On China as a Proxy for Russia-Eurasia: Lies and Historical Approximations in Chinese Geopolitical Discourse

Welcomed in Paris on May 6 and 7, Xi Jinping, China’s new Great Helmsman, continued his itinerary toward Serbia and Hungary, two countries whose leaders are committed to a major shift toward Asia. Later this month, he will receive Vladimir Putin. In Europe, minds are finally coming to terms with the reality and depth of the Beijing-Moscow strategic axis, the driving force behind anti-Western dynamics and imperialist resentment. Without Beijing’s multi-faceted support, Vladimir Putin’s Russia-Eurasia would be in a bad position on the Ukrainian front.

Rather than cultivating their diplomatic differences on the China question, Paris and Berlin need to draw conclusions from observable facts: the People’s Republic of China is a hostile power that supplies and finances Russia’s war in Ukraine, coupled with an indirect war against NATO and EU member states. At the same time, Beijing is seeking to instrumentalize Europe against the United States1. Conversely, Western unity and the vitality of transatlantic solidarity require the formation of a common diplomatic front against China. This begins in the realm of representations, with Beijing’s geopolitical discourse and historicizing arguments under the microscope. In fact, a number of corrections are in order.

On China’s historical power and alleged pacifism

The fascination of classical Europe, and later of some Enlightenment philosophers, with China, the later dissemination of the writings of Sun Tzu (“to conquer without fighting”) and the victim-oriented ideology of modern Chinese nationalism have amply conveyed the idea of a fundamentally peaceful China. At most, it would have been forced to defend itself with weapons. In the same vein, until recently, some people explained that China was not universalist, so there was no need to fear its rise to power. In contrast to this thesis of a balanced, peaceful Chinese world, archaeological research has since revealed the bloodthirsty nature of the wars waged during the Zhou dynasty (1121-256 BC). Subsequently, the “Spring and Autumn” (722-481 BC) and “Warring Kingdoms” eras were marked by hyperbolic conflicts between rival principalities, with kings and princes militarizing society2. In this respect, the strategic theories of Sun Tzu3 do not reflect historical reality: diplomatic games, intra-cultural espionage and subversion, tricks and stratagems did not exclude the use of armed force, far from it.

It was through war that King Zheng unified China (221 BC). From then on, he bore the title of “Qin Shi Huang” (the “First Emperor”). Discovered in Xian in 1974, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, with its 7,000 terracotta horsemen and foot soldiers, gives an idea of his power. From the Yellow River basin, the geohistorical heartland of the Han, territorial conquests were made downstream and in the northern plains. They then turned southward, to the Asia of the Monsoons. At the same time, conquests were directed toward Upper Asia and Turkestan, areas of confrontation with the Tibeto-Burmese and Turkic peoples. It was not until the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) that the Middle Kingdom actually conquered these areas. As for the peoples of the periphery, they were considered barbarians (yi), and reduced to the status of tributaries (Chinese tradition distinguishes between “cooked” and “raw” barbarians, the latter being considered unassimilable). From its very beginnings, the history of the Chinese civilization-state has been shaped by mobile, conquering frontiers. Ethnic Han rulers were regularly defeated by numerically inferior enemies. It was their victors, notably the Manchu Qing dynasty, who pushed back the borders of the empire they had conquered4.

During its unitary phases, the Middle Kingdom effectively asserted its primacy in East Asia, on its contours and in the depths of the continent5. On the basis of this undeniable fact, some explain that China’s hypothetical rise to the top of the world rankings, or even its transformation into a “superpower”, would simply be a return of the same. Initiated by Angus Maddison, long-term historical statistics show that in 1700, China accounted for 23% of the human population and 22% of the world’s wealth production. If we extrapolate from macroeconomic data, the People’s Republic of China would therefore only regain its position as the world’s leading power. However, that would be to confuse the size effect with power, defined as the ability to impose one’s will on other international players. At the time, China’s population was essentially made up of self-sufficient peasants. The surplus generated was not sufficient to finance a major power policy. Already superior to China in northwestern Europe around 1500, per capita wealth was half that of China a century later. And if England at the end of the 18th Century, when King George III sent Lord Macartney as an envoy, weighed less than the Middle Kingdom, innovation and dynamism were on its side: it was destined to prevail.

In other words, the global weight of a human entity is not power, and China’s historical primacy was exercised in the Asian theater alone (a regional “superpower”). As for the thesis that the Middle Kingdom was the driving force behind globalization, it makes little sense. While we can speculate on what Zheng He’s expeditions (seven from 1405 to 1433) might have produced, this is an exercise in uchrony. The Great Discoveries, the first circumnavigation and the crossing of the Pacific Ocean in all directions were the work of Western nations. Admittedly, the discovery of Chinese civilization and the attraction of its products were powerful motives. However, trade with China represented only a small fraction of that with the Atlantic Ocean, the geopolitical axis of the modern West. If we take the example of the United States in the mid-19th Century, China accounted for three-quarters of trade in the Pacific, but less than one-tenth of total American trade. Breaking with the thesis developed by certain Chinese historians, and taken up by proponents of an “interconnected history” that denies the historical role of the West, it is false to assert that the wealth of Co-hong merchants financed the economic development of the United States6. The arbitrarily anti-Western premise of so-called “global” or “interconnected” history must be emphasized here.

On China’s victim syndrome

The Opium Wars, it is explained, ruined China and morally discredited the West. First of all, it is important to recall the historical context. When the two Opium Wars took place (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), the Chinese Empire was already in a depressive spiral and, more broadly, a multi-dimensional decline. The ethnic Manchu Qing dynasty had reached its peak in the 18th Century. Although China had been left behind by the “scientific revolution” of the 17th Century, it had achieved its greatest territorial expansion, not through cultural subjugation, but through iron and fire. After a golden age (a “Pax Manchurica”), the death of Emperor Qianlong in 1795 provides a convenient benchmark. At the time, demographic growth was outstripping the country’s economic potential, as well as the capacity of the state apparatus to manage it. In the great depression that gripped China in the first half of the 19th Century, endogenous factors were the most important: famines and deforestation, under-maintained waterworks, a swelling wandering population, a crisis in silver/copper bimetallism, and revolts sparked by the White Lotus sect that dried up the imperial treasury (1796-1804). As for opium, it was consumed and imported before smuggler-merchants, British but not exclusively, saw in it the product that would enable them to rebalance trade with China (tea, silk, and porcelain imports were settled in silver metal). Once the merchandise reached the coasts, it was Chinese smugglers who, with the protection of corrupt mandarins, controlled the trade7.

The imperial ban on these imports was aimed not at curbing a health scourge, but at preventing the outflow of silver. Although the affair led to war with England, the stakes were broader than opium alone: freedom of trade, the establishment of diplomatic relations, and religious freedom8. Significantly, official Chinese sources speak only of “opium troubles.” Far more deadly and costly were the terrible internal wars and insurrections: the Taiping revolt in the lower Blue River valley (1850-1864), the Nian in the north (1853-1868), and the Red Turbans in the Canton region (1854). Added to this were Hui revolts in Yunnan (1855), then in the northwest (1862-1863 and 1876), and episodes of war between the Hakka (Han from the North who had migrated to southern China) and the local populations. These conflicts and their repression resulted in tens of millions of deaths. It took the support of Western powers and the assertion of a provincial political and military elite for the Qing dynasty to overcome the ordeal9. China’s demography suffered the consequences of these losses, and the gaps were only gradually filled. The central part of the Empire, the most populous and wealthiest, was ravaged. The need to restore the rural economy had the effect of aggravating the burdens on trade and crafts: heavy traffic taxes compartmentalized space, hampering modernization efforts. China became an agricultural state.

It was against this backdrop that China was subjected to “unfair unequal treaties.” There is nothing new in the history of the world: tempted, the stronger impose their law on the weaker. For many centuries, “unequal treaties” were the rule between the Middle Kingdom and its peripheral tributaries, without going back on the conquests and the damage they caused. Who in Beijing is indignant about this today? With the Opium Wars, the course of events changed: History as usual. However, analysis must go further than the simple religion of fait accompli. It is important to understand that imperial cosmology involved actors with different ontological status. At the heart of a constellation of kingdoms and tributary principalities, the Middle Kingdom occupied an eminent position, and claimed a form of universal monarchy (cf. the concept of Tianxa: “everything under heaven”). Conversely, England and the other Western powers intended to deal with China on an equal footing, along the lines of the Westphalian system. The diplomatic representatives these nations sent to China refused to bow down to the Emperor (kowtow), and they wanted to be able to open permanent embassies in Peking.

While the Treaty of Nanking (1842) did take into account the balance of power resulting from the First Opium War, it was above all because of the principled equality of the signatory parties that it traumatized the Chinese imperial conscience. In the period that followed, however, the Chinese authorities relied on the treaty’s clauses to stem British pressure. In keeping with the ancient strategy of “using barbarians against barbarians10“, they offered the same benefits to Americans and other Western nations. After the May 4th Movement of 191911, Chinese nationalists and communists reinterpreted this period, and the anachronistic theme of “unequal treaties” came to the fore. It is true, however, that the extraterritorial status of Western subjects established relations without equivalent in the Westphalian system. Also, extraterritoriality was customary in China: Chinese law was sacred, and could not be applied to “barbarians.” The West was able to maneuver to exploit traditional Chinese exclusivism, institutionalizing extraterritoriality and supplementing it with a system of leased territories (the method was reproduced by the Qing in Korea, which had long been satelliteized). Unlike Russia and Japan, however, Western powers did not conceive of vast programs of territorial conquest, nor did they consider appropriating China’s imperial cosmology12 (Meiji-era Japan saw itself as a new Middle Kingdom).

Putin and pandas in the Kuban region in March 2024 // kremlin.ru

On Chinese territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region

Beijing is known to regard the island state of Taiwan as a rebel province. Historically, Taiwan has few links with Chinese history, and even fewer with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) proclaimed in 1949. At the time, the island was inhabited by Malayo-Polynesian Aborigines. In the 15th Century, the Portuguese took possession of the island and gave it the name “Formosa” (“The Beautiful”). They were succeeded by the Spanish and then the Dutch. With each successive sovereignty, Chinese immigration began to develop. In 1684, the Manchu dynasty conquered Formosa, but only controlled the western part; the local tribes had a reputation for being fierce warriors. Following the Sino-Japanese War (1895), the Treaty of Shimonoseki granted Formosa to Japan. From 1895 to 1945, the island remained under Tokyo’s sovereignty, leaving a deep cultural imprint. The half-century in which Formosa entered modernity, with Japan acting as a bridge between Asia and the West13, contributed to the formation of a Taiwanese national feeling, distinct from that of mainland China. As a result of the civil war between Chinese nationalists and communists, Chiang Kai-shek’s takeover of Formosa after Japan’s surrender was unable to erase the island’s earlier history14.

Since then, Formosa’s history has been one of opposition to the People’s Republic of China. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s armies and two million mainlanders evacuated mainland China to take refuge on the island and perpetuate the Republic of China. Until 1971, the Republic of China was considered the only official China, and had a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Under U.S. military protection, despite diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China (1979), Chiang Kai-shek’s modernizing dictatorship pursued an effective development policy. After his demise (1975), the regime gradually liberalized, demonstrating that “market democracy” could take root outside the Western sphere. Over time, a growing number of Taiwanese distanced themselves from the “one China” theory, and began to think about de jure independence. In March 2005, Beijing passed an “anti-secession law” making any declaration of independence a casus belli. Since then, the People’s Republic of China has equipped itself to counter American military protection. Despite the despotic nature of the People’s Republic of China and the fact that Taiwan, which has only temporarily and partially belonged to the Chinese sphere, is following its own path (without crossing the Rubicon), the European Union and its member states are betting on the perpetuation of the status quo. Beijing’s support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, against a backdrop of latent conflict between the Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis and the West, should change this situation15. All the more so as the People’s Republic of China has done nothing to help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Beyond Taiwan, China’s sights are set on the “Asian Mediterranean” (the South China Sea). In terms of freedom of navigation, Beijing makes no secret of its ambitions and, through a colossal shipbuilding program, is equipping itself with the means to conduct a policy of domination. The People’s Republic of China considers that its territorial waters extend up to 15 nautical miles from its coasts (12 according to the Law of the Sea), and refuses the normal regime of “harmless transit” for vessels from navies other than its own. In addition to these breaches of international law, Beijing claims that almost the entire South China Sea belongs to it. This “Asian Mediterranean” is even larger than the Mediterranean Sea (2.5m square km). Can we imagine the European Union as such, with the agreement of its member states, proclaiming that the Mediterranean Sea is once again a “Mare Nostrum”, thus excluding the southern and eastern riparians from any rights over this maritime space? Yet this is what Beijing is doing, through a policy of reclamation of rocks and reefs (some of which have been transformed into naval and air bases), intimidation of neighboring countries and disregard for the law: the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has in fact rejected China’s claims to these maritime spaces (July 12, 2016).

To justify its ambitions in the “Asian Mediterranean,” Beijing manipulates various historical arguments and refers to a “nine-dash line.” This is a map, drawn in 1947, which purports to reproduce the borders of the Chinese tributary system beyond China proper. It includes islands and archipelagos over which the Middle Kingdom has never exercised suzerainty. It was not until France and Japan fought over the Paracel Islands between the wars that the Republic of China laid claim to them (1932). After asserting that the southern limit of its sovereignty lay in this archipelago, the Chinese government “discovered” the Spratly Islands, after France had extended its sovereignty over them (1933). Trained in France by Jean Brunhes and Emmanuel de Martonne between 1926 and 1928, Chinese geographer Hu Huanyong played a key role in these claims16. Having become an advisor to the Nanjing government, he published an article in the Chinese Diplomatic Review entitled “France and Japan Covet the South Sea Islands” (1934). The publication attracted the attention of the Chinese government. Since then, the reefs and archipelagos of the “Asian Mediterranean” have been considered by Nanjing, and later by Peking, to belong to the People’s Republic of China for all eternity17. The move into the region, against all respect for international law and good neighborly relations, foreshadowed an overall aggressive policy.

To conclude

In short, the historical reality and actions of contemporary China, under the thumb of Xi Jinping and a neo-Maoist clique, are far more telling than Victor Hugo’s stanzas about the burning of the Summer Palace during the Second Opium War, or the soothing words of Chinese intellectuals grafted onto the ancient concept of “Tianxia” (“All under Heaven”), presented as the universal solution to humanity’s ills. Beijing’s rhetoric cannot conceal the aggressiveness of the Chinese superpower and its resolute support for Russia-Eurasia. It is not just a matter of trade disputes, dumping and electric cars; it is crucial that the West should not be divided on the China issue and the attitude to adopt.The various illusions of recent years – “Nixon in reverse” for some, Sino-European “reset” for others – must be dispelled. The important thing is to understand that Beijing and Moscow support each other and agree on the objective of destroying what they call Western hegemony. This is not a temporary convergence, triggered by the war in Ukraine, but a long-term geopolitical movement, which began at the end of the “Fifty Years’ War” (the first Cold War); the late Yevgeny Primakov was the architect of this so-called “anti-hegemonic” coalition. By combining their efforts, from Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait, and by sharing the burden of defense (see the “burden-sharingtheme), the West will be able to face up to “Mackinder’s nightmare”: a Eurasian power bloc that would turn Europe into Asia’s “little cape” and isolate America.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

Footnotes

  1. Cf. Laurent Amelot, “Xi Jinping’s visit to Paris: for an unequivocal statement from France,” Le Figaro, May 5, 2024.
  2. Cf. Jean Lévi, La Chine en guerre, Arkhé, 2018.
  3. The Art of War and six other texts of Chinese political and strategic thought were collected by Shenzong, the sixth emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279). An edition of The Art of War was found in a tomb dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The Jesuit Joseph Amiot, stationed at the Peking mission, paraphrased a Manchu-commented translation of The Art of War, bringing this treatise to the attention of cultivated Europe (1772).
  4. The Manchus are the heirs of the Jurchen, a Tungus ethnic group (the Tungus are a Siberian people speaking an Ural-Altaic language). As they conquered China, the Jurchen took the name “Manchu”, meaning “great/strong.” Manchu rulers retained their ethnic identity, language and writing system, derived from the Aramaic alphabet through the Sogdians and Uyghurs.
  5. The term “empire” was coined by Westerners in search of an appropriate term to describe the pre-modern political formations they encountered in their quest to seize control of the world, from the Great Discoveries to the first third of the 20th Century. The “Middle Country” (Zhongguo), or the “Middle Flower” (Zhonguua), in other words China, is at the heart of a constellation of kingdoms, principalities and tributary peoples. Originally, “Middle” referred to the Central Plain (Yellow River basin), where Han ethnogenesis took place. However, archaeological research in recent decades has shown that the geographical space in which Chinese civilization originally took root is located further north, in a vast region linked to the dynamics of central and northern Asia (Siberia).
  6. Established in 1760 by imperial edict, the Co-hong was a guild of merchants entrusted with a monopoly on trade with their Western counterparts. Western merchants were relegated to the outskirts of the city, in a restricted area and for a limited time.
  7. See Xavier Paulès, L’opium : une passion chinoise, 1750-1950, Payot, 2011.
  8. Although it stipulated the abolition of the Co-hong and the opening of four ports, in addition to Canton, to international trade, the Treaty of Nanking (1842) made no mention of opium. This trade was legalized by the Peking Convention (1860), at the end of the Second Opium War.
  9. In 1860, Britain’s Charles Gordon (1833-1885), with the agreement of his government, entered the service of the Qing dynasty to fight against the Taiping. He helped reorganize the army, cleared Shanghai and liberated Suzhou and other cities. From then on, Charles Gordon was known as “the Chinaman.” Also nicknamed “Gordon Pasha” after fighting the slave trade in Sudan (1874-1879), he died in Khartoum on January 26, 1885, when the city was taken by the Mahdi and the slave-owning tribes of Sudan (the “Mahdist War”, 1881-1899).
  10. The expression refers to what Henry Kissinger called “Wei Yuan’s program.” A Mandarin with links to Lin Zexu, the official who had the opium crates burned in Canton (1839), Wei Yuan was the author of a treatise on geography aimed at developing renewed diplomacy beyond the neighboring tributary countries. He proposed clinging to the Treaty of Nanking while establishing relations with countries likely to counterbalance the weight of England (France and the United States of America). See Henry Kissinger, On China, Penguin Press, 2011.
  11. It was a student revolt in Peking at a time when the Peace Conference, meeting in Paris since January 1919, was negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and the fate of German possessions in China and the Pacific. In response to news that Japan would retain Qingdao and the Shandong peninsula, taken from Germany at the start of the First World War, Peking University students demonstrated. The movement strengthened Chinese nationalism and gave an even more radical twist to the early reforms of the republic (see the slogan “Down with the Confucius store”). In the wake of the movement, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai (1921).
  12. In return for its good offices during the Second Opium War, the Russian Empire obtained from China the handover of Outer Manchuria, which corresponds to today’s Russian Far East (1858-1860). The port of Vladivostok was founded. At the end of the 1895 war, Japan had the island of Formosa, extended its influence to Korea and its leaders had their sights set on Manchuria. After a victorious war against Russia (1904-1905), Manchuria effectively entered their zone of influence. The project of a Greater Japan, a new hegemonic power at the center of an Asian sphere, was then envisaged. In other words, Japan intended to take China’s historic place.
  13. It is worth recalling Japan’s prestige after its victory over Imperial Russia in the 1904-1905 war. Many future Chinese nationalist leaders and activists were educated in Japanese universities.
  14. The Republic of China today comprises the island of Taiwan, the Pescadores Islands, the Quemoy and Matsu archipelagos and Taiping. On either side of the Formosa Strait, the disproportion is enormous: 36,000 square km and 23m inhabitants for the Republic of China; 9.6m square km and 1,375bn inhabitants for the People’s Republic of China.
  15. See Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier and Laurent Amelot, Pourquoi faut-il soutenir l’île-État de Taïwan, Thomas More Institute, Note d’actualité 66, April 2020.
  16. Geographer Hu Huanyong is best known in the West for identifying and tracing the diagonal that separates populous eastern China from arid, underpopulated western China (the Heihe-Tenchong “geo-demographic demarcation line”) in 1935.
  17. See Emmanuel Dubois de Prisque, “La cartographie en Chine du rêve chinois à la réalité géopolitique”, Outre-Terre, Issue 38, 2014/1.

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