Many of us recognize that China already plays a very large role in global geopolitics, and is likely destined to become both an economic and military superpower in the coming decades.
My interest in China’s development, and its impact on Thailand’s economy and business community, motivated me to read two books which explore aspects of China’s geopolitical strategy.
Modern China essentially began in 1949. However, Chinese history, culture, and philosophy date back more than 3,000 years. Chinese leaders are certainly well grounded in the 21st century, technologically sophisticated, educated in modern economic and financial theory, and have a firm grasp of western culture. However, Chinese leaders and their advisors are also well aware of the deep and diverse philosophical wisdom accumulated through 30 centuries of leadership.
“Asia’s Cauldron”, published 2014 by Robert D. Kaplan, explores China’s historical and present day claims to the South China Sea. Kaplan does a very thorough job of reviewing all of the historical bases relevant to the current South China Sea conflict. He even provides a very interesting summary of the US domination of the Caribbean Sea subsequent to its defeat of Spain, the digging of the Panama Canal, and how these actions allowed the US to dominate the Atlantic and Pacific ocean trade routes.
Today China is poised to exert control over the South China Sea, closely following the historical strategy of 19th century America. Presently, more than half of the global ocean tonnage passes through the South China Sea, including more than 80% of China’s petroleum imports.
Kaplan postulates that China’s strategy is primarily motivated by trade and business, in the tradition of strong Asian leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaopeng. China is not significantly motivated by a desire to establish regional or global hegemony.
This is a fascinating book, well written, and very insightful.
“Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power”, published 2011 by Yan Xuetong, takes a deep dive into the International Political Philosophies of the “pre-Qin” thinkers. The pre-Qin period consists of the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 770 to 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (ca. 475 to 221 BCE). This was a time of ruthless competition for territorial advantage among the small Chinese states. China was unified by the first emperor of Qin in 221 BCE.
Yan focuses on seven pre-Qin masters: Guanzi. Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, and Hanfeizi. Each of these seven masters held well-reasoned, unique philosophies on the variables leading to successful hegemonic power, humane authority, and governance.
I chose to read the book’s three appendices first, to gain a better understanding of both the pre-Qin period and the Yan’s academic and philosophical background. I believe that this proved to be a good reading strategy, but I must honestly say that Yan’s material is very academic and dry. The material is certainly interesting, and potentially relevant to a better understanding of current Chinese geopolitical strategy. However, it take great diligence and patience to read all of the details of ancient philosophy and the associated commentaries.
Unless you are a student of International Relations with a deep interest in historical Chinese philosophy, I suggest you skip Yan’s masterpiece. However, I highly recommend Kaplan’s book “Asia’s Cauldron”.