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Countries, like people, tell themselves stories in order to live. They look to the past, its travails as well as its triumphs, and from that raw material they craft stories. These stories offer lessons and goals. They provide legitimacy to leaders and cohesion to communities. They generate meaning and direction for the present.

The problem is that no two countries tell the same story, even when describing the same events. One country’s glory is another country’s grievance. One’s founding myth is another’s crowning shame. In international relations, such dissonance is dangerous. Governments quarrel over what history makes rightfully theirs. Resentment over old offenses overrides powerful incentives to cooperate. Interests, threats, pride, justice—determinants of war and peace are defined by stories that never overlap exactly and often clash catastrophically. The past is never dead; it is kindling for future conflict.

Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power
by Howard W. French
Knopf, 352 pp. Credit:

“History offers the best foundation for anticipating and understanding China’s motivations and behavior in shaping the world to come,” writes journalist Howard French in Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. But there are the facts of history, and then there are its uses. In seeking an answer to one of the most important questions in foreign policy today—“What kind of power is China likely to become?”—French’s real concern is the latter: the stories China tells itself.

The core element in those stories, as French surveys them, is the notion of tian xia—“under heaven,” a phrase meant to capture the “half-idealized, half-mythologized past” in which China dominated the world it knew. Over millennia, French writes, imperial China built “one of the most remarkable international systems that human civilization has ever seen—a unique form of what has sometimes been described as an extremely loose and distant brand of indirect rule by China over a very considerable slice of humanity.” In the mid-1800s, this “Pax Sinica” was picked apart by outside powers—the advent of a “century of humiliation,” which, the story goes, ended only with communist revolution in 1949. Now, French argues, “[e]verything about its diplomatic language says that [China] views the western Pacific as it once did its ancient known world, its tian xia, and that it intends for the region to return to its status as a place where China’s paramount standing goes unchallenged.”

French, a former correspondent for both the New York Times and the Washington Post, is at his best when he is out reporting, registering how this intention plays out on the ground—and, perhaps more importantly, on the water. In asserting claims in its maritime periphery, the Chinese government invokes onetime superiority as justification for present-day dominance of most of the South China Sea and for claims to islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan. Some pieces of historical evidence behind these claims are more spurious than others; by obscuring nuance, they make settling disputes in the present—already challenging enough given the security and economic issues at stake—considerably more difficult. For China’s neighbors have their own stories about these waters and islands. And given that many of those neighbors are American allies and security partners, there is good reason to fear that a twenty-first-century Cuban missile crisis could start in the seas of Asia, where “the brashness of China’s sweeping historical claims,” French writes, amounts “to an argument in favor of a civilizational prerogative grounded in hierarchy.”

Given that many of China’s neighbors are American allies and security partners, there is good reason to fear that a twenty-first-century Cuban missile crisis could start in the seas of Asia.

The picture that emerges as French traces such claims is of a China that uses self-serving mythology to cloak implacable expansionism. In anecdote after anecdote, he concludes with some version of: “an expansionist China was now showing its true face.” Yet, ultimately, his outlook is not as bleak as his sometimes breathless analysis would suggest.

Reflecting on China’s “rivalry with the United States for primacy in the western Pacific,” he argues that “without that privileged position, China will not feel it has restored its place in the world.” But he also recognizes the many constraints and complications that might moderate or check this impulse, not least extremely challenging geography: long borders and a host of powerful neighbors, many of them backed by American security guarantees. “The urgency that sometimes gives China the appearance of a juggernaut,” French writes, “is driven more by a sense of precariousness and self-doubt than by any clearly reasoned belief in its inevitable triumph.” He even urges Americans “to look upon China’s predicament with sympathy,” in hopes of finding an accommodation.

Such hope, however, runs up against the challenges of conducting “effective diplomacy toward a country with a postcolonial historical narrative of victimization,” in the words of Princeton scholar Thomas Christensen. That narrative bears heavily on the domestic legitimacy of China’s leadership, at a time of economic anxiety and potentially destabilizing societal transformation. (Perhaps the most significant, and most dangerous, examples in this regard are ones that French curiously does not spend much time on: Taiwan and North Korea.) The government wields history “as a formidable weapon,” as French puts it, ordering “patriotic education campaigns” to foster nationalism in the public. In a crisis, it could become a “prisoner of its own rhetoric,” driven to conflict by nationalist myths.

We used to win,” Donald Trump said the day after he was sworn in as president of the United States. It was the central theme in the story he had told to get elected—a tale of lost greatness that he alone could restore. In its fixation on fallen glory and festering grievance, it was not entirely unlike the story China’s communist leaders had long been telling about their own country.

At first, those leaders found cause for concern in Trump’s story, with its bristling nationalism and fervid China bashing (“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”). But under the surface, in the details, there was not only cause for reassurance; there was also considerable strategic opportunity.

For all its bravado, Trump’s story reflects a deep-seated disdain for key sources of American strength, in Asia and around the world. It sows doubt among allies by questioning the value of U.S. security commitments. (One of “the enduring goals of Chinese geopolitics,” French points out, is “weakening the American alliance architecture in the region.”) It spurns globally appealing values long championed by and associated with the United States. It calls for shutting the door on immigrants, even though the capacity to attract and create new Americans is one of the most profound advantages the United States has. China worries about “growing old before getting rich”; if America remains a welcomingly open society, it will stay both young and rich while the rest of the world’s powers struggle to support aging populations. In that respect, the precipitous post-election collapse in the number of foreign students applying to American universities is a grim sign.

By the time of Trump’s inauguration, Xi had taken to telling a new Chinese story. It built on the standard version but also aped other elements. Before an audience of global elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi celebrated China’s commitment to openness and cooperation. He held forth on common interests and global stewardship. He pledged to build a “shared future for mankind and work hand in hand to fulfill our responsibilities.”

Xi knew it was a compelling story. It had worked for the United States for decades. Now it was suddenly his for
the taking.

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Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a research fellow in international relations at New York University, served on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff in the Obama administration. His book about George Marshall will be published by W. W. Norton in 2018.