A world full of barbarians

China is unlikely to succeed in using moral power to upstage the United States

Yan Xuetong is one of China’s finest minds on international relations. His recent volume, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power is an excellent introduction to the schools of political philosophy in the Chinese civilisation. His op-ed in the New York Times today presents his view on the essence (if at all an essence can be distilled from diverse, rich strands of wisdom) of what ancient Chinese thinking might mean for contemporary geopolitics.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.
How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.

This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness. [NYT]

Mr Yan argues that China must display humane authority abroad by developing better relations with other countries than the United States does. China must protect weaker states and strengthen regional security arrangements like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. He calls for China to be open to foreigners and attract talented immigrants. This is the way, he says, China can defeat the United States—not through hot or cold wars, but through strategic competition.

There’s much to recommend Mr Yan’s vision of China’s role in the world, not least because it might be a better template for Beijing’s foreign policy than whatever is on offer today. However, Mr Yan’s conceptualisation of humane authority being the route to global hegemony has two fundamental problems.

First, nations of the world resist the idea of an external authority, humane or otherwise. This resistance grows when the said authority is illiberal and inequitable. It is unlikely that nations that have tasted freedom, or are yearning for it, would willingly accept authoritarianism even of the humane variety. The best that can be said is that China’s civilisational ethos makes its people accepting of authoritarianism, but a look at Taiwan and Hong Kong suggests otherwise. If people value liberty more than whatever domestic or hegemonic humane authority offers them, then China is unlikely to gain influence. Mr Yan might be betraying the Middle Kingdom mindset, implying that “what Chinese people consider good, everyone else ought to consider good”.

Second, if China interprets ‘humane authority’ as discarding the Middle Kingdom mindset and accepting liberalism, plurality and diversity, then it might be indistinguishable from the United States. What then would be China’s competitive advantage vis-a-vis its primary rival? To defeat the United States, China will have to become more like the United States. If it becomes more like the United States, would it be a victory for China at all?

Traditional Chinese political philosophy is at its weakest when analysing a diverse, heterogenous world with multiple sovereignties. As Mr Yan’s arguments show, it finds it hard to reconcile values, beliefs and behaviours that are just different. In ancient China, people who didn’t subscribe to the norms were termed “barbarians”, to be kept out using great walls, kept away through diplomacy or subdued by military force. Chinese strategy has the unenviable task of dealing with a modern world that is full of such ‘barbarians’.

Related posts: On the Middle Kingdom mindset; and how it interacts with India’s geopolitical worldview.

The Asian Balance: What if China becomes a democracy?

Business as usual, with some relative advantage and why we need Reforms 2.0

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

It is extremely unlikely, but let’s say the fragrance of Jasmine flowers wafts across the Great Wall and perfumes China’s Han heartlands. A post-revolution China could take many forms, but let’s say that it turns into a democracy while retaining its existing international boundaries. Let’s set aside these two big “if’s” for a moment and ask what such a scenario would mean for India.

There are three fundamental questions. Will democratic China change its outlook, positions and policies with respect to India? Will it be any easier to deal with? And therefore, is a democratic China in our interests?

…it is likely that democratic China, like the People’s Republic, will see itself as the successor to the glorious empires of history (and its) geopolitical interests will not be too different from the People’s Republic’s.

There is also nothing to suggest that China will stop using Pakistan and other countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood as proxies and surrogates. Even the methods might not change. After all, if the US and France sell arms to the Pakistani army why can’t democratic China do the same? Let’s not forget that the US was very much a democracy when it abetted Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Will democracy make it be any easier to deal with the northern neighbour? Again, unlikely. Democracy in the eastern, western and southern neighbours has done little to transform their relations with India. Why should it be any different with China?

None of this implies that a democratic China is not in our interest. From a foreign policy perspective, the main reason to prefer a democratic China is to be able to mutualise the democratic disadvantage.

It is harder for democracies to doggedly pursue the quest for power. (See this post from 2006). Democracies are also more transparent. To the extent that we are familiar with Democratic China’s domestic political landscape it will be an improvement over the current situation, where we know little about the way the cards are stacked. Transparency will also make China’s politics more manipulable, and thus neutralise an asymmetric advantage that it has over India today.

Preference is one thing, capability another. A democratic, coalition-run India does not have any serious means of promoting democracy across the Himalayas. It does, however, have the power of example. The Communist Party of China contends that prosperity can only be achieved by suspending freedom. We can prove it wrong. The Beijing Consensus can be challenged, in China and outside, by fully dismantling the Delhi straitjacket, and implementing second-generation economic reforms. [Business Standard]

Thirty Hindu tributaries for the Middle Kingdom

How China might reshape the world—Undo the Indian Union edition

A realist theorist in Beijing goes into the forest to do tapasya. After 9 years of meditation and a hard ascetic life, there is a flash of light and Lord Shiva himself appears in a flash of light. He grants the Chinese realist theorist a boon. “Ask, O mortal, what ist thy dearest wish?”

The realist then asks for something similar to what appeared (via C3S India) on several websites in the People’s Republic of China, including on that of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies (CIISS) (here’s a Google translation of the article). “O Ni-La-Kan-Ta” he says, “then let China break India up into 30 small nation-states.”

But then, in the real world, realist theorists in Beijing don’t do tapasya for 9 years. So such wishes remain wishes. But let’s grant one thing—if you are a growing global power north of the Himalayas, you would rather not have another one next door. Not only is the absence of a peer-competitor better from a strategic perspective, it is also more comforting to a Middle Kingdom mindset—one that sees tributaries in neighbours, not sovereign equals. So calling for China to bring about the break-up of India into 20-30 small states is perfectly understandable.

Now it is all very well if Beijing’s think tanks allow their theorists to fantasise in this manner, but an article appearing in government- and party-linked publications must be interpreted as a subtle threat that China might revive its long-running programme of supporting separatist insurgencies in India’s North-east and elsewhere.

The cocksure Chinese realist didn’t account for two things: that China’s political fragility is all the worse because of the rigidity of the Chinese state, and might yet implode even if India doesn’t attempt to return the favour. And second, an event that leads to the break-up of the region south of the Himalayas into ethnic nation-states is unlikely to spare the region to their north. It makes sense, therefore, for Chinese realist theorists to be careful in what they are wishing for.