Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750, by Odd Arne Westad, Bodley Head £25/Basic Books, RRP$23, 528 pages

China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, by David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman, University of Pennsylvania Press, RRP£45/$69.95, 544 pages

The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State, by Zhang Weiwei, World Century, RRP£18/$28, 208 pages

What does China want? That question has been asked ever since the country’s modern revival began. It feels more than usually urgent at the moment. A sharp rise in tensions between China and Japan has raised the alarming, if still distant, prospect of armed conflict between Asia’s two largest powers. A change of leadership is also under way in Beijing – and China-watchers are wondering whether the new generation of party leaders might adopt a more assertive approach to the outside world.

In Restless Empire, Odd Arne Westad, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, makes the case for rooting any understanding of Chinese foreign policy in a history of the nation’s relationship with the rest of the world. During the past two centuries, the country has been decisively shaped by ideas and movements from outside: imperialism, communism, modern capitalism.

Of course, all nations’ foreign policies are rooted in their own particular historical experiences. But China’s modern history has been unusually turbulent and traumatic. Westad argues that this, together with the country’s Confucian heritage, its geography and its traditional veneration of the state, have bequeathed three big ideas that continue to shape China’s worldview.

The first is the concept of justice as central to the international order. As Westad writes: “In the Chinese view today, the outside world over the past two hundred years has treated China unjustly, and this grievance remains a leitmotif.” The second idea is a search for “rules and rituals” – general principles – that can bring order to an otherwise chaotic international society. The third is “a sense of centrality” and a belief in China as “the indispensable nation for its region.”

Restless Empire is a fascinating book and a pleasure to read. As well as providing a historical framework for understanding the behaviour of modern China, it is full of interesting details and insights. I was intrigued to discover that Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese republic, was educated at the same Hawaii high school as Barack Obama. There is a striking account of Mao Zedong’s visit to Moscow in the late 1950s, in which he stunned even his hard-bitten hosts by suggesting that war with “the imperialists” was nothing to fear: “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain,” said Mao. “Imperialism would be destroyed and the whole world would become socialist.”

Amid the anecdotes and the broad historical narrative, Westad also offers pointed reassessments of particular episodes in Chinese history. While many historians associate the Qing – China’s last dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1912 – largely with weakness and decline, Westad points out that it was in this period that the country saw the peak of its power: “By the 1750s it had crushed the political and military independence of all the smaller nations on its northern frontier.” His insistence on the expansionist nature of the Qing underpins the claim in the book’s title that China is a “restless empire” – an argument that is strikingly at odds with the official narrative in today’s Beijing, which insists that China has always been a “peace-loving nation”.

Another interesting angle to Restless Empire is its emphasis on the ambiguous impact of China’s collision with imperialism. Westad does not attempt to prettify the behaviour of the western powers. His account of the British and French destruction of the Qing’s Summer Palace and imperial gardens in 1860 is horrifying. He acknowledges the humiliations and violence inflicted on China. And yet he also points out that the infamous “unequal treaties” imposed on the Qing “brought expanding concepts of western law into China” – while the western “concessions” carved out in Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, allowed young Chinese to create “new identities for themselves, as workers, traders, shopkeepers, or part of the intelligentsia, in ways that would not have been open to them had Qing power …stayed intact”.

The restless reader may want to know what all this history tells us about the modern day. Westad places current developments in an interesting historical perspective. In 2010, he writes, “China held its biggest naval exercises ever in the South China Sea …For the first time since the fifteenth century, China has a predominant naval presence in the southern seas.” The rise of Chinese naval power is unlikely to be greeted passively by other Pacific powers – particularly if combined with a more assertive Chinese attitude to territorial disputes in the region. Only this week, Japan and the US are holding joint military exercises in the East China Sea, involving more than 40,000 troops.

For China, notes Westad, Japan will always be a “peripheral island kingdom, which ought never to aspire to take China’s place”. And yet he does not necessarily draw dire conclusions from current tensions, arguing that it is neither impossible nor unprecedented for deep economic co-operation to continue – even as the two countries abuse each other in public.

As for the broader question of whether a rising China can continue its “peaceful rise” – or whether it is doomed to clash with neighbours and rivals – Westad is sensibly tentative. He thinks, however, that the answer may lie largely within China itself. A China that successfully rebalances its economy, improves the rule of law and builds a new relationship with its national minorities will be a much more reliable international citizen. By contrast, a China that experiences significant internal instability is likely to become more nationalistic and erratic in its international behaviour.

Restless Empire concentrates above all on China’s relations with Europe, the US and the rest of Asia. One area that it neglects is the burgeoning Chinese relationship with Africa– which is, arguably, highly significant, since it represents China’s first effort to develop a sphere of influence outside Asia. Fortunately, this gap is more than filled by China and Africa, by David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman.

Shinn is a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso who now teaches international relations at George Washington University; Eisenman is a senior fellow in China studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. As the authors make clear in their exhaustive and immensely thorough study, the surge in Chinese economic and trade ties with Africa is relatively recent. It only began in a big way in the mid-1990s. It also follows the patterns of “informal empire” that might be familiar to the British imperialists of the 19th century, who had such an impact on both China and Africa.

China Town in Lagos, Nigeria
China Town in Lagos, Nigeria

The extent of Chinese involvement with Africa and the ways in which it can lead to military entanglements were revealed during last year’s unrest in Libya, when 35,000 Chinese nationals were evacuated in operations that involved the Chinese navy and air force.

China’s initial interest in modern Africa was driven by the need to find the natural resources and commodities required by the booming Chinese economy. Yet, inevitably, that leads to political and even military involvement. As Shinn and Eisenman note: “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] navy has already begun efforts to protect the sea lanes through which China ships transport fuel, minerals and raw materials from Africa and the Middle East.” As the British and the Americans might tell the Chinese, that’s how it all starts.

The notion that modern China is simply following western patterns of development – particularly political development – is energetically rebutted in The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State. The author, Zhang Weiwei, is an interesting figure. Once Deng Xiaoping’s translator, he has now become an influential intellectual and author – and a standard bearer for those who argue that China has discovered its own development model, which is different and in some ways superior to that of the west. His book has sold more than half a million copies in China.

Like Westad, Zhang is convinced that answers to the big questions about China’s future lie in the study of its past. But where Westad sees China as a “restless empire”, Zhang’s preferred term is “civilizational state” – which he defines as something more than a nation. Rather, China is both a state and a civilisation, which “questions many of the western assumptions about democracy, good governance and human rights.”

Zhang argues that China’s Confucian heritage will continue to shape the evolution of the country and that, in many ways, it offers a more efficient and legitimate form of governance than a misfiring western model, which he identifies with the financial crisis and the wars of George W Bush.

The China Wave argues that two of the primary virtues of the Chinese model – both rooted in Confucianism – are meritocracy and “performance legitimacy”. A meritocratic system, based on exams (as in the imperial age) and job performance, ensures that only the most able people are propelled to the top positions in government. To western critics who argue that no unelected government can ever be legitimate, Zhang responds by arguing that the Communist party, like the Chinese dynasties of the past, secures its legitimacy through “performance” – in particular, its ability to improve the living standards of hundreds of millions of people.

Some of Zhang’s jabs at the west are well-aimed. He points out, for example, that many western pundits have predicted imminent Chinese economic collapse, more or less since 1980 – and yet they have consistently been proved wrong. His argument that some of these predictions reflect the authors’ own ideological biases, rather than the situation in China itself, is also quite convincing.

Yet The China Wave has its own blind spots. In particular, there is almost no discussion of Maoism and its legacy. The Chinese Communist party is not just the party of Deng’s economic miracle. It is also the party of the Great Leap Forward, of mass starvation in the late 1950s and of the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it is my western bias speaking, but I cannot see a truly stable political future for China until it is able to have an open discussion of the crimes that Mao inflicted on the country.

What will the rise of Zhang’s “civilizational state” mean for the rest of the world? The author of The China Wave adopts the smoothly reassuring line of the Chinese government. “Given its cultural traditions,” he writes, “China is not likely to be a country bent on confrontation.” China’s preference will be for “peaceful co-existence and mutual learning”. However, there is a qualification, which reads like a health warning on a bottle of medicine: “This positive picture may change if some countries are determined to pick a fight with China.” You have been warned.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist

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