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THE CHARACTER OF CHINA'S IMPERIAL POLICY

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The Montréal Review, August 2012

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"On China" by Henry Kissinger (Penguin Books, 2012)

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The foreign policy of imperial China is different from everything we may have known from the history and political tradition of Western world. This is the conclusion one can reach after reading Henry Kissinger's masterpiece "On China".

According to Kissinger, China has never stopped to learn the lessons from her past, it is a state with the size of civilization but not expansionist in character, a society that for most of its history was self-sufficient and proud of its achievements.

Despite their power, the Chinese have never practiced the kind of imperialism that Europeans did. Through most of their history, the foreign policy they followed was what we call today "soft power" --a policy of economic influence and inclusion and assimilation of foreign peoples and rivals.

"[...] China acquired no overseas colonies and showed relatively little interest in the countries beyond its coast." writes Kissinger. Her rulers were more interested in trade and tributes from the "barbarian" peoples, instead of colonization and conquests of foreign lands. For example, as Kissinger notes, "no Chinese leader ever articulate a rationale for why China would want to control the Japanese archipelago."

One of the reasons for this non-belligerent policy is that China has always considered her territory as a world into itself. Chinese regarded the peoples beyond their borders as barbarians that have nothing to offer. 

"China's splendid isolation nurtured a particular Chinese self-perception. Chinese elites grew accustomed to the notion that China was unique--not just 'a great civilization' among others, but civilization itself", writes Kissinger and recalls Lucian Pye's famous observation that China remains a "civilization pretending to be a nation state."

Not only the Chinese culture was old and strong, but their trade and wealth ranked China for centuries as the world's most productive economy and most populous trading area. China's wealth was the reason her elites to look at trade with other peoples as a practice of tributes.

Confucianism was the heart and the soul of the old imperial state. Confucianism wasn't a religion, rather it was a pragmatic state ideology used for creation of educated elites and for maintaining a complex state bureaucracy--an administrative system that existed centuries before the creation of the European nations' bureaucratic machines.

"Complied into a central collection of Confucius's sayings (the Analects) and subsequent books of learned commentary, the Confucian canon would evolve into something akin to China's Bible and its Constitution combined," writes Kissinger. "Expertise in these texts became the central qualification for service in China's imperial bureaucracy."

Another reason imperial China to behave so differently from European powers was its geopolitical isolation. European states had to compete almost constantly with relatively equal in power neighbors, while until nineteenth century China had never had a strong rival that could challenge its superiority.

Being the most powerful state in East Asia, China did not regard its culture as universal and was not interested to impose it on others.

"Like the United States, China thought of itself as playing a special role. But it never espoused the American notion of universalism to spread its values around the world. It strove for tributary states like Korea to recognize China's special status, and in return, it conferred benefits such as trading rights."

Kissinger compares traditional Western and Chinese foreign policy strategies with the plays of chess and wei qi. The Western strategy resembles the chess play - the player seeks a quick and decisive battle aiming total victory, while the Chinese prefer protracted campaigns for achieving relative advantage. "Chess produces single-mindedness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility."

The ancient Chinese game "Wei Qi"

Historically, war wasn't the preferred action for Chinese rulers. Perhaps this is so because of the relative isolation in which imperial China existed. The size and power of China, the lack of constant and serious threats from states equal in power and size, developed a political wisdom among China's ruling elites that prized prudence above all. Sun Tzu's text on war is one of the best expressions of the foreign policy of imperial China.

"Where Western strategists reflect on the means to assemble superior power at the decisive point, Sun Tzu addresses the means of building a dominant political and psychological position, such that the outcome of a conflict becomes a foregone conclusion", Kissinger notes and quotes fragments from The Art of War:

"A ruler/Must never/Mobilize his men/Out of anger;/A general must never/Engage in battle/Out of spite.../Ultimate excellence lies/Not in winning/Every battle/But in defeating the enemy/Without even fighting/The highest form of warfare/Is to attack the enemy's/strategy itself.../The victorious army/Is victorious first/And seeks battle later.../"

Here Kissinger continues with strategic insights that go even beyond the particular Chinese experience:

"...[the] task of a strategist is less to analyze a particular situation than to determine its relationship to the context in which it occurs. No particular constellation is ever static; any pattern is temporary and in essence evolving. The strategist must capture the direction of that evolution and make it serve his ends."

The traditional foreign policy of imperial China was exploitation of the environment through rounding the obstacles and flowing like water downhill. This strategy was called by Sun Tzu "shi" or exploiting and amassing the "potential energy" of a developing situation.

This was a policy of understanding the world and not trying to completely master it. "For China's classical sages, the world could never be conquered". Kissinger explains the existence of these characteristics of China's imperial policy as a result of the cyclical historical view of alternating decay and rectification that marks her culure.

--T.S.Tsonchev, The Montreal Review

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