Historians: China Twists History to Justify Military Buildup

The Chinese destroyer, Haikou (DD 171), was among the ships participating in the Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise earliert his year. (Source: Defense Department)
The Chinese destroyer, Haikou (DD 171), was among the ships participating in the Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise earliert his year. (Source: Defense Department)

China has increased its defense spending dramatically in the last decade to $131 billion this year, according to its official statements, placing it second only to the United States in military funding.

With a jump of more than 12 percent from 2013, many of its neighbors are unsettled by the buildup, particularly in light of China’s claims of sovereignty over islands throughout the South China and East China seas that are claimed by a host of other Asian countries.

China is telling critics of the buildup that it is simply reclaiming its history as a powerful yet peaceful and defensive-minded nation. Officials point to the harmonious-minded teachings of Confucius and construction of the defensive Great Wall, among other historical evidence.

But that interpretation of Chinese history, which has become an essential tool for the Communist Party of China to assuage its neighbors’ anxiety and manage domestic opinion, is at odds with the country’s history, Asia scholars say.

They point out that at the height of its power, China used military force — or its threat — to garner land and wealth.

“China uses folklore, myths and legends, as well as history, to bolster greater territorial and maritime claims and create new realities on the land and water,” Mohan Malik, a China expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, wrote in an essay published last year. “Chinese textbooks preach the notion of the Middle Kingdom as being the oldest and most advanced civilization that was at the very center of the universe, surrounded by lesser, partially Sinicized states in East and Southeast Asia that must constantly bow and pay their respects.”

China’s reading of history is relevant to the rest of the world for the very fact that it is central to the ideology underpinning the Communist Party of China’s foreign policy. It’s particularly important to Xi Jinping, China’s president and head of both the CPC and the Central Military Commission.

Xi has emphasized the philosophy of Confucius, a teacher who lived around 500 BC, whose principles were once vilified by the CPC under the leadership of Mao Zedong from the 1950s until his death in 1976.

During a forum on Confucius in Beijing in September, Xi said China’s historical traditions “can offer beneficial insights for governance and wise rule,” according to the state-owned Xinhua news agency.

“China lives in the past to chart its future,” Malik said during an interview with Stars and Stripes.

“It’s China’s quest to expand its maritime frontiers using the Communist Party’s version of history that poses the biggest challenge to regional order and security. History is in dispute. Whose version of history is accurate?

“With the collapse of the socialist bloc displacing communist Marxism and Leninism ideology, China has come to rely more and more on the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history to both justify and legitimize the party’s rule in China as part of its patriotic education, particularly since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre,” Malik said.

An examination of Chinese history reveals that its foreign policy has been strongly correlated to its relative strength as a regional power, said Yuan-kang Wang, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and School of Public Affairs and Administration at Western Michigan University and author of the book “Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics.”

“When China was powerful, it was more aggressive, and when China was declining, it became more defensive,” Wang said.

In his book, Wang examined China’s military policies during the Song and Ming dynasties, lasting roughly from 960 to 1644 AD — interrupted by the centurylong Mongol occupation from 1279 to 1368.

Wang found that Confucian philosophy about justice, society and leadership had little influence on military decision-making during that era.

“I found no evidence to support that Confucius’ culture restrained Chinese aggressiveness,” he said. “When China decided to use military force, it was all about a realistic assessment about the balance of power between China and its adversaries. When China was strong, it preferred to use military force against military adversaries. When China was weak, it would shift to a defensive posture.”

One example was the Great Wall, which is actually a series of walls built over 2,000 years, the first of which is largely eroded.

The Ming Dynasty was relatively powerful during its first 50 years, during which no construction of the Great Wall took place, Wang said. Emboldened, China engaged in at least eight military campaigns against the Mongols during that period.

“Around the year 1470, when Chinese power declined, they started to build the Great Wall,” he said.

It was also during that early period that Ming troops annexed Vietnam as a province before being overthrown after a harsh 20-year occupation.

The legendary voyages of Zheng He during the early 15th century are routinely presented as an example of China’s exceptional lack of aggression as compared with empire-minded Western powers.

The voyages were indeed spectacular. Zheng He’s fleet included more than 200 ships, all larger than the Santa Maria sailed by Christopher Columbus. Fifty such ships, accompanied by many smaller boats, carried about 27,000 soldiers to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and East Africa.

However, as Wang and other researchers have noted, a fleet that size sailing into ports inspired an awe that left little need for use of actual force.

“If it’s only for peaceful exploration, why would you need to bring that many soldiers with you?” Wang said.

Indeed, Zheng He used force when awe or intimidation failed. Wang said a king on the island now called Sri Lanka was captured and returned to China because he refused to acknowledge Chinese supremacy. There is also evidence from a civil war in what is now Indonesia that the fleet’s army supported the side recognized by China.

The fleet also expanded the system of tributes paid to the Ming by leaders of other countries.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, said expansionist emperors were glorified in dynastic records, just as they are hyped as the “hallmark of greatness” in China’s movies and television dramas today — even if such images negate Xi’s message that China was historically powerful but peaceful.

Wang said such assertions of powerful-but-peaceful history sound good at a rhetorical level, but one only need look at the reaction of other countries in the region to judge reality.

“China’s Asian neighbors clearly don’t see it that way,” Wang said. “They are actually quite concerned about China’s rise in military power because what if China uses it against them in the future?”

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