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Foreign Policy

Some Echoes from the Past: Complicating the Emerging China Consensus

Mar 15 , 2018
  • Jared McKinney

    PhD student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies


Pope Innocent IV sends Dominicans and Franciscans out to the Tartars

The past has no easy lessons for the present, and it’s common for historical analogies to mislead more than inform. Even so, analogical reasoning is a natural component of human cognition, and so cannot simply be avoided. Instead, analogies should be used prudently and creatively—to start conversations rather than end them. Michael Keevak, a professor at the National Taiwan University, has written a new book, Embassies to China: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars, which allows us to do just this, and in this essay I relate three themes from Keevak’s study to the contemporary context: the pretension of unity, the nature of peace, and the law of exceptions.

The Pretension of Unity

In the mid-13th Century AD, Pope Innocent IV dispatched several missions to the Mongols (who were then in the process of conquering China), entreating them to cease advancing towards western territories and accept the Christian religion. Innocent’s letters projected an image of cultural and religious unity: Christendom vs. the barbaric East. As Keevak shows, Güyük, the Great Khan, knew better, and protested the arrogance of the Pope’s letters: in fact, Nestorian Christians were a regular feature in the Khan’s court, and across his lands—Edward Gibbon wrote with (apparently) some exaggeration—there was “perfect toleration.” Despite his pretensions, the Pope was neither the unquestioned representative of the West—indeed the Papal States were then under siege by none other than the Holy Roman Emperor—nor the commandant of Christianity, which extended far beyond the (in the Khan’s eyes) parochial lands of Christendom.

The echo of this obscure story is seen, perhaps, in the pretension that a “democratic alliance” can (or should) dominate the contemporary international system. This budding resurrection of “The Quad” in the “Indo-Pacific” is but one consequence of this belief. Is this akin to the Pope pretending unity existed when in fact it did not? Innocent IV in the 13th Century assumed the dichotomy of the Church against the barbarians; the present form of this dichotomy is democracy vs. “dictatorship,” as The Economist has proclaimed in a recent issue. Can democratic Indonesia’s interests really be pitted directly against those of non-democratic China, its largest trading partner? How about asking Indonesians? Does the liberal-democratic sense of superiority, like the Pope’s casual dismissal of Nestorians, ignore actual similarities, such as the expansion of freedom—in the sense of personal choice—in contemporary China?

The Nature of Peace

The nature of ‘peace’ was a point of contention in the Pope’s letters to the Mongols above. The Mongols, Keevak shows, shared the Roman conception of pax: not mutual coexistence, but submission. Peace was the acknowledgment of hierarchy, at the top of which stood the proud Khan. That the Pope’s emissaries would come asking for peace but rejecting this hierarchy led to much confusion and consternation among the Khan’s followers. Unsurprisingly, the attempt to forge some sort of arrangement with the Khan failed.

Again, this rather obscure story seems to echo something more universal. Two sets of fears are associated with the dynamic of a rising power catching up, and surpassing, a dominant power: the rising power’s fear that it will still be treated as an inferior by the established power, and the established power’s fear that it will become inferior to the rising power. Both powers fear submission, in the sense of the Roman pax above. This is one way to explain the rising tension between the U.S. and China. China may ask for a “new type of major power relations,” but the U.S. is not buying, because it’s quite happy with remaining the only major (or big/great) power. When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson endorsed Chinese language calling for positive-sum foreign relations last year, it was met by an outpouring of umbrage on the part of Washington’s foreign policy insiders. Why? Most fundamentally, because American elites remain wedded to a notion of ‘leadership’ in which the U.S. acts and others respond. “Full spectrum” dominance includes discourse dominance, and adapting Chinese language is recast as an instance of humiliating submission instead of an example of tact. As long as peace negotiations are about one party or the other submitting, the existential angst of both the rising and established powers will remain dominant, dooming embassies of goodwill.

If this is true, doesn’t China’s traditional insistence on its status as the Middle Kingdom, before whom all others pay tribute, doom the U.S. and China to an uncertain relationship fueled with fear? This question assumes a continuity between traditional and modern China that does not exist, but even if it did exist, the answer is no, as the next vignette shows.

The Law of Exceptions

In the mid-17th century, relations between China and Russia were rocky, as Keevak narrates: Russia had been expanding East for a century, and the two nations’ frontiers had begun to collide around the Amur River. Russian ambassadors dispatched to China not only refused to kowtow, but even demanded that the Chinese emperor become a tributary of the tsar. Eventually, the two sides agreed to talk on more equal terms, signing the landmark Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, negotiated in Latin by Jesuit mediators and sworn to before the Christian God by the Chinese as a sign of fidelity. Necessity, as it was, knew no law: when China’s interests (stabilizing the northern border) were engaged, the niceties of the Tributary System could be ignored, and practical concessions could be made (permitting regular Russian trading caravans). In this same spirit, in 1720, the Chinese emperor personally received the Russian ambassador, treating the ambassador’s sovereign, Peter the Great, as “his neighbor and friend of equal rank.”

Today, the notion of the Chinese “tributary system” has become firmly ensconced in both contemporary scholarship and discourse. The idea that China was East Asia’s central Great Power, and that it would relate to others on its terms only, is not so much wrong as incomplete, as the story above illustrates. Major states have always treated small states as inferiors (though it’s true that concords, varying on a spectrum from the EU to ASEAN, mitigate this tendency today). But it is not inevitable, according to either the structure of the international system or the peculiarities of Chinese history, that China and the U.S. are doomed to pursue a superior-inferior relationship. This is a recipe for conflict, as neither power, naturally, is willing to subordinate itself to the other. The equilibrium solution is for the two powers to negotiate a relationship of equality. This will require sacrifices on both sides—à la swearing before a God in whom you do not believe, negotiating in non-traditional locations, and ignoring the other’s pretensions—but the benefits of making such sacrifices, and the costs of not making them, are so consequential that no other alternative is rational.


These brief reflections on the pretension of unity, the nature of peace, and the law of exceptions ought to complicate the dreary, reductionist, and ideological proposition that the U.S., as the ‘champion’ of democracy, and China, as a rising ‘revisionist’ state, are locked into an existential struggle in which one will lose and one win. To the contrary, the most likely result of such a struggle is both states losing, while others watch aghast. The alternative is to negotiate a diplomatic system in which the two states treat one another as equals. Win-win, as someone has been known to remark.

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