Putting China’s Goals Into The Context Of Their Ancient History




In The World Post this week, Oxford historian Peter Frankopan puts into historical context China’s initiative to invest in infrastructure across Eurasia and build out new trading routes that connect continents. “Precedents and parallels are important in providing intellectual credibility and framing the overarching vision of what is at stake,” he writes, referring to what the Chinese call the Belt and Road Initiative. As Chinese President Xi Jinping said in Beijing in May, the “ancient silk routes embody the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.”

Frankopan goes on to compare China’s initiative to the era of Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries. “It is not surprising, of course, that the emphasis should be placed on the positive exchanges that were enabled and facilitated along the Silk Roads, rather than pointing out that disease, environmental change and violence also sometimes coursed along the arteries connecting east with west. Nevertheless, it is striking to note that while the rhythms along the Silk Roads were not always smooth, they compare favorably when set alongside those of Europe, whose history was shaped by almost never-ending confrontation and warfare.”

The road to China’s rejuvenated future inevitably runs through the present, where it must prove its proposition is a “win-win” for all, as it claims. “If the Belt and Road is part of a larger attempt to build out infrastructure, it is good,” Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of the Bank of India, told me in an interview. “Obviously, there is a certain degree of China-centrism in this. But if the capabilities formed while building this infrastructure allow for a further set of ties for development ― logistical networks and citizen networks connecting different places ― it can only help boost economic activity.” But, Rajan warned, “the Chinese do have to be careful about the political implications of this project. It shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t be seen, as isolating certain groups or enabling certain countries at the expense of others. I’m not only talking about India, but globally. When one country pushes for a certain structure, it is important to show inclusiveness and disinterestedness.”

The present also poses challenges to China’s future plans on other fronts, notably the South China Sea, where the U.S. and its allies have been the stabilizing presence since the end of World War II. In a provocative article, Harvard’s Graham Allison also looks to history to show how modern China’s recent efforts to reclaim influence in the South China Sea are tame when compared to how America established its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere in the early 20th century. “American leaders enjoy lecturing the Chinese on ‘maintaining the rules-based international order,’” he writes. “The message is clear: China should be more like us. But Americans should be careful what they wish for. In the United States of Amnesia, very few Americans have any inkling of how we behaved at an analogous period in our history.”

In the decade that followed Teddy Roosevelt’s election as president, writes Allison, “the U.S. drove Spain from the Western Hemisphere, threatened Germany and Britain with war, supported an insurrection in Colombia to create the new country of Panama and declared itself the policeman of the Western Hemisphere, asserting the right to intervene whenever and wherever it judged necessary.” Allison concludes: “If China really follows early 20th-century America’s footsteps, we ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Writing from Manila, Richard Javad Heydarian finds the Philippines smack in the middle of the controversy over a global rules-based system versus China’s assertiveness rooted in the claim of “historic rights.” Even though a United Nations tribunal arbitrating the Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled in favor of the Philippines a year ago and nullified China’s claims, China nonetheless pushes on. In a sign of China’s growing influence, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has not pushed back. On the contrary, as Heydarian writes, Duterte “canceled various joint military exercises with the United States in the South China Sea, while nixing initial plans for joint patrols in the area. In exchange, China has offered a multi-billion dollar package of infrastructure investment and a $500 million loan to the Philippines’ military.” The Chinese, Heydarian notes, are delighted by this improvement in bilateral relations, calling it a “golden period of fast development.”

However, all is not quiet on the home front back in Beijing. Steve Tsang sees recent moves by Xi to demonstrate his resolve in cleaning up the Communist Party as a sign he is compelled to confront resistance in advance of a critical upcoming Party Congress that will put in place the future leadership team. “Xi is seeking to make substantial changes to some of the norms or conventions which were first put in place after the now infamous Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that altered many of China’s relations in the region. This is where he faces great resistance,” writes Tsang. “The cornerstone for political stability up until this point was an institutionalized succession process, by which a new generation of top leaders was identified and put in apprenticeship for five years before taking power for a maximum of two five-year terms.” That this process may be flouted by Xi is highly unsettling, according to Tsang, for those who see orderly succession as the basis for the Party’s success over recent decades.

Delving into the deeper cultural and civilizational aspect of modern China, Jenny Bourne asks: Can anyone be Chinese? Her question was prompted by a recent essay by the Beijing-based Canadian scholar Daniel Bell, in which he argues the affirmative. Bourne agrees, embracing Bell’s claim that China once accepted foreigners as Chinese. “During the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.),” she writes, “this embrace of other cultures was a reality. Often foreigners who had been employed by the Chinese government, such as Turks, Koreans and Arabs, were welcome as members of Chinese society and even allowed to take on public positions in government. If ancient China could stretch the boundaries for Chinese assimilation, why can’t we do that again now with identity?”

Finally, this week we have a video on the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, where water and electricity have become desperately scarce, which Fedaa Al Ghussain filmed and narrated.

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