In response to North Korea's latest missile test, and perhaps to the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, China has declared it will cease coal imports from North Korea for the entirety of the year. Beijing's threat to North Korea could significantly impact Pyongyang's finances, already stretched as the North continually seeks ways around international sanctions. But it also shows the limits of Beijing's actions toward North Korea. Even as China takes a more assertive role internationally, in finance, politics and even militarily, it views its global role — and potential responsibilities — far differently than the United States or earlier European empires.
The lens of China's latest actions on North Korea is a useful prism to understand how China throughout history has dealt with its periphery and beyond — and how it is likely to do so in the future.
For on a nearly daily basis, there are reports suggesting the decline of U.S. global power, and the attendant rise of China. This despite the slowing pace of Chinese economic growth, high levels of domestic bad loans and the massive undertaking of a shift from an export-led economic model to one based on domestic consumption, with the attendant structural shift in political and social patterns. China is seen as the next major global power, overshadowing the former Soviet Union and giving the United States a run for its money.
This view of China contrasts with how the country has been viewed for much of the past century: as the passed-by Asian power, the country that was most upended from its former glory by European colonialism and imperial competition, a Middle Kingdom carved into spheres of influence, forced to capitulate to Western concepts of trade and access, and left vulnerable to Japanese aggression at the turn of the last century. China is now seen as awakening, as consolidating political power domestically, building a strong and outwardly focused military, and spreading its economic reach across the globe, most recently with the network of infrastructure and trading routes characterizing the One Belt, One Road initiative.
In short, although China had some setbacks because of the fallout from the 2009 global financial crisis, it was perhaps affected less politically and socially compared with Europe and the United States, and this has presented the opportunity for the 4,000-year-old-plus country to take its turn at global leadership. And as I noted a few weeks ago, we may be seeing a shift in the willingness of the United States to play the role of global hegemon. From military expansion in the South China Sea to economic expansion with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China is on the rise. Again.
A Sole Challenger Emerges
The rising China narrative is not new. A decade ago, the iconic May 17, 2007, Economist cover showed a panda atop the Empire State Building, a la King Kong. Nearly a decade earlier, in December 1998, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher was flown in a Philippine military aircraft over a Chinese installation on Mischief Reef, raising an early concern of Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea. While these are but two anecdotes, a decade apart, it would be easy to list hundreds of others. And it isn't difficult to understand why.
With the end of the Cold War, aside from the multinational European Union, there was little potential for any nation alone to rise to power on such a scale as to challenge the United States as a peer power, much less as a single global hegemon. No country, that is, except perhaps China. China's population, its rapid rise into the central position of global supply chains, its economic expansion, its strategic location linking Eurasia to the Pacific, and its unitary government allowing centralized decision-making and long-term strategic planning all pointed to a country that could emerge as a real challenger. And China seemed at times interested in doing so.
But there is a difference between the potential to, the capability to, or even the desire to. China certainly wants to have a greater say in the structure of the global system that is now emerging, a system that from China's perspective should be multilateral, without a single dominant global power. China's drive toward "big power" status is not the same as seeking the central role of a global system. The reality is that the cost to maintain a central global role is just too high. The British, the French, the Spanish and Portuguese, the Americans, even more regional powers like Japan, Germany and the various guises of Russia, all showed that maintaining central power over a vast empire is simply exhausting. A hegemony must respond to challenges, no matter how small, or risk losing its power and influence. China may be a big country, but it is far from ready to take on the role of global balancer.
The Center of a Regional System
Which is why it may be useful to look back into history to see how China has managed power in the past. For some 2,000 years, prior to European imperial advancements in the early 19th century, China sat at the center of a regional imperial system of its own, where China was clearly seen as first among unequals. Imperial China developed a system of maintaining influence while limiting the need for direct action. China, in many respects, retained passive influence rather than direct positive control. Power moved out in rings from the core. There was China proper, protected by an integrated shell of buffer states. For some of these, from Xinjiang to Tibet to Manchuria, China was not always dominant, but when outside powers swept across the buffers to change Chinese empires, they at times found themselves ultimately integrated into the Chinese system.
Beyond that were tributary powers, kingdoms that nominally respected China's role at the center of a Sinacized region. These included areas such as Korea, the Shan state of Burma or even what is now Vietnam — areas where China attempted to expand but reached the limits of its power. Beyond these were so-called barbarian powers, ones that required minimal contact and were generally regarded as inferior (and thus not needing integration). These not only included places like the Ryukyu Islands, parts of the Malay Peninsula and some of the Central Asian ethnic tribes, but also the more distant European civilizations at times.
China could influence the behavior of its neighbors, but it did so as often as possible through passive means, demonstrating power but rarely using it.
Instead, so long as the neighbors did not fundamentally counter China's core interests, they were largely left to their own devices. In this manner, China could remain central to a regional system while expending little in time, effort or resources to enforce its will — particularly when imperial expansion proved unachievable. Neighbors including Korea and Vietnam paid tribute and adopted the written language, governing systems and social structures from the Middle Kingdom. This cultural and political influence reduced the need for military action by either side of the arrangement.
In short, most countries, most of the time, largely accepted the arrangement, both for cultural reasons and because the cost of direct challenge was often too high. This did not prevent various challenges — the Mongols and Manchu, for example, or Japan's attempted usurpation of the Chinese imperial throne in the late 16th century. But these invaders more often sought to insert themselves at the center of the Sinitic order, rather than completely overturn it. Even the failed invasion by Japan's Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the last decade of the 1500s, which devastated Korea but failed to reach China proper, was an attempt to move Hideyoshi to China, allowing him to place his young son on the throne in Japan, linking the two empires but leaving China the physical and political center.
China's crisis with Western imperialism through the 1800s occurred at a time of dynastic and imperial weakness, and China was further weakened by Japanese occupation beginning in the 1930s and then by civil war from 1945 to 1949. The early Mao years were about reconstituting Chinese unity, but also showed the stirrings of Chinese foreign interest in a modern era. Although China under Mao played a role in the overall international Communist drive, providing money, manpower and materiel to various insurgencies, this was paired with a longer-term and more passive strategy. China made friends. Not necessarily with leaders, but with individuals who could ultimately prove influential, and perhaps nudge them to victory.
In part in keeping with its historical management strategy, China retained influence through its backing of leaders, from the king of Cambodia to the Nepalese monarchy to the Kim family in North Korea. But China also acted by retaining relations with many alternatives in and out of governments. The idea was that, no matter who came to power, China would have at least some existing relationship to draw on. Where China was drawn into regional conflict — with Vietnam and in Korea — it saw a potential threat to its buffer, and acted out of self-interest.
An Alternate Vision for the World
As we move into the current era, China is seeking to re-establish itself at the center of the region, politically, economically and strategically. The One Belt, One Road initiative is a key component of China's foreign strategy, to link itself into the emerging economic patterns around the region, placing China in the center of an integrated regional trading system. It also reflects a broader ambition — one where China takes hold of the so-called strategic pivot of the European landmass. China's establishment of the AIIB in late 2015 is part of a broader initiative intended to place China at the center of a regional financial system, one that breaks free from what Beijing sees as the economic hegemony of the Bretton Woods system that established the U.S. dollar as the global reserve.
Politically, China is continuing to offer a counter to the United States, positioning itself as a country that does not try to assert a specific political system upon others, but that rather is willing to work with whatever government a country may have. Militarily, China has asserted itself as the central power in the Western Pacific and argues that Japan is an imperial threat because of history, and the United States is a foreign interloper. China can provide regional security for all, so long as all accept China's central role.
At a time when Russia is working to reassert its influence around its periphery, when Europe is struggling to define its own future (greater integration, or disassociation into its constituent parts), and when the United States, at least temporarily, appears ready to step back from the role of global hegemon, the global system is in flux. What China is seeking on a global level is to fill an opening, to reshape the global system into one where spheres of influence among the dominant powers are recognized and respected. This is neither globalism nor hegemony. It is perhaps more akin to the period of European empires, though more regionally arranged. It is a world divided among great powers, each the relatively benign center of its own region.
China's curtailment of coal imports from North Korea is thus a reminder to an increasingly defiant semi-ally that it must behave against the contours of regional power. It should not be seen as the ultimatum of a would-be global hegemon.