Stephen M. Walt

The myth of Chinese exceptionalism

Note: I’ve posted several times on the question of Sino-American relations. Today I feature a guest post by Yuan-kang Wang of Western Michigan University, who offers an interesting analysis of what China’s past behavior might tell us about its future course. By Yuan-kang Wang: As a regular visitor who enjoys reading this blog, I thank ...


Note: I’ve posted several times on the question of Sino-American relations. Today I feature a guest post by Yuan-kang Wang of Western Michigan University, who offers an interesting analysis of what China’s past behavior might tell us about its future course.

By Yuan-kang Wang:

As a regular visitor who enjoys reading this blog, I thank Steve Walt for the invitation to contribute this guest post on the relationship between Chinese power, culture, and foreign policy behavior.

Steve (and others) have written about American exceptionalism. It won’t surprise you to learn that China has its own brand. Most Chinese people — be they the common man or the political, economic, and academic elite — think of historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture. Because Confucianism cherishes harmony and abhors war, this version portrays a China that has not behaved aggressively nor been an expansionist power throughout its 5,000 years of glorious history. Instead, a benevolent, humane Chinese world order is juxtaposed against the malevolent, ruthless power politics in the West.

The current government in Beijing has recruited Chinese exceptionalism into its notion of a "peaceful rise." One can find numerous examples of this line of thought in official white papers and statements by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other officials. The message is clear: China’s unique history, peaceful culture, and defensive mindset ensure a power that will rise peacefully.

All nations tend to see their history as exceptional, and these beliefs usually continue a heavy dose of fiction. Here are the top three myths of contemporary Chinese exceptionalism.

Myth #1: China did not expand when it was strong.

Many Chinese firmly believe that China does not have a tradition of foreign expansion. The empirical record, however, shows otherwise. The history of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) shows that Confucian China was far from being a pacifist state. On the contrary, Song and Ming leaders preferred to settle disputes by force when they felt the country was strong, and in general China was expansionist whenever it enjoyed a preponderance of power. As a regional hegemon, the early Ming China launched eight large-scale attacks on the Mongols, annexed Vietnam as a Chinese province, and established naval dominance in the region.

But Confucian China could also be accommodating and conciliatory when it lacked the power to defeat adversaries. The Song dynasty, for example, accepted its inferior status as a vassal of the stronger Jin empire in the twelfth century. Chinese leaders justified their decision by invoking the Confucian aversion to war, arguing that China should use the period of peace to build up strength and bide its time until it had developed the capabilities for attack. In short, leaders in Confucian China were acutely sensitive to balance-of-power considerations, just as realism depicts.

Myth 2: The Seven Voyages of Zheng He demonstrates the peaceful nature of Chinese power.

In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese dispatched seven spectacular voyages led by Zheng He to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and East Africa. The Chinese like to point out that Zheng He’s fleets did not conquer an inch of land, unlike the brutal, aggressive Westerners who colonized much of the world. Instead, they were simply ambassadors of peace exploring exotic places.

This simplistic view, however, overlooks the massive naval power of the fleet-27,000 soldiers on 250 ships-which allowed the Chinese to "shock and awe" foreigners into submission. The Chinese fleet engaged in widespread "power projection" activities, expanding the Confucian tribute system and disciplining unruly states. As a result, many foreigners came to the Ming court to pay tribute. Moreover, the supposedly peaceful Zheng He used military force at least three times; he even captured the king of modern-day Sri Lanka and delivered him to China for disobeying Ming authority. Perhaps we should let the admiral speak for himself:

"When we reached the foreign countries, we captured barbarian kings who were disrespectful and resisted Chinese civilization. We exterminated bandit soldiers who looted and plundered recklessly. Because of this, the sea lanes became clear and peaceful, and foreign peoples could pursue their occupations in safety."

Myth 3: The Great Wall of China symbolizes a nation preoccupied with defense.

You’ve probably heard this before: China adheres to a "purely defensive" grand strategy. The Chinese built the Great Wall not to attack but to defend.

Well, the first thing you need to remember about the Great Wall is that it has not always been there. The wall we see today was built by Ming China, and it was built only after a series of repeated Chinese attacks against the Mongols had failed. There was no wall-building in early Ming China, because at that time the country enjoyed a preponderance of power and had no need for additional defenses. At that point, the Chinese preferred to be on the offensive. Ming China built the Great Wall only after its relative power had declined.

In essence, Confucian China did not behave much differently from other great powers in history, despite having different culture and domestic institutions. As realism suggests, the anarchic structure of the system compelled it to compete for power, overriding domestic and individual factors.

Thus, Chinese history suggests that its foreign policy behavior is highly sensitive to its relative power. If its power continues to increase, China will try to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia. This policy will inevitably bring it into a security competition with the United States in the region and beyond. Washington is getting out of the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan and "pivoting" toward Asia. As the Chinese saying goes, "One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers." Brace yourself. The game is on.

Yuan-kang Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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