Hegemon: China's Plan to Dominate Asia and the World

Hegemon: China's Plan to Dominate Asia and the World

by Steven Mosher

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Hegemon is as timely as today's headlines about Chinese efforts to influence U.S. elections and steal U.S. nuclear secrets. But it is also a masterful work of scholarship that reinforces Steven Mosher's reputation as one of our most thoughtful and provocative China watchers.


Hegemon is as timely as today's headlines about Chinese efforts to influence U.S. elections and steal U.S. nuclear secrets. But it is also a masterful work of scholarship that reinforces Steven Mosher's reputation as one of our most thoughtful and provocative China watchers.

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Encounter Books
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Chapter One

Western Barbarians

To govern a large state is like cooking a small fish. Stir as little as possible.
—Lao Zi, Daode Jing

The role of the Hegemon is deeply embedded in China's national dreamwork, intrinsic to its national identity, and profoundly implicated in its sense of national destiny. An unwillingness to concede dominance to any foreign power is deeply rooted in China's imperial past as the dominant power of Asia and in the ongoing certainty of the Chinese that they are culturally superior to other peoples.

    The concept of hegemony was, fittingly enough, introduced into modern diplomatic discourse by the Chinese themselves. During Henry Kissinger's secret visit to Beijing in 1971, the Chinese translator's use of this unfamiliar English word sent the Americans scrambling for their dictionaries. They found definitions of "hegemony" as "a single pole or axis of power," or as "leadership or predominant influence exercised by one state over others."

    None of these definitions fully captures the rich and sometimes sinister nuances of this concept, the Ba, in Chinese. The Ba is a political order invented by ancient Chinese strategists 2,800 years ago which is based exclusively on naked power. Under the Ba, as it evolved over the next six centuries, total control of a state's population and resources was to be concentrated in the hands of the state's hegemon, or Bawang (literally "hegemon-king"), who would in turn employ ittoestablish his hegemony, or Baquan (literally "hegemon-power"), over all the states in the known world. To put it in modern parlance, Chinese strategists of old may be said to have invented totalitarianism more than two millennia before Lenin introduced it to the West, in order to achieve a kind of super-superpower status.

    Totalitarianism has become all too familiar as a concept in recent world history. Still somewhat exotic is hegemony: the non-Western notion that the premier goal of foreign policy should be to establish absolute dominance over one's region and, by slow extension, the world. In a sense, hegemony is the natural external expression of totalitarianism, with disputes involving unabsorbed territories resolved by the threat and, if necessary, the reality of force, just as the natural expression of democracy is peaceful, neighborly relations, with disputes resolved by negotiation and treaty.

    Throughout the 70s and 80s, the Chinese untiringly accused the Soviet Union of having "hegemonic" ambitions. Following the Soviet collapse, they turned their wrath on the U.S., ominously and repeatedly charging that America was "seeking hegemony." In fact, all this name calling was a political form of Freudian projection, for China's elite clearly covets the title of Hegemon for itself.

    In the old—and enduring—Chinese view of the world, chaos and disorder can only be avoided by organizing vassal and tributary states around a single, dominant axis of power. And if there is to be a Hegemon, Chinese history and culture combine to say, then it should be China. In their obsession with the Hegemon, the Chinese people have their own doctrine of manifest destiny.

    For more than two thousand years the Chinese considered themselves the geographical, and geopolitical, center of the world. From their earliest incarnation as an empire they spoke of China as Zhong Guo, "The Middle Kingdom," or even more revealingly, as Tian Xia, "Everything Under Heaven." They believed their emperor to be the only legitimate political authority in their known world and viewed themselves as the highest expression of civilized humanity. This Sinocentric worldview survived even foreign invasion and occupation by Jurchens, Mongols, and Manchus, since the Chinese were invariably able to subdue or assimilate their poorly organized and culturally inferior conquerors within a generation or two.

    Far from being a self-serving myth or shallow chauvinism, China's idea of national greatness is firmly rooted in reality. For most of its long history, the Chinese empire was indeed a collection of superlatives. It had the greatest land area, the largest population, the most productive economy, the most powerful army, and the most advanced technology of any power on earth. China's sway was limited only by its own ambitions, not by the counterforce of hostile and competing powers. The poorly organized barbarians who populated the border regions were regarded as inferior in every way by the culturally superior Chinese. Under aggressive emperors, the Middle Kingdom quickly grew to the geographical limit—in the days when communications were limited to the speed of a galloping horse—of what could be governed from a single center. With the possible exception of the Roman Empire at its height, the realms of the major Chinese dynasties dwarfed in population and geographic extent all contemporaneous empires in other parts of the world.

    By the mid-Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China held sway over a vast territory stretching from today's Russian Far East, westward across southern Siberia to Lake Balkhash and into contemporary Kazakhstan, then southeastward along the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, and then eastward across Laos and northern Vietnam. Vassal and tributary states, which further extended the reach of the imperial court, included Korea, Tibet, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, and parts of Indochina.

    Toward these subordinate states, Imperial China behaved as a suzerain, exacting tribute, imposing unequal conditions, and demanding fealty from their rulers. Those who refused to kowtow to Beijing were regarded as hostile and dealt with accordingly. The Celestial Empire had neighbors only in a geographic sense. Even today, as Ross Munro has observed, China still seems to classify her "neighbors" into one of two categories: tributary states that acknowledge her hegemony, or potential enemies. Present-day Beijing does not desire equality in external affairs, but deference, for it governs not a nation-state—although that is the pretence—but an all-encompassing civilization.


The first Westerners to reach China by sea were the Portuguese, who by 1557 had established a permanent settlement at Macao. The Spaniards, the Dutch, and the British followed, drawn by the prospect of trade with this huge and prosperous empire. But the Imperial Chinese government, first under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), then under the Qing, permitted only limited commercial relations with these seafaring traders. Canton, the capital of Guangdong province, was designated as China's sole entrepôt for the western trade, and even here trading was limited to a clearly defined season.

    These inconvenient, even degrading, arrangements were repeatedly protested by the Western nations, whose emissaries vainly called for free trade and diplomatic representation in Beijing. But they received short shrift. The volume of its trade with the West was insignificant to the vast Chinese empire, while direct government-to-government relations were out of the question. The early Qing emperors and their courts were affronted by the notion that they should deal with the "Barbarians from the Western Oceans" on a basis of equality. Instead, as an emblem of their disdain, they gave a mere provincial official, the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi, responsibility for political and commercial relations with these pushy Westerners.

    As long as the Qing Empire stayed strong, there matters remained. But by the end of the eighteenth century, the dynasty was clearly in decline, and over the succeeding decades the government became increasingly inefficient, weak, and corrupt. The power of the Western world on the other hand, was on the ascendant, fueled by industrialization and scientific advances. The First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), and the unequal treaties that resulted, reduced China to a semicolony of the Western powers. Western troops garrisoned the treaty ports and Western gunboats roamed her rivers. Only the Open Door policy of the U.S., which opposed the creation of exclusive economic zones by the other great powers, saved China from total dismemberment.

    Non-Chinese have difficulty appreciating the depth of China's grievances against the West resulting from this experience. It was not merely that Western gunboats twice defeated China in the Opium Wars; China had been defeated before, although never perhaps by organized drug runners. Nor was the bitterness caused simply by the dethronement of Confucian high culture by the West, although this assault comes closer to the heart of China's wounded pride. China had dominated {in every sense—culturally, economically, militarily) its "known world" almost since the beginning of its recorded history. More than what is today called a superpower, it had been the hegemon, for dynasty after dynasty, for over two thousand years. Then, from this pinnacle of greatness, it was brought low by the Western powers, divided into spheres of influence, and very nearly carved up into colonies.

    When Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China, it was with the words "China has stood up." No longer would China be bullied by the West. So strong was Mao's sense of grievance that, despite his continuing desperate need for Soviet economic assistance, he rejected Khrushchev's bid for Soviet naval bases in China. When the Soviet leader petulantly objected that America's allies allowed the U.S. Navy basing privileges, Mao still refused to budge. Foreign naval vessels would never be stationed in Chinese waters again, he declared. That degrading experience belonged to China's treaty port past.

    Both the history of China's imperial—and revolutionary—glory and the painful details of her long night of national humiliation are taught in China's public schools and, more importantly, in her military academies. The result is an excruciating sensitivity to slights, real and imagined. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited China in 1994, Chinese officials were aghast that he had brought his dog. Why? Because a century ago, purportedly, a sign had hung at the entrance to a park in Shanghai's foreign concession reading "No dogs or Chinese allowed."

    China's fall from greatness is still a subliminal matter of shame for all living Chinese. This "loss of face" cannot be assuaged merely by allowing China to take its place among "the family of nations." The rectification of China's historical grievances requires not merely diplomatic equality—Beijing enjoys this already—but de facto geostrategic dominance. The lowering of the Union Jack in Hong Kong was a start, redeeming China's painful humiliation at the hands of the British in the Opium Wars. But only one thing will completely lift the burden of shame: for the Celestial Empire to resume its rightful place as the natural center of the world.


It was not only on the issue of naval bases that the Chinese Communist Party elite resisted its overbearing Soviet "older brothers." Despite the ideological kinship with the Soviet Union, they feared that they would be permanently dominated within this sibling relationship. The alliance was to all outward appearances as close as "lips and teeth," in the Chinese phrase, but China was increasingly resentful of Russian claims of superiority for the Soviet model. With the Sino-Soviet split, the old images of Russia as "the hungry land"—Eguo in Chinese—were revived, and the traditional contempt of the Chinese for the barbarians of the north was once again openly expressed.

    China's challenge to Soviet hegemony led it to seek an alliance of convenience with the United States, an ideological foe which it viewed—and continues to view—as a power in decline. This pseudoalliance, never formalized, lasted from the early seventies to the late eighties, when it suddenly received three death blows. The first and most serious was the sudden implosion of the Soviet Union, which robbed the pseudoallies of a common foe and knocked the principal strategic prop out from under the U.S.-China relationship. The second was the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy which, ending in a bloody debacle, highlighted for China's leaders the dangers of uncritically exposing Chinese youth to the appeal of American democratic ideals. The third was America's virtually bloodless victory in the Gulf War, which underlined the unmatched global reach of the U.S. military as well as its technological superiority over other countries.

     Just as China would not accept—indeed, was moved by its own sense of greatness to challenge—Soviet hegemony, so it has refused to accept the U.S. as the world's leading power, but has been moved by that same innate pride to challenge it. Since the early 90's, China has become ever less coy about its intentions. The state-controlled press has grown increasingly strident in denouncing the U.S., calling it everything from "a dangerous enemy" and "a superpower bully," to a "hegemon on par with Nazi Germany." More to the point, America is now the enemy of choice in war games conducted by the People's Liberation Army. In the spring of 2000, after threatening to use force against Taiwan to "unify" it with the mainland, the official newspaper of the PLA also warned that it was ready to use its long range missiles against the United States if it came to the island's aid.

    The one way in which China, until lately, continued to value America's role in Asia was as a regional stabilizer. America's postwar military presence in Japan was not unwelcome, for in the Chinese view it served to keep Japan militarily weak. For decades, Beijing feared that a U.S. withdrawal would precipitate Japan's rearmament and eventual reemergence as a major military power. Since the mid-nineties, however, with the Japanese economy in a deep recession and its own power on the mainland of Asia growing rapidly, China has grown increasingly confident of its ability to dominate the region and has ratcheted up its criticism of the U.S. presence accordingly.

    The Chinese so relentlessly accuse the U.S. of "seeking hegemony," and phrase their accusations in such condemnatory terms, that many analysts have concluded that the word "hegemony" is strictly pejorative in Chinese usage. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the view of Chinese strategists, the existence of a hegemon is in fact a natural, even a desirable state of affairs. Following the Spring and Autumn period (772-481 B.C.), when the institution of hegemon first developed, it gradually produced stability, order, and equilibrium in the Middle Kingdom, as neighboring states were absorbed into a single entity. It is the division of the strategic landscape into states large and small that is undesirable, for it leads to instability and chaos. The lesson China draws from its long history is that periods of division are times of disorder and chaos, whereas periods of unity are times of stability and order. In other words, China needs a Hegemon.

    That China has an extraordinary fear of chaos and penchant for unity is widely understood. What is less well appreciated is that China projects its own 5,000-year history onto the wider contemporary world and reaches that same conclusion: The world needs a Hegemon. To put it another way, for Chinese strategists, balance-of-power politics is inherently unbalanced. Racial pride, an innate sense of cultural superiority, and a long history all tell the Chinese that the role of Hegemon properly belongs to China and its rulers.

    Thus the current debate over American China policy, whether we should "engage" China or attempt to "contain" it, misses the essential point. From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. is already "containing" China by its very presence in Asia, by maintaining 100,000 troops in the region, by its network of bases and its alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea. That the U.S. did not seek its preeminent position, but in many respects had its international role thrust upon it following World War II and reinforced by its sudden victory in the Cold War, makes the situation that much more intolerable for those anxious to restore China's lost glory. That Providence smiles upon America may be an old story for Americans, but it is one that is difficult for Chinese to appreciate. So is the American ideal of leadership. For example, the insouciance of General Washington to those who would make him king renders his character opaque to most Chinese. Surely, they conclude, he was plotting for the office all along, according to the wisdom of the ancient strategist Sun-tzu: When seeking power, make it appear that you are not doing so.

    Read between the lines of Chinese criticism of America's leading role in the world and one finds the envy and enmity that come from balked ambition. The People's Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, says that "The U.S. strategic aim is to seek hegemony in the whole world and it cannot tolerate the appearance of any big power on the European and Asian continents that will constitute a threat to its leading position." Can anyone doubt that the "big power" that has "appeared" on the "Asian continent" referred to here is China itself, moving to overtake America's "leading position"?

    The belief in the inevitability of Chinese hegemony, held at a deeper level than mere strategy, motivates China to oppose and undermine the current Pax Americana. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as National Security Advisor to President Carter played a key role in the 1979 establishment of U.S.-PRC diplomatic relations, believes that "The task of Chinese policy—in keeping with Sun-tzu's ancient strategic wisdom—is to use American power to peacefully defeat American hegemony."

    Sun-tzu also said that all strategy is based on deception, and the Chinese are customarily oblique in defining their ultimate aims. One exception is the recent white paper, China's National Defense, which the Chinese government produced in response to American urgings toward greater strategic "transparency." Those who expressed pleasure over its promulgation, happy that the Chinese government was finally complying with our request to be more candid about its ambitions, should carefully read the document. China's opposition to U.S. dominance, and the global scope of its own ambitions, come through loud and clear.

    In the opening paragraph of the white paper, China stakes its claim to the next millennium: "Mankind is about to enter the 21st century of its history. It is the aspiration of the Chinese government and people to lead a peaceful, stable and prosperous world into the new century."

    In a subsequent section of the white paper, entitled "The International Security Situation," the Chinese government goes on to list "factors of instability both globally and regionally" that it regards as threats to its future:

1. "Hegemonism and power politics remain the main source of threats to world peace and stability";

2. "cold war mentality and its influence still have a certain currency, and the enlargement of military blocs and the strengthening of military alliances have added factors of instability to international security";

3. "some countries, relying on their military advantages, pose military threat to other countries, even resorting to armed intervention";

4. "the old unfair and irrational international economic order still damages the interests of developing countries";

5. "local conflicts caused by ethnic, religious, territorial, natural resources and other factors arise now and then, and questions left over by history among countries remain unsolved";

6. "terrorism, arms proliferation, smuggling and trafficking in narcotics, environmental pollution, waves of refugees, and other transnational issues also pose new threats to international security."

    Though couched cryptically, the first "factor of instability" is a stinging criticism of Pax Americana. Translated into plain English, it means that the present U.S. political, economic and military preponderance ("hegemony"), combined with Washington's willingness to exercise it ("power politics"), is a threat to China's national security ("world peace and stability").

    The second factor is a veiled reference to the enlargement of NATO and the strengthening of U.S.-Japan defense ties, both of which have alarmed China. In April 1997 China joined Russia in denouncing as (what else?) "Hegemonism" the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which it also called "impermissible." China objected even more vociferously to the redefinition, in early 1996, of the scope of U.S.-Japanese military cooperation from the narrower "Far East" to a wider "Asia-Pacific." The juxtaposition of these two concerns suggests that China sees the strengthened U.S.-Japan Security Treaty not only as an immediate threat but also, as Brzezinski has suggested, as "a point of departure for an American-dominated Asian system of security aimed at containing China (in which Japan would be a vital linchpin much as Germany was in NATO during the Cold War)." The agreement was widely perceived in Beijing as implicitly bringing Taiwan under the protective umbrella of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty; so the white paper goes on to assail the incorporation, "directly or indirectly," of "the Taiwan Straits into the security and cooperation sphere of any country or any military alliance as an infringement upon and interference in China's sovereignty."

    The "military threats" and "armed intervention" referred to in the third factor mean the 1996 missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait, when Washington warned Beijing of "grave consequences" if it continued to bracket the island with missiles and dispatched two carrier groups to guard Taiwan.

    The fourth factor reflects continued Chinese unhappiness with the U.S.-dominated economic order and its institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, the last of which China has still not been able to join because of its restrictive trading practices. Stigmatizing the existing economic order as "old, unfair and irrational" at a time when many Asian economies were in free fall, resentful of the tight-money policies of the IMF and fearful of defaulting on World Bank loans helped to raise China's stature in the region. Such criticisms may be part of an on-again, off-again effort to position China as the advocate of the Third World.

    The bottom line of this white paper is quite clear. From China's point of view, all of its major security concerns arise from the present American dominance on the world stage. Obviously believing that a continuation of the U.S.-dominated international order is not in its national interest, Beijing makes clear that its concerns are not just regional but global, and implies that its goal, in the already quoted words of Deng Xiaoping, "is to build up a new international political and economic order."

    Brzezinski's reading of the present situation is worth quoting in full: China's "central objective" is "to dilute American regional power to the point that a diminished America will come to need a regionally dominant China as its ally and eventually even a globally powerful China as its partner." There is abundant evidence, from the white paper quoted above and other sources, that he is absolutely correct in asserting that China's near-term geostrategic goal is "to dilute American regional power." But in suggesting that China's ultimate geostrategic end is a global U.S.-China condominium, however, Brzezinski is merely expressing a pious hope. China's ultimate ambition is not to ally itself with the reigning hegemon, but to succeed it. As he notes elsewhere, "Simply by being what it is and where it is, ... [America] becomes China's unintentional adversary."

    Are our growing difficulties with China merely a matter of the U.S. Seventh Fleet being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Many in the Chinese elite would disagree, having arrived at the conviction that the U.S. is deliberately frustrating their country's resurgence. From their perspective, America is consciously attempting to force the "peaceful evolution" of China into a democratic state. We challenge China's human rights record at every turn, continually threaten economic sanctions, and have set up a surrogate radio broadcasting service, Radio Free Asia, to encourage insurrection. We passed a Taiwan Relations Act, and we sell arms to that "renegade province." We followed with the Hong Kong Relations Act, and our Congressmen fete Martin Lee, the leader of the democratic forces in Hong Kong, when he visits our shores. Such moves inflame China's already deep sense of grievance against the West, and especially against the one country it sees as the cultural heir and imperial successor to the early Great Powers.

    As every Chinese schoolchild knows, only a century ago the imperial capital of the Great Qing Dynasty was sacked by "Western barbarians." No wonder that for some Chinese the intransitive verb "to Westernize" carries the same implications that "to vandalize" does in the West, and justifies revenge against these past incursions. Lieutenant General Mi Zhenyu, Vice Commandant of the Academy of Military Sciences, was speaking for the leadership of his country when he recently remarked, "[As for the United States,] for a relatively long time it will be absolutely necessary that we quietly nurse our sense of vengeance.... We must conceal our abilities and bide our time."

    From Beijing's perspective, the continued U.S. military presence in Asia is an unhappy accident and anachronism, the tail end of a century and a half of Western domination over a region that properly belongs within its own sphere of influence. If most PRC insiders want to reestablish the hegemony that China enjoyed over vast parts of Asia for nearly 2,000 years, some, especially in the military, want to go even further. They are resentful that China has lost its traditional place as the "Central Kingdom" to the world, and are determined to recover it.

    For the most part muted, China's impatience to rid Asia of Americans occasionally comes through loud and clear. In February 1995, for instance, when a U.S. carrier task force was ordered to steam up the coast of North Korea into the Bohai Gulf as a warning to Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, this show of American naval might so close to its own shores greatly angered Beijing, which ordered a submarine to sortie from the Qingdao naval base and attempt to close on the task force. Detected as soon as it entered the Gulf, the sub was first shadowed and then harassed until it retreated to its home port. Furious Chinese officials issued a threat: If such an incident occurred again, the PLA Navy would be given orders to open fire.

    China's resentment is further fueled by wild fantasies about American omnipotence and malice, which are not only given credence by, but actually emanate from, the PRC military and political elite. General Li Jijun, one of China's most distinguished military authors, openly claims that the United States engineered both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by "strategic deceptions." Most of the Chinese leadership apparently believes that the U.S. deliberately bombed the PRC embassy in Belgrade to humiliate China, and that the U.S. is working covertly to "dismember" China, beginning with Tibet and Xinjiang.

    All this suggests a PRC which has, in combination, the historical grievances of a Weimar Republic, the paranoid nationalism of a revolutionary Islamic state, and the expansionist ambitions of a Soviet Union at the height of its power. As China grows more powerful, and attempts to rectify those grievances and act out those ambitions, it will cast an ever-lengthening shadow over Asia and the world.

    It is often said that America is too democratic at home to be autocratic abroad. Not so China, whose autocratic rulers face few domestic limits on the use of their power abroad. President Jiang Zemin can order his troops into action without a declaration of war by the National People's Congress. He can mobilize the economy to produce weapons of war without the need to convince a skeptical parliament that the expenditures are necessary. And he can command the popular passion by launching internal political campaigns through the Party and the state-owned media.

    Few Americans have yet grasped either the depth of China's historic grievances against the West, or its vengeful envy of the U.S. in particular, or the breadth of its resurgent imperial ambitions. But China is not just an emerging superpower with a grudge—though that would be worrisome enough. It is the Hegemon, waiting to reclaim its rightful position as the center of the world.

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