China is not a Nation State – and it Matters


European leaders do not seem to share President Trump’s concerns about relations with China. Whatever their other disagreements about foreign policy, they seem unified in their view that Europe’s long-term economic well-being depends in large part on China. In fact it is not Europe’s economic well-being they are concerned about but that of each European country. This is an area in which European leaders think only of national interests and compete with each other for Chinese investment, making a common position all but impossible. But in doing so they misunderstand the nature of the Chinese state and its approach to foreign affairs, and risk policy errors that will result in curtailing their economic freedom of movement and even political autonomy.


In his 2009 book “When China Rules the World”, Martin Jacques described China as a civilisational state. Yet Western policymakers continue to treat to China as another nation state. They forget (or never knew) that the nation state, and indeed the idea of international relations (relations between states of theoretically equal status), are particularly European constructs resulting from the contingencies of European history. They make no sense in terms of Chinese historical experience, or that of most other non-European states. The Eurocentricity of Europe’s political leaders could cost us all dear.


The history of Europe since the 15th century has essentially been that of failed attempts to secure continental hegemony. One country after another has sought to dominate the others, each time defeated as the other countries have combined to block it. Throughout England has played the role of offshore balancer, aligned always with the second most powerful European power against the most powerful (hence its focus on interests rather than friends, and its ambivalence about the European Union). This serial failure by any power to secure domination has had a series of consequences. Rather than falling under one Empire, Europe has evolved as a series of states in permanent competition (when not conflict) with each other. Through a series of treaties, a European system evolved of nation states of equal status, maintaining relations (International relations) between themselves. The perpetual competition between them drove the innovation in technology, military practice, commerce, finance and government, which progressively allowed European states to dominate the world system. Innovation in government, incidentally, included the evolution of parliamentary democracy, essentially as a solution to the problem of how to finance ever more expensive warfare.


China has no comparable history of dealing with states of equal status. In contrast to Europe, Chinese history has been one of Han hegemony of the continent, punctuated by periodic collapses into chaos. China’s name reflects its attitude to the rest of the world: , 中国 – Zhongguo -not middle Kingdom, as often translated in the West, but the central country – the country at the centre of the world. China structures international affairs not in terms of networked relations between states of equal status, but of hierarchical relationships radiating out from China. Traditionally China has not had international relations, but rather tributary relationships. States would recognise their place in the hierarchical and radial structure and in return would receive rewards from China. The precise place and status of an alien state within the structure depended on the size of the proximity to China. But there could be no question of equal status with the central country. Likewise, as Lord McCartney, George III’s envoy, discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, there could be no equivalence between a European monarch and 天子 – Tianzi – the son of heaven. China gave up this tributary view of the world only under force of western arms. There are ample signs that as China again becomes a major power, and as the more assertive Xi Jinping consolidates his power in Beijing, China is returning to its traditional way of dealing with the world.


This is, perhaps, most clear with the “One Belt, One Road strategy (OBOR). Whether through the revival of the old Silk Road or the creation of new Maritime Silk Road, OBOR is creating radial trading routes centered on China. Countries who sign up to OBOR receive investment infrastructure. But in return they are expected to accept their place in China’s evolving world system. OBOR is designed to serve China’s interests. It radiates out from the central country. The I nfrastructure does not network laterally. Africa and Latin American countries have already experienced the tributary relationships, receiving investment and infrastructure projects in exchange for Chinese access to their raw materials. This is not an equal exchange. They must acquiesce in the Chinese system before they receive their rewards. It is increasingly being seen in Europe. The obsequiousness of former British Prime Minister David Cameron in seeking Chinese investment in Britain’s nuclear sector or Renminbi trading in the City was painful; the power balance in his relationship with Xi Jinping clear to all but Cameron himself. A similar dynamic can be seen in the alacrity with which European and other) leaders are signing to up to the Chinese alternative to Bretton Woods, the Asian International Investment Bank (AIIB). The deal is the same: accept your position in China’s world system and 天子 will give you his reward.


I spent several years in the British embassy in Beijing as part of the negotiating team with China over Hong Kong. One day my Ambassador referred me to an old quote from Zhou Enlai: “For us, it is alright if the talks succeed, and it is alright if they fail”. Sadly we never understood the implications of Zhou’s comment for the Hong Kong negotiations (I suspect the Ambassador did!). The same is true today. The Eurocentric misunderstanding that China is just another nation state is combining with short-term desperation for foreign investment to lead European governments astray. In the 19th century, Manchester mill-owners thought that if they could sell each Chinese just one shirt they would become millionaires. The trade went so badly that Britain had to invent drug (opium) trafficking to balance the books. China is not the panacea for economic woes now either (nor an alternative economical leadership to Donald Trump). Its tributary world view is the same now as in a reign of the Qianlong Emperor who humiliated Lord McCartney. We need to understand that before we sign away or economic freedom of movement and political economy. We cannot continue to sacrifice geopolitics to economics.

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