Performers dance during a show as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing on June 28, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

A January 3 essay in Asia Times disputes the notion that China seeks to be a “hegemon,” or dominant country. The author was Asia Times columnist David P Goldman, who also copiously quotes Fudan University Professor Wen Yang.

Goldman not only asserts that China has no hegemonic intent, he goes so far as to allege that, for “many” Americans, “it doesn’t matter whether China is [in fact] hegemonic; its offense is being China.” 

This is an important topic, and Goldman and Wen make several specious arguments that demand refutation.

Goldman argues that the defining feature of a hegemon is that it sends its military to seize overseas territory for colonies, which become part of an “imperial economy” from which the hegemon extracts resources. By these criteria, Goldman argues, China is not a hegemon, because the “Chinese never sent their armies or large numbers of colonists around the world.”

This, however, is a selective and idiosyncratic definition of hegemony. Major powers can be domineering without following the Rome, fascist Japan or USSR models. The current superpower, for instance, neither militarily occupies foreign countries against their will nor operates an “imperial economy.” 

Modern China obviously does not have foreign colonies acquired through military force.

Equally obviously, however, Beijing pressures, corrupts and coerces foreign governments to act in support of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda in various ways, including military intimidationcutting off tradebribing foreign officialsgrey zone activities, harassment in contravention of professional norms, hostage diplomacycyberwarfare and collusion with other outlaw governments.

The frequent result is Beijing forcing other governments to abandon their preferred course of action – to “suffer what they must.”

Both Goldman and Wen repeat the argument that attempting to dominate other, weaker countries goes against both Chinese culture and Chinese history. In Wen’s case, this is to be expected, as he works at a university in China and must therefore follow the party line.

Wen Yang at the podium. Photo: Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies

This argument has been a staple of Beijing’s diplomacy since China’s high economic growth rate starting in the 1980s gave rise to fears of how an economically surging China might threaten the security of its neighbors.

The idea of an exceptionally benevolent China is also consistent with “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” which holds that traditional “Western” theories of great power behavior do not apply to China.

This argument, however, is bogus. A glance at the historical record quickly demonstrates that the Chinese have not uniquely eschewed war and conquest. China itself is an empire built on stronger groups of people conquering and assimilating weaker groups.

Much of this occurred early in history, allowing China to claim today that Han Chinese are a single ethnic group, one that numbers a staggering 1.4 billion and comprises 18% of the world’s population. 

With TibetansMongolians and Uighurs, however, the assimilation process is still unfinished, and we can see in real-time that it’s not pretty.

Hard-edged realpolitik foreign policy, including resorting to merciless warfare, was a common feature of the pre-modern Chinese government, one that has carried over into the CCP era – an example being the 1979 campaign to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”

A Chinese tank is destroyed in the battle of Cao Bang, 1979. Photo: Wikipedia

Even the 15th-century voyages of the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He, which the CCP has often touted as proof of China’s historical benevolence, are interpreted in a darker light by non-Chinese historians

China’s famous tribute system was based on a preponderance of Chinese power relative to other states and a willingness to use that power punitively to keep regional governments in line. In other words, pre-modern China was a hegemon.

Even if old China had indeed shown itself to be an exceptionally non-hegemonic country, the argument that pre-modern China’s behavior is determinative of modern China’s behavior is fallacious.

The outside world appeared less threatening to pre-modern Chinese elites than to their modern counterparts. They had confidence in the superiority of their philosophical and political order, believing it would awe and absorb even a successful invader. 

They were unaware of the future danger that undiscovered Western countries might pose, nor could they conceive of neighbor Japan developing the capability to militarily subjugate China. 

By contrast, the trauma of the “Century of Shame”, knowledge of the destructive power of modern great powers and an obsession with never again allowing China to be vulnerable to its enemies are central to the CCP government’s worldview.

The relatively more dangerous external environment perceived by modern Chinese leaders ensures they will prioritize gaining as much control as is feasible over that environment. China will impose hegemony if it can.   

Besides being inherently exceptional, Wen argues, China will not seek hegemony because hegemony is self-defeating. He says the Soviet Union started out well, with a socialist revolution, but “doomed” itself with “the erroneous goal of pursuing hegemony.” 

He specifically cites Soviet threats against China, the intervention of Soviet troops to maintain satellite states in countries such as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning battle group at sea. Photo: Zhang Lei

Wen may be right that military adventurism ultimately weakens a great power, but his argument that China is exempt from this temptation is unconvincing. Pre-modern China invaded Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Myanmar.

During most of the modern era, China has not been a great power and therefore simply lacked hegemonic capability. Even in its relative weakness, however, the Chinese government managed to invade Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet (1950), and to launch border skirmishes with India (1962) and the Soviet Union (1969).

With its relative military, economic and technological strength now ascendant, invasion of a neighboring country grows more feasible for China – which is why senior Chinese officials keep repeating to a skeptical international community the mantra, “China will never seek hegemony, expansion or a sphere of influence.”

Goldman says any suspicion that China is gearing up for “a campaign for global military supremacy” is undercut by the fact that China has only one confirmed overseas military base (in Djibouti), while the US has hundreds.

This is a straw-man argument. The absence of “a campaign for global military supremacy” is not preventing China from bullying multiple states both within and outside the Asia-Pacific region.

Goldman’s argument also lacks historical context.  The United States has been a superpower for a century, which explains the extensive global power-projection infrastructure. China is a nascent great power, new to the game. 

Significantly, Beijing wants more overseas bases, which hardly disproves hegemonic intent.

Goldman admits that China’s large naval buildup looks like the behavior of a would-be hegemon. He assures us the Chinese only aim to protect China from foreign blockades.

He also notes that Beijing wants to ensure for itself “military superiority near Chinese territory.” That is certainly correct, and it is also typical hegemonic behavior. Security is a principal motivation for hegemony.

A surface-to-air missile is fired from a missile launcher by the air force under the PLA Southern Theater Command during a round-the-clock air defense training exercise. Photo: / Zhang Hengping and Yuan Hai

Peripheral states must sacrifice some of their security so the hegemon can have more for itself. Thus China demanded, for example, that South Korea not deploy THAAD to defend against North Korean missiles because it made China uncomfortable.

Neither Goldman nor Wen makes a persuasive case that China will not seek hegemony. The assertion by Goldman that America’s hardening attitude toward China is based on blind prejudice rather than retrogressive policies by Xi Jinping’s government is unsubstantiated.

In the meantime, the evidence that China is not an exceptional great power continues to accumulate.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the EastWest Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Denny_Roy808