AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 505

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Session 505: Does the Past Tell Us Anything? History, Asia’s Regional Politics, and China’s Resurgence

Organizer: Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Discussants: Gungwu Wang, National University of Singapore, Singapore; Lynn T. White, Princeton University, USA

How might China’s ascendancy affect international relations and regional order in Asia? Both proponents of the “China threat” theories and advocates of peaceful development reference history when staking their claims about China’s role in shaping politics in Asia. Those wary of an increasingly powerful China highlight past instances of Chinese aggression toward and dominion over its neighbours. Others advancing a more benign perspective, including current Chinese leaders, assure the world that China will shun belligerence and hegemony because it did so in the past. The tension between these accounts suggests a need to reconsider whether and how historical knowledge informs efforts to understand contemporary Asian politics, as well as China’s place in such dynamics. This panel intends to explore specific conditions that influence China’s relationship with order and politics in Asia by reassessing historical material. It suggests that drawing insights about contemporary Asian politics from the past requires more careful historicising than is often the case. One paper provides a macro-historical view of China’s ties with Asia, while another studies Asia under eras of Chinese hegemony. A third essay discusses disconnects between historical records and popular wisdom about modern Chinese foreign relations. The fourth examines if previous experience with security dilemmas affect a rising China’s role in the Asia-Pacific. Professor Wang Gungwu, who has long studied Chinese history and its implications for the present, will critically discuss these papers. Together, the presentations represent a step toward reconciling the disparate outlooks about today’s Asia that purportedly stem from history.

From Asian Neighbors to Chinese Provinces: Implications from China’s Historical Expansion to the Periphery
Victoria Hui, University of Notre Dame, USA

The debate over China’s rise has expanded from China’s current motivations and military capabilities to China’s historical international relations. An increasing number of Chinese International Relations scholars, in particular, have turned to Chinese history to argue that China did not seek expansion in history and thus, by implication, will not seek hegemony in the future. This paper points out that the mainstream view among Chinese IR scholars is based on the presumption that China took the same territorial shape in history as it does today. However, historical China – from the Qin dynasty to the early Qing dynasty – was roughly bounded by the Yellow River in the northwest, the Yin Shan and the lower Liao River in the northeast, the Sichuan basin in the west, the eastern edge of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau in the southwest, the Guangdong and Guangxi regions in the south, and the coastline in the east. This paper examines how historical China repeatedly sought expansion against Asian neighbors in the periphery (the Western Regions, Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, Tibet, Yunnan, Vietnam, Burma and beyond) whenever it was strong, and how it was forced to retrench by the mechanism of rising costs of expansion and administration. It was not until the Ming dynasty that historical China could conquer Asian neighbors on the Yungui plateau and turn the region into Chinese provinces. And it was not until the Qing dynasty that historical China could further subjugate Asian neighbors in Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet and turn these regions into parts of China. Nevertheless, Chinese history does not necessarily confirm the “China threat” theory. After all, European history is likewise characterized by war and expansion. This paper cautions against the common IR approach of making linear projections from the past to the future.

When China Ruled the “World”: A Study of Chinese Hegemony in East Asian History
Yuan-kang Wang, , USA

A crucial question about Asia’s future is: How will a strong and prosperous China behave in the world? While the future remains unknown, this paper looks at the issue of China’s rise from an Asian historical perspective. In Asian history, the polity known as China today had been strong and prosperous. Historian Wang Gungwu points out that China had risen three times in the past: the Qin-Han unification, the Sui-Tang reunification, and the Ming-Qing dynasties; the current reemergence of China can be called “The Fourth Rise.” How did China behave in the region when it enjoyed a preponderance of power? Did China expand when it was strong? And how did other Asian polities respond to the Chinese behemoth? Realist theory expects that a hegemonic state will expand political, economic, and military interests abroad; establish a sphere of influence in its region; dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior; grab resources beyond the frontiers; and use coercive measures to advance security interests or resolve disputes. Did Chinese strategic behavior follow this pattern during these periods of extraordinary strength and wealth? Using international relations theory as a starting point, this paper will examine Chinese security policy during the Qin-Han, Sui-Tang, and Ming-Qing periods. To get a more complete picture of the regional dynamics, this paper will also examine how other Asian political actors (such as Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet, Uighurs, Mongols and nomadic polities) responded to Chinese dominance in East Asian history.

Popular Narratives Versus Chinese History: Implications for China's Rise
Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Associated with growing Chinese prominence are discussions about how to make sense of China’s history of regional relations today. These conversations often include two different narratives. Studies of historical regional systems identify the role a Confucian ethos played in maintaining a pacific Chinese-led order that shaped the boundaries of East Asia. These views emphasise the promise that a powerful China can hold for sustaining regional stability. Alternatively, analyses of Chinese nationalism highlight desires to avert future affronts, rectify previous wrongs, and even restore former eminence. This suggests more forceful Chinese assertions of sovereign claims and regional interests going forward. Given the tensions between these two outlooks, can perspectives on the past provide coherent insights for contemporary Asian affairs? I contend that examining areas of divergence between historical data and standard accounts of the past yields key insights for understanding Asian regional politics under a resurgent China. I consider common narratives about past Chinese-dominated regional orders and the roots of modern Chinese nationalism, and assess where they depart from in-depth historical analyses. In juxtaposing the claimed benignity of Chinese-led regional systems with data on the coercive aspects of these arrangements, I highlight tensions between Chinese state behaviour and “Confucian” views on regional relations. By contrasting Chinese collaboration with Japan in World War II and the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire to popular accounts of resistance, I underscore variations in political identity and the limits of nationalist mobilisation in Asia. Such approaches uncover critical contingencies and possibilities for understanding regional relations that received wisdoms underemphasise.

China and the Security Dilemma in the Cold War and After: Learning to Rise Peacefully?
Andrew Scobell, Rand Corporation, USA

The People’s Republic of China’s turbulent experience during the Cold War (1949-1991) has been followed by a remarkably tranquil period. Although conflict and crisis have certainly not been completely absent in the post-Cold War era, the PRC has managed to undertake two decades of ‘peaceful rise’ or ‘peaceful development.’ What explains this remarkably peaceful great power ascent? Prominent scholars such as Thomas Christensen and Iain Johnston stress the utility of the security dilemma in understanding the PRC’s security behavior since the end of the Cold War. Can the PRC’s peaceful rise in recent decades be attributed to a realization of the centrality of the security dilemma in great power politics acquired during the Cold War? This paper will assess the explanatory value of the security dilemma by examining Chinese understandings of this concept during the Cold War and after and how it figured in PRC decision-making.