Cultural Roots Of China’s Foreign Policy – Analysis


By V. Suryanarayan

In his monumental book, A Study of History (12 volumes), Prof. Arnold Toynbee traces the development and decay of all major civilizations since the dawn of history. He describes the various stages, through which these civilizations pass – genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state and disintegration. There are only two civilizations which have displayed remarkable continuity; they are the Indic (Indian) and the Sinic (Chinese) civilizations. And the two civilizations, according to Prof. Toynbee, will, in the long run, confront each other in Southeast Asia, which lies to the south of China and east of India. What will be the outcome of the clash of these two civilizations? Tiber Mende quotes Prof. Toynbee in his well known book, Southeast Asia between Two Worlds. To quote: “In the end, the current of Chinese expansion will meet the current of Hindu expansion over the submerged heads of the smaller and weaker and less efficient peoples in between who are fast going asunder. After that has happened, I surmise that the new frontier between China and India will tend, slowly but surely, to travel westward at India’s expense and in China’s favour”.

Will the words of Prof Toynbee, almost expressively prophetic, come true? Or will the countries of Southeast display resilience and continue to survive as vibrant dynamic nation states? Only time can provide an answer.

When great civilizational states like India and China wake up, there will be tremors and apprehensions around the world. Unfortunately Indian perception of China, like that of many countries in the developing world, have been moulded and shaped by Western scholarship. The Europeans used to refer to East Asia as Far East and we in India blindly imitated the Western scholars. Even the Australians continued to use the term, though East Asia is to the north of Australia, not east of her and is nearer to her instead of being far off. Such a perception arose from the belief that Europe was the centre of the world. In fact, during the Vasco da Gama epoch of history (1498 – 1949), Europe was the axis around which the developing world revolved. But we tend to ignore the reality that before the era of colonialism China had dominated East Asia for many centuries. As a result of this dominance the Chinese called their country Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese, unlike the Europeans or the Americans, do not consider the past to be a burden, but as a treasure to be cherished and preserved. Buddhism spread from China to Japan, Korea and Vietnam in forms in which it had been given a Chinese impress. China transformed Buddhism, an Indian religion, into something Chinese and the Chinese, in turn, transmitted the religion to other East Asian countries. And these countries, in turn, transformed Buddhism in conformity with their local genius to suit their own needs and beliefs. In more recent times, it must be pointed out, that during the revolutionary period, the Chinese communist leaders sinicised Marxism-Leninism to fit in with Chinese needs and aspirations.

Historically, the term China, unlike England or France, is not a political term, but a civilizational term. China was inhabited by people who subscribed to Chinese culture. Those living outside China were barbarians. Until the beginning of the 20th century the Chinese considered the people living in Europe and America as barbarians. The foreigners were depicted with the character denoting barbarians. When China expanded, along with it Chinese culture spread, sinicising the barbarians. The origin of Chinese civilization can be traced to the Yellow river valley. Gradually China expanded, which means the barbarians living around China were conquered and sinicised. These people were made to accept Chinese culture. The belief that those living outside China are barbarians persisted till the opium wars; there was nothing much that China could learn from these barbarians. Unlike the tumultuous history of Europe, China presents a picture of astonishing cultural continuity, in many ways it was a self-contained civilization. In the mid-1960’s Andre Marloux, the French political philosopher, went to China and interviewed Mao tse Tung. In the course of the conversation Marloux asked Mao, “What is the impact of French Revolution on China?” Mao pondered for couple of minutes and later replied, “It is too early to tell”.

In Southeast Asia, which lies between India and China, the two great civilizations met and had their cultural interaction. But in this encounter India emerged victorious because the Indian cultural forms – language, political theory, art and architecture – blended easily with Southeast Asian indigenous cultures. The only part of Southeast Asia which felt the Chinese cultural impact was northern part of Vietnam. And this took place as a result of political conquest and consequent sinicisation. But the Vietnamese always resisted Chinese domination; struggle against Chinese domination was a recurring theme in Vietnamese history. Nayan Chanda, in his book, The Brother Enemy, mentions an interesting incident. Even during the height of the war against the United States, when China’s support was very crucial, the Vietnamese zealously guarded their cultural traits. In October 1972, Prof. George M Kahin, the well known American scholar, visited Vietnam. Prof. Kahin was very keen to find out the extent of religious freedom enjoyed by the people. He attended a well attended mass in a Catholic cathedral in Hanoi. Soon after, his Vietnamese host asked Prof. Kahin “Would you like to see something of our religion?” Kahin accepted the invitation and was taken across a bridge to a temple in an island in Hanoi’s Huan Kiem lake. In that temple, there were three altars, one to Buddha, one to Mother Earth and Water and the third dedicated to Trang Hung Dao, the Vietnamese General who defeated the Chinese Mongol army in the thirteenth century. Upon enquiring Prof Kahin found that there were half a dozen shrines in Hanoi where Vietnamese paid homage to heroes and heroines, such as Lee Loc and Trung sisters, who had fought against Chinese invaders. I cannot resist the temptation to narrate the heroism of Trung sisters, who committed suicide after resisting the Chinese invaders in the first century AD. The Trung sisters – Trung Trac and Trung Nhu – were daughters of a powerful Chinese landlord. Vietnam was under the rule of Han rulers, the Vietnamese women enjoyed more freedom than their Chinese counterparts. China was governed by Confucian values, where women occupied a subordinate place. Feeling the oppression of the Chinese rule, the Vietnamese were exhorted to revolt and the Trung sisters organized a rebellion and formed an army of 80,000 men and women. They won back the territory conquered by the Chinese. In 42 AD the Chinese forces returned, the Vietnamese forces fought hard, but they were defeated. According to popular belief, the Trung sisters decided to take their own lives in the traditional manner by jumping into the river and drowning. The Trung sisters became symbols of Vietnamese resistance. Temples were later built in their honour and the people of Vietnam celebrate their memory every year with a national holiday.

Salient Features of Chinese Culture

The antiquity and greatness of Chinese civilization has been praised by several scholars. “These people” wrote Diderot, “are superior to other Asiatics in antiquity, art, intellect, wisdom and in their taste for philosophy”. According to Voltaire, the body of the Chinese Empire has existed for four thousand years “without undergoing any alteration, in its laws, customs, language or even in apparel. The organization of this empire is the best that the world has ever seen”.

Let us now discuss the salient features of Chinese civilization. In describing the significant features I shall also try to highlight the differences with Indian cultural forms. 1) Mandate from Heaven. The Chinese theory of Kingship is called the Mandate from Heaven. It is based on three principles. A) The Right to rule is granted by Heaven. B) There is only one Heaven and, therefore, there can only be one ruler. C) The right to rule is based on the virtue of the ruler. If the King becomes selfish and loses the virtue the Mandate from Heaven is withdrawn. In other words, the people have the right to rebel against that ruler and replace him by another virtuous ruler. The Indian theory is known as the Devaraja Cult, where the King becomes God as a result of rituals performed at the time of coronation. Since the King is God on earth, the people have no right to rebel against him. The Devaraja cult was not only popular in ancient India, it was also accepted by the ruling classes in many Southeast Asian countries.

Institution of Mandarinate

The Mandarins were scholars well versed in Chinese classics and were selected on the basis of a competitive examination held through out the country. They became civil servants and provided administrative continuity to the country. In ancient India the administrators were mainly drawn from the Brahmin community, a hereditary upper caste in the social hierarchy. The overwhelming majority belonging to the lower castes were kept out of the administrative system.

Chinese Script and Language

The art of writing and language are unifying factors in Chinese history. The Chinese script, which was used in the ancient period, continues to this day and has given China remarkable continuity. The Chinese language, unlike the Indian and European languages, is based on characters, each character conveys an idea. The sign of a woman near a child conveys love or good. Bright is conveyed by signs of the sun and the moon. Every character is an image in embryo. In China writing reached a sacred quality. Prayers are written, not spoken; essays, not speeches, swayed politics. While the script remained the same, it is spoken in different ways in different parts of China. This phenomenon gave rise to dialects; one spoken dialect is indistinguishable from the other. Thus Cantonese is very different from Hakka. In recent years the Chinese Government has successfully simplified and modernized the Chinese script.

Confucian Values

In Western countries a distinction is drawn between philosophy and religion, between faith and reason. The Western thinkers try to keep them apart. In China the reverse is true. The most important value system in China is based on the teachings of Confucius. His original name was K’ung Fu-tzu. The British scholars got confused with his name and called him Confucius. The core concept of Confucianism is the five constant virtues – benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. His teachings received official sanction and were further developed into a value system known as Confucianism.

The astonishing historical and cultural continuity, to which I have made mention earlier, is because the basic features through out history were one and the same – the emperor, the Mandate from Heaven, the Mandarins, the Confucian values and the Chinese script. What is more, according to the 2000 census, the Hans constitute 91.5 per cent of the Chinese population. Other ethnic groups – Zuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uighur, Tujra, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan and other smaller ethnic groups constitute 8.5 per cent of the population. This relative cultural homogeneity has to be kept in mind while we compare the problems of nation building in China and India. The Singapore statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, has drawn an interesting comparison between India and China. To quote Lee Kuan Yew, “In China 90 per cent are Han Chinese and speak Mandarin. And they have simplified the Chinese characters and educated everyone to master Chinese. So CC TV is understood throughout the country. Compare the Indian and the Chinese cultures. The Chinese are doers. The Indians are contemplative and argumentative. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen entitled one his books, Argumentative Indian. When the Chinese decided to make Chongquing a prosperous centre in the Western region, they gave the necessary resources. Then you find Chongquing quickly blossoms”. AP Venkateshwaran, the former Indian diplomat, also has highlighted how the differing cultural traits have affected the behaviour of the Indians and the Chinese. To quote Venkateshwaran, “China is expansionist, India is pacifist; Chinese are taciturn, Indians are garrulous; China is cohesive, India is disparate; Chinese are chauvinists, Indians are liberals; China is assertive, India is open; Chinese are collective minded, Indians are highly individualistic; Chinese are calculating, Indians are open minded; Chinese have a superiority complex, Indians have an inferiority complex; China has been united because of the distinguishing characteristics of Chinese civilization, we have many languages, many scripts; we believe in unity in diversity; China is predominantly inhabited by the Han people, we have many ethnic groups in India; and Chinese are factional, we are fissiparous”.

Is Middle Kingdom Approach coming to the fore?

The recent assertiveness which distinguishes China’s foreign policy, especially with reference to South China Sea and Sino-Japan maritime border, has made many Sinologists conclude that the Middle Kingdom approach is again coming to the fore. This approach, according to Henry Kissinger, is the running theme throughout China’s history. As mentioned earlier, Chinese consider their country to be the centre of the universe and those living outside China are barbarians. The relations between China and the outside world was an unequal relation, the neighbouring states had to pay regular tributes and kowtow ( Kow Tow is the act of great respect displayed by kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touch the ground) before the Chinese emperor. As Henry Kissinger points out in his latest book, On China, the essence of Chinese approach to diplomacy have drawn on “methods handed over millennia”. To quote Kissinger, “None equals China in persisting and persuading its neighbours to acquiesce – in such an elevated conception of its world role for so long and in the face of so many historical vicissitudes. From the emergence of China as a unified country in the third century BC until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China stood at the centre of an international system of remarkable durability. The Chinese Emperor was conceived of (and recognized by most neighbouring states) as a pinnacle of a universal political hierarchy with all the other states’ rulers theoretically serving as vassals”.

Understanding Chinese Diplomacy

Coming to terms with the rapid rise of China and formulating and implementing a meaningful China policy pre-supposes a proper and balanced understanding of not only Chinese culture, but also its world view through the ages. China lays emphasis on the written word; it has resulted in great historical writings. China, it has been rightly said, “is a paradise for historians”. The Chinese pilgrims Fa Xian and Xuan Zang has left invaluable records of their journeys to India, while number of Indian Buddhist teachers who visited China have left no comparable records. Delivering the second K Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture in New Delhi few days ago, Amb Shyam Sharan ponted out that “much of the Chinese discourse is conducted through historical analogies”, some of which are explicit, while some are “artfully coded and the language lends itself easily to innuendo and ambiguity”.

Amb. Shyam Saran stated that the Chinese will demand explicit formulation of their vital interests; however, they will scarcely concede clarity and finality in matters concerning the interests of others. As far Sino-Indian relations are concerned, there is persistent demand and India always agrees to reaffirm, time and again, the recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. But the reverse is not true. In 1962 RK Nehru met Zhou En-Lai and drew his attention to reports that China was leaning towards Pakistani position that Jammu and Kashmir was a disputed territory. RK Nehru recalled an earlier conversation with Zhou En-Lai on the subject when Zhou has said rhetorically, “Has China ever said that it does not accept India’s sovereignty over J and K, or something to that effect”. In the encounter in 1962, Zhou turned the same formulation on its head, to ask “Has China ever said that India has sovereignty over J and K?“ Amb Shyam Saran concludes that much of the misunderstanding over India-China relations may be sourced to our failure to “be conversant with Chinese thought processes”.

Equally important, it is necessary to keep in mind that China’s actions are governed by “contextualizing” the prevailing situation. Significant decisions are taken only after assessing the prevalent social, economic and political factors and their fallout on China. When Deng Xiao Ping consolidated his power and introduced the “four modernizations” for the speedy development of China, he concluded that an essential pre-requite for attaining that objective was a “peaceful environment”. Contentious issues, therefore, were shelved or relegated to the background and China embarked on a policy of winning friends and influencing people. What is more, on crucial occasions, it provided substantial economic assistance to those countries which required such aid. Thus during the economic crisis which engulfed Southeast Asia in the late 1990’s and when there was considerable apprehension that China will devalue its currency to provide a boost to its exports, China refrained from doing so; in addition, it entered into long term trade agreements with many countries which enabled them to turn the corner.

Another difference with India should be highlighted. As Amb Shyam Saran has pointed out while India considers the use of force as an option of the last resort, China considers the use of force “as an essential and accepted part of promoting national interests and war is not necessarily an unmitigated evil”. No wonder China has used force to buttress its territorial claims – against India, Soviet Union, Vietnam and the Philippines. It may be recalled that when China attacked Vietnam in early 1979 to “teach Vietnam a lesson” it compared the attack on Vietnam with Chinese action against India in 1962.

Coming to Terms with China

The twenty first century will not be modeled on the ideas and assumptions of the United States and West European countries. The unipolar world, which came into existence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is rapidly coming to an end. The baton of pre-eminence is being slowly transferred to China. We are in the midst of momentous changes which are bound to transform the world. According to projections made by Goldman Sachs the Chinese economy will of the same size as that of the United States by 2025. By 2050 the largest economy will be that of China. China’s economic assistance to the developing world has exceeded that of the assistance provided by the World Bank. From an Indian perspective another important point must be highlighted. Obsessed with the US policy of forming a grand alliance against China consisting of US, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and India, China has successfully broken the quarantine and has made deep strategic and economic inroads into Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives. However, it must be emphasized that the image of China as a revolutionary country has been tarnished irreparably. It is no longer a revolutionary country which used to extend support to national liberation struggles like that of Vietnam against US domination. On the contrary it extended powerful support to the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; provided clandestine assistance to Pakistan in its quest for nuclear parity with India; buttressed the military regime in Myanmar by military and economic assistance and is a strong ally of the Sri Lankan Government which committed gross human rights violations at the end of the Fourth Eelam War. In its desire to project the image of a “responsible power” it has given up the revolutionary ideology of the early years of communist rule.

The challenge facing New Delhi is to formulate and implement a China policy which is in consonance with India’s national interests. Broadly speaking there are three schools of thought in India. The first, the Government of India view, that India and China “should co-operate in creating a world of positive externalities and mutual prosperity rather than one based on the balance of power calculations and animosity”. “Chindia” will have to play a positive role in international affairs commensurate to its size, population and historical destiny. The second school of thought subscribes to the view that China will relentlessly pursue its “Middle Kingdom approach” and try to impose its hegemony on East, Southeast and South Asian countries. The third school, to which the Author belongs, views the emerging Sino-Indian relations not in black or white. In fact, on certain vital issues like climate change and WTO negotiations India and China have been co-operating for mutual benefit. At the same time, China’s territorial claims on neighbouring countries, its growing assertiveness and its diplomatic and strategic foray in India’s neighbourhood are matters of serious concern. The success of Indian diplomacy would depend on broadening the areas of convergence and minimizing the areas of dissonance. We should, simultaneously, strengthen our relations with the United States, Japan and member states of ASEAN with whom we share concerns about China’s intentions and capabilities. And what is more, we must remain eternally vigilant on our borders, so that history does not repeat itself.

(Dr V. Suryanarayan is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently associated with two leading think tanks, the Center for Asia Studies and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He was also a member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India for one term. His e mail address: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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