The West sees China as a threat, as do China’s neighbors. What bothers many non-Chinese is what exactly are the Chinese up to. China doesn’t really need all the territory they are laying claim to. What does China need with the South China Sea, large chunks of India and, rather quietly, the Far Eastern Russian territories?
These adjacent land areas can be seen as the traditional Chinese way of expanding but China has tended, for thousands of year, trying to absorb areas not populated by Han (ethnic Chinese) people. While the traditional “Chinese lands” are now incorporated into communist China what, the question is, to the Chinese want and why?
Westerners fail to realize some basics about Chinese history and practice. For example, the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. But a more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century, this mainly meant adjacent land areas occupied by a least a large minority of Han Chinese. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well and perhaps much more distant lands. Again this is not what China is up to. China has laid claim to the South China Sea because China is currently faced with a situation unique in Chinese history; dependency on markets and resources far from the Chinese heartland. Until quite recently China had observed the policy that “we have everything we need and do not require whatever foreigners have.” These were one exception; gold, silver and gems. This made trade with China difficult because China had much to offer (silk and other exquisite textiles were the most valuable exports). China tolerated foreign traders coming in by sea. Most of these were Arab and Indian, but this trade was not essential for China. Nor was trade via the land route (the “Silk Road” that reached as far as the Middle East, as well as India and all points along the way. Since China preferred to be paid in silver (gold and gems coming in second) this limited how much distant customers could afford.
China did like to keep an eye on what was happening in distant lands and sometimes took extraordinary measures to do so. For example in the early 15th century (1402-33) China funded a large fleet (over 300 ships) which included many enormous ships (120 meters/370 feet long) so that distant lands could be investigated. This fleet was proposed and commanded by Zheng He, a very capable Chinese general and a senior official who had the trust of several Chinese emperors. The purpose of the “tribute fleet” was to impress on foreigners the might of China and to demand tribute from foreign rulers. The tribute fleet also traded, if only to bring back samples of foreign goods, envoys and ideas. All of these were seen as curiosities, not anything really useful to China. The tribute fleet also carried over 20,000 soldiers to impress on foreigners that you did not want to mess with China. Zeng He was a very capable general and he used his tribute fleet troops a few times to impress on troublesome foreigners that the Chinese meant to get their way. These seven voyages took the fleet into Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and east Africa. But when Zeng He died, apparently while leading the last voyage, the emperor ordered the fleet dismantled and the written records of the voyages to be filed away. China had, as always, everything it needed in China and the foreigners had nothing to offer that justified such a large fleet. Let the foreigners come to China with their offerings and as long as they recognized Chinese supremacy they would be tolerated.
What Zheng He missed was the growing knowledge explosion in Europe. This was producing all manner of new, and very useful technologies. Before the end of the 15th century some of these new European ships had reached East Africa and over next few decades showed closer and closer to the Chinese empire. When these “black ships” of the western barbarians showed up seeking to trade the Chinese were not impressed by what the western voyagers had to offer.
Western ideas were particularly disdained. For 500 years after the first voyage of Zheng He China dismissed Western ideas, encompassed in the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and a growing body of new scientific, engineering and political developments. From the 17th century on those Western concepts became more difficult to ignore. Western advances in ship building, navigation and weapons (cannon and firearms) came to China more frequently, in larger numbers and often violently. China was slow to adapt. By the late 19th century, when the despised Japanese adopted much of this Western technology, China was forced to recognize that the world had changed, and not in a way that benefitted China. The new ideas generated by the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment could be ignored but not Western technology. Western ideas like democracy and radical socialism (communism) had some appeal to Chinese eager to replace the ancient imperial system (feudalism with a highly skilled bureaucracy). Efforts to implement these new ideas caught on, but not in a big way and often with disastrous results. What was produced was a century of revolution and civil war that made China much weaker.
When the Chinese communists came out on top after World War II China sought to finally reap the benefits of the Industrial Revolutions. But the “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950s and the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s killed over 30 million Chinese and did little to help the economy or most Chinese. In the 1970s the communist government could only claim to have destroyed feudalism and replaced it with a communist economic system that was not much more effective than the imperial rule. Then Chinese leaders sought to try something different. They allowed for Chinese to create an Industrial Revolution using Western ideas of property rights and entrepreneurial development of new products and manufacturing techniques. The Chinese leaders proclaimed that it “was glorious to get rich” as long as you stayed out of politics. In other words, the communist “dynasty” would still rule, but in a way that allowed most Chinese to get rich (or at least more affluent than they had ever been in the past). It worked and from the 1980s through the present China finally went through the Industrial Revolution and became the second largest economy in the world (after the United States).
The Chinese leaders were impressed by the United States, which had been the most effective practitioner of the Industrial Revolution (which the Americans got into late, during the 19th century.) By 1900 the U.S. had the largest economy in the world and, the Chinese noted, were still a nation that produced all it needed within the continental United States. Despite that, the Americans were very much a trading nation, but that was something of a bonus. The Chinese communists noted that during World War II the Americans mainly exported (weapons, industrial equipment, fuel and food). The Americans did this with a population less than a fifth that of China. By World War II less than ten percent of Americans were employed in agriculture and produced nearly as much food as China and exported what they did not consume. The Americans were producing most of the new technology. By World War II the U.S. had the most powerful fleet on the planet (and still did). Their air forces were unmatched and in the 1960s Americans were walking on the moon and retuning safely.
By the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were wondering what to do about this. These leaders, while still communist, were seen by most Chinese as another dynasty. The privileged sons of the senior communist officials were disparagingly called “little princes”. And while some these sons were an embarrassment to their families, many more turned into the next generation of senior leadership into what amounted to hereditary rule. The Chinese leaders noted this, along with the growing assertiveness of the newly affluent Chinese. By the early 21st century over half the Chinese population were wealthier than they ever imagined. In two generations most Chinese families had gone from poverty to affluence. Their children were better educated than any before. At this point, the Chinese rulers realized they could hang onto their hereditary power only as long as the newly affluent saw their communist rulers aiding continued economic growth rather than losing it via growing corruption or wars that achieved little other than impoverishing the newly affluent Chinese.
To assure the survival of the new dynasty Chinese leaders adopted a typically Chinese solution; they deliberately planned for the long term. In Western terms, they played the long game. This meant maintaining economic growth while also creating Chinese scientific and military capabilities that were beyond what any other nation possessed. That had worked in the past until Chinese emperors ignored the rest of the world despite the good advice of imperial officials like Zheng He (who is now seen by Chinese as a visionary). China would no longer ignore the rest of the world but would instead become prosperous and powerful enough to dominate it for the long term.
To achieve military dominance Chinese leader accepted that this would take decades and that is what the Chinese are up to. The military reforms began in the 1980s as the Chinese adopted Western weapons, techniques and technology. China purchased or stole all the Western tech they could and this included manufacturing technology as well as Western designs for weapons, training and military equipment. China went slowly. They never built a large nuclear arsenal once they had learned how to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the 1960s. Same with warplanes and armored vehicles. This was not the Western way but it has worked for the Chinese as they acquired and learned to use one technology after another. Take warship design and construction. Since the 1990s the Chinese have gone from producing copies of Russian designs to equally the latest Western designs. It was the same with the ground and air forces. The Chinese also realized they could no longer rely on a large (in manpower) armed forces but needed a much smaller force of better educated, trained, equipped and armed troops.
Back in the 1980s Chinese leaders calculated that it would take half a century to match and surpass the West in military power. Back then Westerners scoffed at such an idea but now it is generally agreed that by the 2030s the Chinese will achieve their goal. That does not mean China will use that military power to conquer the world. No the Chinese plan is to possess military power that will, like Zheng He’s tribute fleet, impress upon foreigners that China is not to be defied and that if China wants something they are more likely to get it. That is being done via the Chinese OBOR (one belt, one road) project which is reestablishing the Silk Road but in land and maritime versions. The land version involves investing over half a trillion dollars in building transportation (and other infrastructure) from China into Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and even Europe. The local investments give China enormous political and economic leverage. Long terms it means China has finally sound something worth exporting along the Silk Road; Chinese economic and if needed, military power.
The maritime version of the new Silk Road is there to ensure access to areas outside Eurasia. However, China may find that the land-based OBOR may revive the class Chinese self-sufficiency. After all the American showed how it could be done and the Chinese will try and do it better, or at least bigger and meaner.