic Chinese that played an influential role in the cities. Quite different, I think, from the Korean example (in 1895).

I am hopeful that China will break away from, as you say, any attempt to re-establish the Qianlong-era set of state-to-state relations in China. I also agree that

It is just that it is continuously promoting its own 'peaceful' past through its storied dynastic histories with neighbors - it seems to have become modish to do so. I just wanted to point out some rather obvious shortcomings of this recurrent theme.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.22.05 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

"IMO the 1979 was perhaps the only real invasive war of CCP China, and perhaps the only invasiion since 1842. i.e. one motivated by something outside china's own territorial view or self-defense."

What about their attack on India in the early 1960s?

posted by: Tiu Fu Fong on 12.22.05 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

The clear driver of China's love of UN principles is Taiwan, with a nice sideline in being able to expand its sphere of influence without the Americans. If, like China, you define Taiwan as an internal issue, then the UN is great. But as Dave points out, China's history points the wrong way - towards making vassals of allies. In the US China may have finally found one potential ally (and rival) that it clearly cannot make a vassal, except perhaps economically.

But if recent history has shown us anything, it's that the current rulers of China are far more like previous rulers than they would have you believe. Which makes the chances of history repeating far more likely without strong vigilence from others. That's where the role for the UN in China will be in the future. And China may not like it.

posted by: Simon on 12.22.05 at 07:37 PM [permalink]

What perchance is so troubling about a return to historical Chinese hegemony in Asia? I know that the Chinese government categorically denies any such objectives and constantly denounces "hegemonism" especially on part of the United States, yet the end result of long term economic and political growth will inevitably result in such a situation. I would posit that Chinese domination of the Western Pacific is hardly the nightmare scenario that the Pentagon envisions and hardly unpleasant for countries on China's periphery. Asia dominated by a giant communist dictatorship does not sound particularly appealing, yet if historical trends are anything to go by, it is hardly destabilizing. If anything, Chinese hegemony in the Western Pacific has been the geopolitical norm for two millenia with the most recent two centuries being the exceptions. While Chinese domination is hardly an easy sell, the past has has shown that such a position has in truth fostered peace, and economic activity within Asia. Ironically, it has been periods when the Chinese state has been weakest and most vulnerable that conflict was most likely to appear. While the tributary state system has its disavantages, the fact that the relationship is hierarchical and dilineates clear positions for state actors removes the uncertainty so inherently dangerious in the Westphalian model of inter-state relationships. Inequality between states may be built into such a system, yet it only makes public what already exists.

posted by: Jing on 12.23.05 at 02:41 AM [permalink]

tiu fu long,

the border war in 1962 was the biggest lie in western media during the cold war. india invaded china and china was jsut defending its own borders. see here (by american and british scholars)

posted by: sun bin on 12.23.05 at 09:49 AM [permalink]

Jing, I'm not sure the people of Japan, Korea, Vietnam or Thailand are ready for a return to Chinese hegemony. In modern times even the USA struggles to assert hegemony within its supposed sphere of influence. We're in an age of sovereign nations that respect each other...aren't we?

posted by: Simon on 12.23.05 at 10:43 AM [permalink]

There are problems comparing modern day hegemony to China. China in the past, even during its expansionist periods was largely a continental power, its influence remote in most of what we call modernday Asia. I would hardly compare it to the global and far reaching hegemony enjoyed by the USSR or the USA.

I would also argue against the so-called stability of the tributary system. In the past China has more often than not been destabilizing force in regards to its neighbors. This should be viewed from the perspective of its neighbors, and not a sinocentric view. China has historically demanded subservient tributary relations, or military dominance through invasion or other military force. Taken from a non-Chinese Asian view, I would hardly describe China as having fostered peace in Asia.

posted by: everlasting on 12.23.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Does the US fail to exert influence on the Anglosphere? Britain, Australia....American power is still going strong I'd say. Today there are sovereign states, but weaker states orbit around more powerful ones. Britain, Japan and South Korea would never dare defy the USA.

A powerful China is most certainly NOT a return to the tributary system. Gone are the days of "barbarians and Empires". The only unfulfilled claim of the PRC is Taiwan - the Chinese Civil War is unfinished business. If/Once that is settled, the PRC has no reason to sabre-rattle anyone, anywhere. Sit back and let the economy continue to grow.

A war with the USA will totally destroy the advancements of the Deng era and throw China back into the stone age after a hailstorm of nuclear rain from the USA. And then the weak China of the 19th century appears again, and bits and pieces of the country fall apart. NOT the scenario Beijing wants to see.

posted by: ptan54 on 12.24.05 at 04:02 AM [permalink]

I quite agree with Simon and everlasting on their comments. As for ptan, I don't think anyone is suggesting that the US and China will be going to war. However, the US is definitely doing less these days to engage the nations of Asia on a full range of issues on which they are all interested, having until recently defined their main interest as counter-terrorism. The US is also now contemplating a scale-back of its military presence worldwide, including in Asia. This will leave a little bit of a vacuum (only a little since the US is far from disengaging completely) but this by default gives China more room to develop its own role as a regional hegemon.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.24.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

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