Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics (Contemporary Asia in the World)
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Confucianism has shaped a certain perception of Chinese security strategy, symbolized by the defensive, nonaggressive Great Wall. Many believe China is antimilitary and reluctant to use force against its enemies. It practices pacifism and refrains from expanding its boundaries, even when nationally strong.
In a path-breaking study traversing six centuries of Chinese history, Yuan-kang Wang resoundingly discredits this notion, recasting China as a practitioner of realpolitik and a ruthless purveyor of expansive grand strategies. Leaders of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) prized military force and shrewdly assessed the capabilities of China's adversaries. They adopted defensive strategies when their country was weak and pursued expansive goals, such as territorial acquisition, enemy destruction, and total military victory, when their country was strong. Despite the dominance of an antimilitarist Confucian culture, warfare was not uncommon in the bulk of Chinese history. Grounding his research in primary Chinese sources, Wang outlines a politics of power that are crucial to understanding China's strategies today, especially its policy of "peaceful development," which, he argues, the nation has adopted mainly because of its military, economic, and technological weakness in relation to the United States.
realpolitik strategic culture described in Cultural Realism, however, are problematic. First, anecdotal evidence that particular emperors or top advisers had read the military texts must be weighed against their decades of education and socialization in Confucianism. Reading military texts does not necessarily imply that one has accepted or internalized the norms embodied therein.70 Despite the claim that those ancient military texts were “relatively widely read” among Ming elites,71 even more
though born into a military family, was also classically educated and got his jinshi degree in 1529.113 Confucian influence was evident in Zeng Xian’s memorial. In the beginning, he alluded to a famous saying of Confucius: “When our domestic rule is rectified, remote people will submit to us.” He also noted the cruelty and danger of warfare. But he was merely paying lip service to the pacifist idea. Later on, he spoke of the Confucian distinction between Chinese and barbarians and felt ashamed of
Khan’s request for trade and tribute was repeatedly turned down. It took a further worsening of the border situation and a rampant fiscal crisis to force the Ming to make peace with the Mongols. As realist theory explains, international structure sets a parameter for a state’s security policy; the state suffers if its strategic choice deviates from structural imperatives. In Ming-Mongol relations, Confucian culture contributed to strategic irrationality and caused a lag in the Ming’s strategic
Ming court threatened invasion but was reminded by the Japanese of the Mongols’ failed attempts to conquer Japan in 1281. A letter sent by Kanenaga in 1382 explicitly denied the legitimacy of Chinese dominance: “Now the world is the world’s world; it does not belong to a single ruler. . . . I heard that China has troops able to fight a war, but my small country also has plans of defense. . . . How could we kneel down and acknowledge Chinese overlordship!”24 In response, the Ming denied trade
not. This allows us to discern the conditions leading to the use and non-use of force. In addition, Chinese war aims expanded in Vietnam, but not in Korea, which enables us to test for the hypothesis that such expansion is contingent on the absence of military or systemic constraints. Third, the maritime expeditions and the Korean intervention should be easy cases for the Confucian explanation. The maritime expeditions have often been used to demonstrate the benevolence of Confucian culture, and