Explaining China’s position on a global stage, that is the underlying purpose of Howard French’s book Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. As an emerging world power, we need to understand China, in a similar way we now understand the US, Britain, Russia and other current and past global powers, he explains to the South China Morning Post. “Tianxia” is the key concept to understand.
The South China Morning Post:
China’s story just happens to be intimidatingly vast and complex, which partly explains French’s decision to filter its history through a central concept: tianxia, an ancient Chinese cultural concept that gives his book its title. The literal translation of the word is “everything under heaven”.
What tianxia means in practical political terms, French writes in the book, is “China’s tribute system”.
“Tianxia emerges as a paradigm for China’s geopolitics from a correct sense that it is vastly larger and, for most of its history, vastly richer than any neighbouring state,” French explains during our conversation. “Out of this flows an ideal, from the Chinese perspective, that order can best be established in our neighbourhood by a situation whereby the neighbours defer to us.”
In the most technical sense, deference is expressed through a highly ritualised series of ceremonies: embassies dispatched to pay obeisance to the emperor; the adoption of the Chinese calendar and language. In broader policy terms, tianxia combines carefully deployed “sticks” and “carrots”. French points to historical evidence to argue that China uses inducements first and force only as a last resort: the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 is an example. Carrots include access to Chinese trade, to its potentially vast market, and to what French describes as “patents of authority. China essentially legitimates local leaders by endorsing them”. On this basis, “a harmonious pattern of coexistence can endure in the region. One could say only on this basis”.
Although the current leadership is careful not to invoke tianxia explicitly, French argues that it explains much of China’s international diplomacy. Everything Under the Heavens devotes considerable space to unpicking Beijing’s forthright claims to territory in the South China Sea, which have made several nations uneasy. In 2013, the Philippines took China to an arbitration tribunal in the Hague to invalidate Beijing’s territorial claims. At the heart of the South China Sea dispute is the “nine-dash line”, under which China lays claim to 90 per cent of the area. On July 12 last year, the tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines.
“China didn’t say, ‘You are infringing upon tianxia’, but that’s very much what was going on,” French says. “[China says] ‘We control those waters. You should get with the programme and defer to us.’”
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