New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


China, History, and the Future


The following text was the basis for remarks Dr. Ford presented to an event on October 20, 2010, at the Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C.  The event was moderated by CNP Vice President Scott Bates, and also featured commentary by Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute.  (An audio recording of the event is also available on CNP's website.)

Let me begin by offering my thanks to CNP for their kind invitation.  I’d like to outline a few of the points raised by my book, The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations, using the analysis offered there to set the scene for Dan’s presentation.

My book tries to explore the foundations upon which it seemed to me that Chinese conceptions of global order are built, starting with the conceptual system pioneered by Confucius himself.  It was a “virtuocratic” conception of political order, in which harmony was felt to spread outward in concentric circles from the ruler because, and to the degree that, he was virtuous.  Indeed, a prince of perfect virtue would inevitably have the entire world subject itself to him in one form or another.  A prince of imperfect virtue would preside over disharmony and disorder, and no doubt soon be replaced by a ruler with more perfect qualities.

The Confucian philosophy of governance is thus radically monist.  It is naturally hierarchical, and the ruler cannot admit the existence of separate, coequal sovereignties without conceding some defect in his own virtue.  In my view, this paradigm has had important implications over the years, for it encourages the view that anything other than an at least symbolically hierarchical relationship favoring China is at some level philosophically offensive, ideologically untenable, and politically threatening.

There exist ongoing debates in Sinological circles between what one might call “continuity” and “discontinuity” thinkers – that is, between those who think that China’s ancient culture influences modern attitudes and those who think that something essentially new is now underway.  I tend to favor the continuity school, and my book tries to trace this arguably Confucian-derived “virtuocratic” conception of monist political order up to the present day.

In part because of the strength of this tradition, China faced a tremendous psycho-ideological shock in its 19th-Century encounter with the European-derived system of world order that revolved – at least in theory, at any rate – around the legitimate, long-term interaction of coequal sovereign states.  This new world system was in a sense incomprehensible through the lens of traditional Confucian mores.  Chinese thinkers seem adapted to it, however, by turning to what appeared to be the most relevant conceptual model of such interaction that their own history seemed to provide: the period of the Warring States prior to China’s first great unification under the Qin Dynasty.

I am probably making a very long story too short here, but this fixation upon the Warring States model helps set up the central question that I pose in The Mind of Empire for the future of China’s relationship with the rest of the world in the 21st Century.

Scholars of China policy have long debated the meaning and import of Deng Xiaoping’s now well-known maxim about how one should not “stick one’s neck out” until properly prepared for the consequences.  Many have taken this as emblematic of Beijing’s strategy of biding its time while its strength grows, downplaying its potential power and seeking to allay other countries’ worries and suspicions with a steadfast insistence upon a narrative of “benign rise” – namely, that China’s ascent should be embraced rather than feared, because Beijing will not behave like an aggressive successor state to American global power and its arrival on the world scene presents nothing but happy opportunities for “win-win” outcomes.

Some non-Chinese, and many Sinologists, buy into this narrative of benign rise.  Others, including China’s neighbors, are less confident – wondering, for instance, what Deng seemed to expect or intend would happen once China had properly prepared itself and did feel safe sticking out its neck.

The analytical framework I offer in The Mind of Empire provides a way to look at these issues.  To the extent that virtuocratic notions of authority still shape decision-making, the world of separate and coequal sovereignties is not a comfortable place for China.  Its traditions lead it to expect – and historically it has tended to demand, when its relative power has made assertiveness possible – political relationships with the non-Chinese world that look more like monist hierarchy than formal Westphalian equality.

To the extent that the Warring States period does provide the prism through which Chinese leaders interpret the modern world, these expectations are likely to be particularly powerful.  It is certainly true that the Warring States period offers China a deep reservoir of historical lessons and models highly relevant to life in a Westphalian system of sovereign state interaction.

At the same time, however, the Warring States period was – in the broader sweep of Chinese history – merely a transitional period.  In it, states were not assumed to exist in long-term legitimate relationships of coexistence with each other.  Instead, statecraft revolved around rival rulers’ efforts to create monist hierarchy.  This was a period of intense competition and endemic warfare in which order and peace were only restored by the consolidation of China’s first great dynasty.  It was apparently axiomatic that someone – in Confucian terms the most virtuous ruler, in Legalist ones the most shrewdly- and ruthlessly-advised one – would ultimately rule, and the central question of Warring States-era politics was who this would be.  A key lesson of the Warring States – one that has been reinforced over the millennia by China’s cycles of unification and fragmentation – seems to be that inter-state order is both undesirable and temporary.

Hence the question I toss on the table for discussion today: how will a “risen” China behave in the mid-21st Century if its current system survives and its power has continued to grow?  For now, it seems generally still to be in China’s interest generally to adhere to – and indeed to insist upon – Westphalian norms of separate and coequal sovereignty, and especially their corollaries of sovereign rights and non-interference.  This helps provide Beijing the breathing room it needs in order to grow into a first-rank power without provoking growth-preclusive counter-moves.

The key question for the future, however, is what will happen as China’s power grows, especially if it assumes the top-tier position that it considers to be its birthright – a position which any residual notions of virtue-derived political authority may encourage it to believe that China must attain if its system of rule is to be considered legitimate.  Will China by then genuinely have internalized Westphalian norms?   Or will China – when its power gives it, one might say, more options – be more inclined to nudge the global system toward a monist model more consistent with its ancient traditions and expectations?  All we can do now is speculate.

One may see reflections of ancient virtuocratic themes, for instance, in how China has insisted upon the purity of its own intentions, in the Communist Party’s reluctance to admit errors, and in its extraordinary sensitivity to criticism.  This is perhaps the modern instantiation of Mandate-of-Heaven thinking, and the natural result of Confucianism’s virtue-keyed conception of political order.  To raise questions in such matters is to impugn the legitimacy of Party rule.  Many national leaders around the world are offended when others criticize the competence and morality of their internal governance, and are uncomfortable in the face of evidence of domestic disharmony.  Few, however, approach such issues with the desperate indignation and denial displayed in Beijing.

China seems pleased to retain a tributary state on its Korean frontier, as of old, even if this client is now a brutal family tyranny armed with nuclear weapons.  Beijing is amazingly sensitive about issues related to its “territorial integrity” – a concept upon which it has fixated on the basis of the short-lived historical high-water mark of the Qing Dynasty’s geographic frontiers, which are perhaps symbolically and ideologically important in part because they formed China’s border just before European military power so profoundly shook the Middle Kindgom’s ancient and arrogant assumptions of virtuocratic civilizational centrality.

Indeed, the Chinese government approaches “territorial integrity” issues with an extraordinary neuralgia that one may suspect indeed does owe something to ancient suspicions that any disunity of what they take to be “China” impugns the moral virtue of its leadership and thus their right to rule anyone there at all.  As Chinese power has grown and Western power has been perceived to decline, moreover, Beijing has seemed much more assertive in its region, particularly with respect to its claims to sovereignty over vast areas of the Western Pacific – which might lead one to wonder where China’s conception of its rightful “territorial integrity” will actually end.

If these developments are the harbingers of a revived interest in some kind of virtuocratic hegemony – either regionally or on a broader stage – where might things be going as China feels more free to “stick its neck out”?  Some, especially China’s neighbors, fear direct dominion or the forcible imposition of tributary state status, a fate which some of them actually suffered for many years.  Historically, however, exertions of Chinese power vis-à-vis non-Chinese peoples on its periphery and farther afield have often been satisfied with symbolic homage.  The last time China had a powerful navy, for instance, it used it not to conquer but to overawe, eliciting from other rulers affirmations that China was indeed the most glorious and virtuous civilization on earth – though there no guarantee that many countries in the modern world would be willing to offer such humiliating obeisance.

But sometimes China has not been satisfied with mere symbolism, and historically has been in no way shy about exerting itself with military force when its relative power has permitted.  One might even imagine an idiosyncratic Chinese interweaving of brutal force with virtuocratic symbolism – a phenomenon of which modern examples may already exist.

When China invaded Vietnam in 1979, it appears to have intended to check perceived Vietnamese hopes for regional hegemony in the Middle Kingdom’s traditional tributary backyard of Southeast Asia in the wake of Hanoi’s victory in the Vietnam War.  Intriguingly, however, China appears to have decided against attempting a prolonged invasion and occupation in part because this would clash with Beijing’s public narrative of anti-imperial, anti-hegemonic international virtue.  China worried about the impact of an extended occupation of hostile territory upon its Confucian-tinged pretensions to superlative virtue, and opted in the end to depict its attack as being much like the kind of stern ear-boxing that a wise elder might administer to a troublemaking junior.

Force and pretensions to Confucian virtue thus can go hand in hand – as even Confucius himself seems to have acknowledged when asked what he would do if barbarians confronted with the presence of a wise Sage-king still did not behave.  He replied that in such circumstances it would be perfectly appropriate to suppress them by force.  This was not his preferred tool, but he had no particular problem with it.  In his words, “[w]hen good government prevails in the empire, ceremonies, music, and punitive military expeditions proceed from the Son of Heaven.”

What would a mid- or late-21st-Century China desire or demand of the world?  Perhaps nothing troubling.  History is not destiny, and it is possible that the narrative of “benign rise” will play out after all.  But perhaps not – and all this historical and conceptual baggage offers reasons to be concerned.

I would be surprised if a “risen” China were to insist upon formal “tributary” relationships with anyone as it did in earlier centrueis, but this does not mean that some modernized analogue to its ancient semi-hegemonic diplomacy could not be developed.  Already in the last decade, we have seen Chinese leaders repeatedly focus with special vehemence upon the need for others to “apologize” for presumed affronts to Chinese dignity after reckless or aggressive Chinese airmen and sailors have smashed themselves into other countries’ aircraft or patrol vessels in areas over which China flatters itself as having some kind of ancient proprietary interest.  We may see further elaborations of this sort of symbolically-laden virtue-reassertiveness in Beijing’s future diplomatic behavior.

But let me leave any further speculation for our discussion period.   Thanks for the chance to participate today.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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