Will China Rise to Become An Expansionist, Imperialist, Power?

As China rises, and as China stakes territorial claims in East and South China Sea, this quesion is being raised ever more frequently: will China rise to become an expansional, imperial, force?  Based on China’s culture, history, and world reality today, the answer is: highly unlikely.

 1. Culture.  Dominated by Confucianism and Daoism, China’s culture is inherently introspective, based on continuous self-cultivation, and focused on family and clan.  It is very different from confrontational/expansionist cultural traditions based on (monotheistic) religion, science, technology, and loyalty to modern nation-state in the West. Over millenia, this introspective tendency even extended to the Emperor’s primary duty– to ensure the welfare of “Lao-Bai-Xing” (the common people), and to safeguard peace and harmony WITHIN the Middle Kingdom. (See “What is Confucianism and Does It Matter?” and “The Influence of Daoism, Buddhism, and Legalism on Chinese Culture”)

2. History. Throughout Chinese history, the Middle Kingdom has been confined to the Yellow River in the north, Yangtze River in the middle, and Zhu River in the south. Even when the Middle Kingdom expanded its territory in Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD), the driving force has often been defensive in nature – to fend off “barbarian” incursions. For example, in China’s north, for over two thousand years, traditional Chinese mentality called for constructing, extending, and mending the Great Wall in order to keep out nomadic tribes such as the Mongols and the Manchus. Silk Road, a trading route leading to Europe, has been in existence for as long as the Great Wall; yet, at no time has China even attempted to conquer the West (as Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire, did the East).  The one exception is during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD), when the Middle Kingdom was ruled by the Mongols.

This Middle Kingdom-centered mentality of building defensive walls and closing borders in search of internal peace and harmony repeated itself during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). China’s coastlines along the South China Sea were closed on and off to locals and foreigners alike in order to discourage Japanese pirates and their Chinese collaborators, and trading with foreigners.

China – under the influence of her deep-rooted Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist culture – harbored little, if any, colonial ambition. Conquering and colonizing are simply not part of China’s “DNA.”

Perhaps the singular, most-telling, piece of historic evidence is Eunuch Zheng He’s seven expeditions to as far west as the east coast of Africa (some say the Americas) during 1403-1434 AD. Not only did Zheng He and his fleet stopped short of conquering and colonizing along the journey, they brought gifts and goodwill from the Middle Kingdom.

Ironically, at the same time, in early fifteenth century, Portugal and Spain kicked off the Age of Discovery that led to the European Colonial Era through the end of WWII. Since 1842, China became a direct casualty of the European Colonial Era for nearly a century, after losing the Opium War.  In ways more than one, China’s experience in the nineteenth and the twentieth century as a semi-colony of Japan and the western powers created dark shadows not so easy to remove completely, not even in the current century.

As a matter of fact, under Communism, in the name of defending China’s territorial integrity, or maintaining security and stability on its borders, China has engaged in border wars with the U.S. (under the U.N. flag) in Korea during the early 1950s; the U.S.S.R. in 1959; India in 1962; and Vietnam in 1969. Each time, China launched military actions against formidable foes – some with far superior forces – in order to demonstrate its resolve, determination, and capability to defend its national security. Each time, after gaining ground, Chinese military forces retreated to the starting line, voluntarily. By doing so, China hoped to demonstrate to the rest of the world that, while China is not afraid to undertake military actions when threatened, China does not seek territorial expansion through force. 

3. Reality Today. Already, China is the world’s largest trading nation. In 2015 or 2016, China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP, adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). At projected compound annual growth rate of 6-8% for another decade, or longer, it is not difficult to picture China as an economic powerhouse in the making. Militarily, China lags far behind the U.S., by thirty years or more according to experts. In any event, China’s military spendings to date have largely been focused on defensive military equipment and systems – out of necessity, due to its relatively small military budget compared to that of the U.S. – aimed primarily at stopping military influence, expansion, or potential intrusion by the U.S. – and its allies – on China’s periphery.

In recent years, western press often warns the world about fast growth of China’ military spendings. Most of these warnings leave out one crucial fact: U.S. military spending is far more than China’s. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies of the U.K., China’s military spending in 2014 was 22% of that of the U.S. As a matter of fact, military spending of the U.S. in 2014 exceeded the other nine of the top-ten-ranking nations combined, including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the U.K., France, Japan, India, Germany, and South Korea.

Going forward, should China’s actions in the East and South China Sea be viewed by the U.S. and its allies as a sign of China’s aggression, or self-defense? As China seeks to protect its growing economic, political, and national security interests on its periphery, should the U.S. be more tolerant and understanding? After all, would the U.S. ever tolerate the presence of any foreign reconnaissance aircraft, nuclear submarine, or even aircraft carrier on its doorstep, either the Pacific or the Atlantic coast? Even if Americans do not subscribe to the fundamental Confucian value of “do not do onto others what you do not want others do onto you,” shouldn’t Americans uphold the values of fairness, equity, and reciprocity? I, for one, have long been led to believe that Americans do.