“How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power” with Howard French

Howard French (3)Former New York Times Asia correspondent Howard French leveraged years of investigative reporting in contemporary Asia with historical research in order to provide insight on China’s recent assertive behavior both regionally and globally. On March 21st, Mr. French shared his expertise at a World Affairs Council event at Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum. The event was conducted in partnership with the Seattle Art Museum, the Washington State China Relations Council, and the Elliott Bay Book Company which provided copies of Mr. French’s recently published book for sale entitled, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power” .

China is a major global player characterized by rapid economic growth since the 1980s, the construction of a massive navy, its claims to the South China Sea and subsequent development of artificial islands, its influential role in trade policy, and by heavily investing in AfricaCentral Asia, and Latin America. However, Howard French explained to this ‘asser
tive’ behavior does not mean China is stepping into a new role as a major global power but rather that the nation is merely attempting to restore the dynastic glory of the past after a devastating century of humiliation. In order to provide context, French noted that the century of humiliation was a mere blip in China’s long historical past with roots dating back to the sixth century. Notably, French explained that the China as we know it is by historical accounts a newly formed nation-state in its infancy that was created out of a culturally rich and powerful imperial civilization.

Howard French (2)French argued that national myths are what bind every country together, and that all nations have the propensity to focus on the positive narrative of their history and ideals. For example, Mr. French noted that United States sees itself as the beacon of freedom, opportunity, and the defender of democracy across the globe all while ignoring its roots in slavery and the conquering and forced relocation of America’s natives populations. Similarly, China has formed a national identity or “myth” which highlights the positive elements of its history, while glossing the fact that Chinese expansion was borne out of military conquest and forcible assimilation of its neighbors. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the newly formed Republic of China was tasked with the challenge of forging a sense of national identity to bind China’s vast geography and population together.

The premise underlying Mr. French’s book is that in order to understand any power it is essential to understand how its own sense of itself was formed, its national myth, which then helps explain a nation’s contemporary behavior. China’s sense of itself as a global leader has been formed out of centuries of reinforcement of viewing itself the biggest, oldest, and best. Mr. French argues that this wasn’t a groundless conclusion for the Chinese people to subscribe to for both geographical and historical reasons. From a geographical perspective, China (or imperial dynasties predating China) proportionally dwarfed its neighbors in terms of both territorial claims and population base. Additionally, Chinese civilization was culturally rich in science, medicine, education, art, philosophy, and religion; these achievements are perceived as unmatched on the global stage, and viewed with a deep sense of pride. Not to mention the fact that China sees itself as the first civilization in the world, and uses this as a “trump card” in disputes with its neighbors. China considers itself to be a global power whose patterns of expansion – in contrast to its view of Western imperialism – as peaceful, harmonious, and benevolent to its friendly, less-powerful neighbors.

French explained that China’s skewed self-perception arguably stemsHoward French (11) from its historical tribute system. Before Western influence in the Pacific, China was the most powerful global power known to its surrounding neighbors. The tribute system established a regional norm in which if a less powerful neighbor of China accepts China’s superiority and acts in deference to the great power, China is willing to share its resources. In this way, China’s self-written narrative is an impressive cultural achievement paired with generous, peaceful expansion- all while ignoring its violent wars and aggressive behavior, which enabled the formation of modern-day China.

Japan is one of China’s regional neighbors unwilling to bow down to China’s superiority (French described Japan as the “thorn in China’s side”). He predicted that if violent conflict is to emerge between China and Japan, it will likely be over the Senkaku Islands which are tiny, uninhabited, rocky islands northeast of Taiwan. Chinese claims to these islands date back to the 14th century, but they lost control over the region to Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. The U.S. gained control of the islands for a period directly following WWII, but handed back the islands to its ally Japan in 1972. By all accounts these islands don’t seem to be of significant strategic or economic importance, yet they are considered a flashpoint that could result in armed conflict. French explained that for the Chinese, the Senkaku Island dispute is of symbolic importance for two reasons. Firstly, China feels that Japan isn’t yielding to China in the way that it should as the regional leader. Moreover, China’s sees its claims to the islands as legitimate as they had ownership of the islands for longer and holds that they were “unfairly” taken away. Secondly, French argues that this dispute illustrates the lingering issues in Asia following WWII, which have yet to be resolved.

Howard French (16)Japan isn’t the only regional player who feels China is staking unlawful claims in the Pacific, China’s territorial claims to the majority of the South China Sea and subsequent development of artificial islands has shaken the region. The controversial Nine-Dash Line – China’s maritime claim to the South China Sea that was drawn based upon historical records – has left international tribunals wanting in terms of legality. However, the Chinese myth and sense of itself has made it a Chinese imperative and duty to bring about the return of the geo-political space under Chinese sovereignty, which existed at the height of the empire. The important thing to remember, contends French, is that the Chinese people believe that their territorial and maritime claims are legitimate and that they are expanding in an a peaceful, harmonious manner in accordance with their national myth/narrative.

French reminded attendees that it is not only the Chinese that have developed national narratives which ignore the darker parts of one’s history and only highlight the best or idealized version of one’s nation. However, in the interest of understanding one another and understanding the actions which appear to be “aggressive” in the case of China, or “irrational” in the case of North Korea, one first must understand how the nation views itself and its role in the world. By delving into China’s historical past and national myth with Howard French, it allowed for reflection of our own national myths and narratives, and how U.S. actions may be perceived across the globe.