|Hawaii's King Kalakaua|
Kalakaua, who had been received in Tokyo with "pomp and circumstance," made his argument to China based on race: we, like you, are the same as Asians. The Qing dynasty and its representatives, however, were shocked that Kalakaua would consider the "morally superior race" of the Chinese to be thought of as equals.
Condescension to outsiders was expressed in the Central Kingdom's demand for tribute from other countries and territories, including Japan's Ryukyu Islands, European explorers and traders on the Silk Road, and the "barbarian southern others" of Southeast Asia, among others.
In his thought-provoking "Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) Howard W. French shows how kowtowing to the leaders of China has been expected for centuries.
In 1793 Qing emperor Qianlong granted an audience with Lord Macartney, envoy of the British monarch, George III, in hopes of developing greater trade. "The English envoy plied his host with six hundred crates full of gifts, all carefully chosen to impress." Macartney, however, "had declined to perform the 'full' kowtow while presenting himself before the Chinese throne, meaning kneeling three times and prostrating oneself nine times, taking care to touch the forehead to the ground each time, according to the standard of ritualized submission demanded by Chinese protocol under 'tian xia.' [China-centric worldview)."
|A depiction of Lord MacArtney's meeting with the Qing emperor and failure to properly kowtow.|
China thumbed its nose at the proposal as "not consistent with our dynastic usage," adding "our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders." The letter closes with an ancient tweet-like threat to "barbarian merchants" to leave China alone. "Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!"
The idea of a special heaven-sent mandate, or "manifest destiny" by another name, was not new in history or human nature, but for centuries China's turn inward, coupled with its disdain for anyone non-Chinese and constant demand for outside tribute, caused a gradual internal weakening.
|Depiction of Admiral Zheng He.|
"China began its career as an energetic oceangoing nation under the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), and in historical terms that career was very brief, as was its period of serious engagement with the much-disputed waters of what is known today as the South China Sea. This history is critical nowadays not just to the Chinese Communist Party's expansive claims of having controlled the entire region enclosed by its nine-dash line 'since time immemorial' – which can easily be refuted – as official propaganda holds, but also in order to comprehend the emergence over time of what would become a remarkably consistent Chinese worldview, based above all on notions of centrality and superiority. Under the Ming dynasty three centuries later, when the Chinese were confronted for the first time with a European-drawn map of the world, in 1584, the 'mappa mundi' produced by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, they were astonished to find their empire positioned at the eastern end of the Eurasian landmass. Out of deference, Ricci drew another map for his hosts placing China at the center."In "Everything Under the Heavens" French examines China's historical ties with other states expected to kowtow and pay tribute, especially in Asia: Japan and its territories, Vietnam ("Annam"), Cambodia, the Philippines and Korea.
"This pattern is as evident on the Korean Peninsula as it is in Southeast Asia. China would prefer even an extremely nettlesome client in North Korea to any plausible alternative, and hence goes to great lengths to shield it from international pressure over its nuclear weapons program. A testy Pyongyang not heeding advice is better, in China's eyes, than a united Korea linked with the United States. Beijing simultaneously pressures South Korea, whose economy has become increasingly dependent on trade with China, against reinforcing its alliance with the United States, warning in 2016, for example, that if Seoul accepts the installation of sophisticated anti-ballistic missile systems to protect itself from North Korean attack, this could 'destroy bilateral relations' with China. In July 2016, the United States and South Korea announced their decision to deploy the missile defense system over China's strong objections..."If China has a world view of self-righteous superiority, with China at the top of a global hierarchy, what does that portend for the region?
Five hundred years after Zheng He's gunboat diplomacy and Chinese dynasties' demands for tribute, China, under President Xi Jinping, is embracing globalization, a cooperative approach to confronting climate change, and partnership-building with his neighbors.
But French points out that at a Central Committee "work forum" on diplomacy, Xi spoke "not only about the use of carrots and sticks with other countries, but also about the need to build the case for Chinese 'righteousness' and to reinforce Beijing's moral authority in the world."
Will China demand that the world's maps be centered on the kingdom "under the heavens"? Will China continue "stealthily tightening its grip on the surrounding seas to the east and especially to the south" through its New Silk Road Initiative? Will China continue to attempt "turning the South China Sea into a 'Chinese lake'" with its nine-dash line?
French notes: "Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said one would 'have to believe in a flat Earth' not to grasp that China's goal was to 'achieve hegemony in East Asia.'"
|Sonar Technician (Surface) SA Rodolfo Melo, USS Chafee (DDG 90), handles line as |
Chafee departs Hong Kong, China Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo by MC1 Benjamin A. Lewis.)
Meanwhile, at least historically, the United States has been a beacon of values: freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, among others. "China today is a country virtually without allies," French writes, "whereas America has a globe-spanning network of formal alliance relationships and a set of fundamental values – based on participation, openness, democracy and human rights – that constitute a tremendous appeal for peoples all over the world, often including citizens of unfriendly states and outright foes."
On the U.S.'s role and possible limiting of China as a competing superpower, French reappraises the rebalance to the Pacific that President Obama initiated:
"A country of China's size cannot be contained, and any effort to do so would be strongly counterproductive. Rather than containment, what is going on is a process whereby Washington is steadily raising the costs for China by repositioning 60 percent of its naval assets to the neighborhood and upgrading military cooperation with its allies, Japan, the Philippines and others, while helping medium-sized powers like Vietnam ... The most salient U.S. goal, as I've written elsewhere, is 'thickening the web among China's wary neighbors, who have a shared interest in keeping China from using force to upend the existing order. Japan excepted for the time being, none of these countries has any prospect of prevailing toe-to-toe with China, and some of them are frankly Lilliputian. In concert, however, even if not in outright alliance, they may be able to effectively tie down the giant and constrain it to a mutually acceptable set of international rules.'"How would the world and history be different if, in the late 19th century, a narcissistic China had not practiced racial animus and a transactional foreign policy? What if instead China had openly embraced international trade, cooperation and commerce? What if China had not demanded kowtowing – and instead embraced King Kalakaua of Hawaii.