For many years after its reform and opening in 1978, China maintained an attitude of false modesty about its ambitions. That façade, reports former New York Times Asia correspondent Howard French, has now been cast off. China is increasingly asserting its place among the global powers, signaling its plans for pan-Asian dominance by building its navy, increasing territorial claims to areas like the South China Sea, and diplomatically bullying smaller players. Underlying this attitude is the millennia-old concept of tian xia, which held that everything “under the heavens” fell within the influence of the Chinese empire.
If we understand how this historical identity continues to color current actions, in ways ideological, philosophical, and even legal, we can learn to forecast just what kind of global power China stands to become—as the world order is poised to shift. Steeped in deeply researched history and on-the-ground reporting, this is French at his revelatory best.
With a New Afterword
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Howard W. French wrote from Africa for The Washington Post and at The New York Times was bureau chief in Central America and the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, and China. He is the recipient of two Overseas Press Club awards and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. He is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa and China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa; he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone, among other national publications. He is on the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Read an Excerpt
To travel the twelve hundred miles southwest from Tokyo to Yonaguni, a tiny island at the farthest end of the Ryukyu chain, in a single day requires setting out early and flying on one of the two days of the week when the connections match up in Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture.
During the postwar era, Japan has enjoyed a reputation as perhaps the most peaceful major country in the world. But in Okinawa, even from the air there is no escaping how incomplete, or even deceptive, this widely accepted picture is. Upon our final approach before landing in Naha, three of Japan’s white Self-Defense Force (SDF) fighters, spooling contrails in their wake, darted parallel to us in formation. Down below, both at dock and at sea, were SDF coast guard cutters and other smaller ships whose white hulls stood out against the placid-looking blue carpet of the Pacific.
Okinawa is the island where American-led Allied forces famously launched their ferocious invasion of Japan in early April 1945, losing 14,000 personnel while killing at least five times as many Japanese soldiers, along with between 42,000 and 150,000 civilians. Okinawa was captured in order to serve as the springboard for what would have been a far more challenging assault on Japan’s so-called home islands, aimed at capturing Tokyo or forcing surrender. As it happened, the war was brought to an end by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that August. This hardly meant the end of the American story on Okinawa.
The Americans never left. Over the next seven decades the island became the most important anchor of American power in the Western Pacific, enabling the United States to hedge, or balance, seemingly indefinitely against China, whose mainland lay a mere four hundred miles to the west. From the perspective of the locals, that has made it the unhappy home of about 63 percent of the roughly twenty-five thousand American troops who are permanently stationed in Japan, despite the fact that Okinawa makes up less than 1 percent of Japan’s total landmass.
On the connecting flight to Yonaguni, we strung our way along a necklace of tiny islands that drooped off to the southwest from Okinawa, first past Miyako, then Iriomote and then an assemblage of smaller others—some flat as pancakes and patterned in the green geometric fields of commercial agriculture, others darkly mountainous, their coral approaches ringed by encroaching circular tides. Most of the visitors who come this way are drawn by great surfing or diving or the prospect of a rustic nature retreat, all of which these islands offer in abundance. The specks of land below are of greater interest, however, because they have served as interstitial tissue in the ebb and flow of empires, and today are the focus of an enormous geopolitical contest that has recently resumed in this part of East Asia. It was here, in this watery realm, that China, drawing on a combination of newfound wealth and power and some impatience, was girding for a showdown with Japan, the neighbor that had most persistently defied it over the past thirteen centuries.
For hundreds of years this string of islands, often collectively referred to simply as Okinawa, a name that fittingly means “a rope in the offing,” had been the quasi-independent kingdom of Ryukyu. Throughout much of that time, for China, this tiny monarchy had mostly served as a reminder of the nuisances of the tribute system, because the hospitality costs associated with hosting frequent visits by embassies from such a small vassal state were far out of proportion to the value of bilateral trade, so much so that Beijing made little noise about its loss when Japan annexed the islands in 1879. At altitude on a cloudless day, though, it is easy to understand how important an impediment the Ryukyus may now seem to be for the global aspirations of a rising power that sees itself as increasingly entitled.
In its entirety, Japan takes the shape of an elongated archipelago, a gently curved scythe stretching all the way from the icy ports of Russia south to the doorstep of semitropical fringes of the South China Sea. For the purposes of maritime navigation, the archipelago serves as an immense picket fence that looms off of China’s shores, restricting access to the open waters of the Pacific to a handful of easily guarded choke points. At its southern end, at Yonaguni, the westernmost point of Japan, it also comes within eyesight of Taiwan, just sixty-two miles distant. For this reason, and for reasons of history as well, the Ryukyus have come to powerfully concentrate China’s attention. It is here that this fence is at once its most fragile and strategic, sitting astride critical sea lanes connecting southern China and the vast blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
During China’s nearly four decades of recent resurgence, Japan has represented many things to Beijing. Early in China’s opening-up period, it was, as noted, an important source of investment, especially during the 1980s. For the second time in its modern history, China saw Japan as a country that it could study and learn from economically and copy selectively as it modernized. Shortly thereafter, as an accelerating China began to pile up successes, Japan became a benchmark to be overtaken in order to affirm that China’s destiny had been redeemed and its true potential was being realized. Although China remains far poorer on a per capita basis, an important milestone was crossed along this path in 2009, when it displaced its neighbor to become the world’s second-largest economy.
But in modern times economics has represented only one dimension of the deeply competitive dynamic between the two countries. Despite its unique “peace constitution,” a legacy of its World War II defeat and American occupation, Japan is inescapably seen by Beijing as a major military rival supported by a sixty-year-old alliance with the United States, and it must be overcome if China is to recover the status it regards as its due in the region. This was stated with striking baldness even for a frequently bombastic Beijing-based newspaper, the nationalist Global Times. In a September 2014 editorial, it declared, “We should try to gain overwhelming advantages over Japan in major areas. Tokyo only shows respect to countries that have once heavily struck it or possess much greater strategic ability.” And since the early years of this century, a campaign to demonstrate this greater capability has been under way, with China sending coast guard, fishing patrol vessels, and even naval ships into the surrounding waters of the Ryukyu chain, as well as aircraft into the skies overhead, both to challenge its neighbor’s claims to sovereignty over the islands and to wear Japan down.
Had it been a theatrical production, this resumed contest between Japan and China could have been titled “The Revenge of History.” Its chief protagonist was a revitalized China, as energized and motivated as an aggrieved legal plaintiff in a liability case freshly recovered from a severe injury caused by the other party’s willful misconduct. And the interim award for damages that it seeks to recover consists of a group of five small islands and three barren rocks, collectively known as the Senkaku Islands, which are adjacent to but geologically distinct from the Ryukyus. Japan has controlled this uninhabited real estate since it annexed the Senkakus in 1895, which may seem like a long time by the standards of the familiar international system that governs our world, but is of course a mere blink of the eye in China’s long history. Chinese imperial records mention the islands as a well-known navigational marker on the seafarers’ route to the Ryukyu kingdom as early as the fifteenth century. But even more important to an aggrieved China is the timing of Japan’s annexation of the islands following its defeat of China, accelerating the collapse of the age-old Sinocentric world.
Yonaguni measures a bare eleven square miles, and its only real town is Sonai. Outside Sonai, one could go for hours without encountering another person. When I visited the island I made a brief stop at a horse farm to ask for directions. There, I struck up a conversation with a worker. He eagerly briefed me on what for him was clearly rare big news. The Japanese government had made a locally unpopular decision to build a radar station on Yonaguni, along with a billet for its newly constituted marines, he said. He pointed to a dramatic escarpment in the near distance where the station was to be built. “Most people here don’t want a base on this island,” he said. “But for quick deployment there is surely no better location.”
Actually, I had already read items in the Japanese press saying that tiny Yonaguni was being put into play in a major way in an intensifying renewal of a competition between Tokyo and Beijing whose origins lay fourteen hundred years in the past. At that time, a Japanese empress named Suiko sent an “embassy” to the Sui dynasty capital, Chang’an, led by a diplomat bearing a letter informing the Chinese court, in effect, that in protocol terms Japan would no longer be content to play the role of an ordinary vassal and considered itself to be on equal footing with the Central Kingdom.
One way to understand the Japanese move to build an early warning station and rapid response base on Yonaguni is simply to regard it as the latest reenactment of this flintiness; a firm and very public statement that Tokyo would not be intimidated by China’s size, its might or its bluster. But unlike in the past, when flintiness was cushioned by the two countries’ coexistence as neighbors with limited contact, now they lived edgily in almost promiscuous closeness.
Another way to view it, however, is simply as prudence. A few months after my visit to Yonaguni, another confirmation of its special place in the looming struggle between Japan and China was delivered by James Fanell, director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Speaking at a Navy conference in San Diego, Fanell made a surprisingly blunt pronouncement about Beijing’s designs on the area, citing its large-scale military exercises in 2013 to claim that China was preparing for a “short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, following with what can only be an expected seizure of the Senkakus.”
Captain Fanell’s comments were immediately criticized by many in the foreign policy community for their alarmism, and a few months later he was quietly forced into early retirement. But looking at Beijing’s actions in the waters of the East China Sea, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that either China is preparing to do just as Fanell said, or it wishes to instill fear in the minds of the Japanese, and most likely of the Americans too, of such an eventuality.
Since 2010, the narrow seas between the two countries have seen a severe ratcheting up of pressure on Japan as Beijing has used a range of steadily more assertive tactics. In January 2013, a Chinese frigate locked its firing radar on a Japanese destroyer, an action that is customarily taken as a threat of imminent use of force, especially in an encounter between unfriendly countries in contested territory. Under circumstances like these, it is not hard to imagine how a conflict between the two nations could easily break out by accident, as when two fighter aircraft or opposing coast guard vessels collide, with a loss of life.
There are precedents for such dangerous mishaps. The United States and China were plunged into a major bilateral crisis under circumstances like this in 2001, when a Chinese fighter pilot died in a crash after bumping a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance aircraft gathering signals intelligence just off the Chinese coast, seventy miles from Hainan Island. The very large power differential between China and the United States at the time prevented military retaliation by Beijing, confining the damage to diplomatic relations.
The gap in power between China and Japan in the contested seas that separate them, however, is much narrower, with Japan widely presumed to hold a tenuous and increasingly vulnerable lead. Practically, this means that even if China has not chosen this as quite the right moment for a direct confrontation, it could prove very hard or indeed impossible for it to back down after a fatal accident, particularly one in which it came off as the initial loser. The main reason for this is history—past history as well as the making of a new and future one.
After taking power in November 2012, Xi Jinping wasted little time setting the tone for his expected ten-year tenure in office. His first trip outside of the capital was to visit troops in the Guangzhou Military Region, telling them that “being able to fight and win wars is the soul of a strong army.” A few months later, just before it began operations, he toured China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which had been purchased from Ukraine and refurbished. None of this early military signaling by Xi would have been remarkable had it not been accompanied by an increasingly full-throated state campaign of vengeful nationalism.
As anniversaries go, seventy-seven doesn’t have a very special ring, not in China nor in any other culture. But in July 2014, that didn’t discourage Xi from presiding over the largest ever commemoration of what is officially known as the War of Resistance Against Japan, which China says began with the Marco Polo Bridge incident, a showdown with Japanese troops just outside Beijing in 1937. It was as if he couldn’t wait for a chance to exploit anti-Japanese feelings. In his speech, Xi denounced Japanese whitewashing of the past, and vowed that the “Chinese people who have sacrificed . . . will unswervingly protect, with blood and life, the history and the facts.” At the conclusion of his remarks, the crowds of Chinese youth gathered for the event gave it a Maoist hue, collectively chanting, “Never forget national humiliation! Realize the Chinese dream!”
“The Chinese dream of great national rejuvenation” was how Xi often put it. It is the kind of watchword or slogan that Chinese leaders since Mao have adopted, drawing on an imperial tradition of reign slogans. But where most of Mao’s successors have waited several years, even until the second of what is traditionally a mandate of two five-year terms, before announcing the organizing thought behind their presidency, Xi proclaimed his from the very start. The Marco Polo commemoration was by no means a one-off, either. Under Xi, a spate of other propaganda initiatives have been regularly orchestrated with the aim of reviving and channeling popular ire toward Japan.
In January 2014, the northeastern city of Harbin opened a memorial hall for the Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, in 1909. The following month, two new national holidays were introduced, both of them focused on Japan: the “War Against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” and the “Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day.” For good measure, the government commissioned the $6 million construction of a full-size replica of an eighty-meter-long warship sunk by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War, intended as a reminder to the Chinese people of their country’s defeat in that conflict.
Table of Contents
Timeline of Chinese Dynasties and Other Key Events xiii
Chapter 1 National Humiliation 13
Chapter 2 Island Barbarians 54
Chapter 3 The Gullet of the World 89
Chapter 4 A Pacified South 127
Chapter 5 Sons of Heaven, Setting Suns 186
Chapter 6 Claims and Markers 237
Afterword to the Vintage Books Edition (2018) 285
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you need or want one book that explains China's geostrategic behavior today and puts it into context, this is the first book you should read. Prof. French is masterful in his presentation of China's vast history and lessons that may be derived and learned today. As my professional responsibilities involve China, Prof. French's insights have definitely influenced how I will approach those responsibilities well into the future. If you want to understand today's headlines, if you want to move beyond today's headlines, if you want to become a more global citizen, read "Everything Under The Heavens."