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China: tribute where tribute is due

By Rowan Callick - posted Wednesday, 13 January 2021

In 2012, Australia's federal government led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard released a White Paper on "Australia in the Asian Century." This included a list of ambitious but worthwhile targets for Asia-engagement by 2025, none of which now appears attainable except for reaching national income of about A$73,000 per person.

But this is not causing the concern that ordinarily it might, since it was also in 2012 that a ripple started in east Asia that has turned into a tsunami of tension and change in the region – over-riding the strategic planning not only of Australia but of every other significant state.

For it was then, that Xi Jinping – viewed widely as a predictable, moderate, consensus-and-continuity candidate – was appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.


The Great Man theory of history pursued especially effectively by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century reached its apogee with the well-justified 1940s focus on Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Tojo, Chiang and Mao. But the focus on such single and singular figures (always male) largely leached away in recent decades, replaced by a greater focus on ideology, on macro-economic analysis, on sociological and demographic trends, and on strategic chess or go boards.

China has, however, been changed utterly in the last 8 years - including through the restructuring of national governance, the party's transformation and seizure of all areas of public life, the shift from internationally biding its time and hiding its light to playing a core role economically, militarily and strategically around the world including through the visionary Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Undoubtedly, the chief driver of these changes has been the remorseless energy and determination of one man – Xi – that started as soon as he took power as general secretary.

He knew what he wanted to achieve, and has relentlessly pursued ever since: the apotheosis of the party, through the "rejuvenation" of China. Underlining his determination to run the country in a starkly different way, he has published a three-volume collection of writings and speeches on The Governance of China.

The BRI operates as a modern, sophisticated variant of the tribute system through which imperial China related to its region – which has throughout history always proven a complex challenge, including today when the People's Republic of China has 14 land borders.

The system involved trade, diplomacy, military defence, and personal connections between ruling families. In return for acknowledging China's predominant role in the region – made ritually manifest through the annual kowtows of tributary envoys to the emperor - other countries were granted what Beijing portrayed as trading privileges and a stable environment under its overarching security shield.


Modern countries – in history, rarely in the same shape – that became, for extended periods, Chinese tribute states included Brunei, Cambodia, Japan, Korea (both North and South), Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Ryukyu (the kingdom comprising islands including Okinawa, annexed in 1879 by Japan), Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet (today of course a Chinese region) and Vietnam.

Their histories help explain both their caution and suspicion about China today, and their reluctance to challenge Beijing openly. For instance, few if any of the above, except for the country that is by far the most powerful, Japan, dare to vote consistently at the UN or its agencies against PRC interests on issues that Beijing deems important.

But Xi's program to dominate east Asia – of course, as he views it, benevolently and in the region's best interests – and thence to leverage from this base in the world's economic powerhouse to assume greater global influence, is constrained by the inconvenient contrast in governance with the PRC itself.

China's challenge to replicate more fully and usefully the tribute-state system of the imperial era, is hindered severely by both international and bilateral governance issues.

First, at the international level.

In July 2010, Yang Jiechi, who as a Politburo member is today China's top foreign affairs official, famously said at a regional security meeting in Hanoi, where he was exasperated by the failure of lesser powers to accede to Beijing's rational proposals: "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."

Beijing's diplomatic preference is to cut deals on a bilateral basis, where its size most often tells. But the culture of the ten Association of South East Asian Nations has proven frustratingly resistant – requiring a full consensus on key issues, including a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, most of which China itself claims in the face of the separate, individual claims of five ASEAN states plus Taiwan.

Despite efforts to establish alternative regional platforms – including, for a time, the Six Party Talks mechanism used for some years to attempt to resolve North Korean issues – ASEAN remains implacably the hub around which east Asian programs revolve, including through configurations such as ASEAN Plus Three or ASEAN Plus Six. The recently agreed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has spun out of ASEAN. This presents a sharp contrast with the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, through which China – as its name, given for the place of the inaugural meeting, implies – today effectively dominates Central Asian affairs.

Back in 2002, ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on such a Code of Conduct. But this comprised merely an expression of intent. The agreement itself is still being negotiated.

Viet Hoang, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and a member of the Department of the Law of the Sea at the Vietnam Bar Federation, wrote recently for The Diplomat that "growing US-China tensions have put the ASEAN countries in a difficult position. China is strong and aggressive, but is a neighbour; the US, meanwhile, is supportive, but occasionally fickle. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently put it, the region lives 'at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.'"

And some ASEAN countries are seeking to assert their legal rights in the South China Sea through invoking the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other channels.

Of course, understanding well how ASEAN works consensually, China has ensured that it is covered at least in defensive terms. It focuses considerable efforts and funding on maintaining especially close links with Cambodia and Laos, and to a degree also Myanmar, so that while it may not win ASEAN support for all its aims, especially for the South China Sea, it cannot be opposed fully by ASEAN as an organisation.

At the bilateral level, China also finds itself on occasion frustrated by dealing with democratic governments that must take into account broad community sentiments, rather than with the autocracies with which it invariably cut deals during the tribute-state era.

It is no longer so easy for a Chinese leader – including, or perhaps especially, one such as Xi with particularly personal power – to arrange affairs relating, say, to trade or to defence with counterparts in regional nations whose command is also absolute.

For half or more ASEAN members are democratic, to varying degrees, and to their north, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are thoroughgoing democracies, while Vietnam, a fellow communist country, is historically disposed to beware Beijing as well as having fought off China's People's Liberation Army in the PRC's last fully-pitched war, in 1979.

Popular views of China's intentions have turned negative in virtually every country in the region in the last few years, naturally feeding into government positions despite the awkwardness of trying to keep the PRC at arm's length while depending substantially on strong economic relations.

Bilahari Kausikan, the former head of Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry, has told The Australian newspaper that Australia is "not in a unique position" concerning the "so-called contradiction" between its economic and security interests. "Almost everybody in the Indo-Pacific… is in the same position to some degree."

For China, the crucial factor amid so many variables as it seeks under Xi's driving energy to extend its influence is the strength of its economy. Its considerable, rapid progress on the east Asian and global fronts in the last few years have come from weaponizing its economic heft.

But if – as appears to be the case, for instance, in Belt & Road programs post-COVID – Beijing needs to retain its capital to stimulate its domestic economy rather than invest it or lend it overseas, especially in projects or to borrowers whose prospects of a return appear remote, then it will need to find new ways to realise its great-power role, and to leverage it where it counts, for the communist party's domestic credibility.

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About the Author

Rowan Callick is an industry fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute and has been a China Correspondent for the Australian Financial Review and twice for The Australian, and has written three books on contemporary China, published in both English and Chinese.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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