Yuan-kang Wang Challenges The Myth of Chinese Exceptionalism

Yuan-kang Wang, Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics

“Chinese history suggests that its foreign policy behavior is highly sensitive to its relative power. If its power continues to increase, China will try to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia…. Brace yourself. The game is on.”—Yuan-kang Wang

In a recent post on Stephen M. Walt’s blog A Realist in an Ideological Age, Yuan-kang Wang, author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics, explores some of myths of Chinese exceptionalism.

Like other nations, most notably the United States, China has a sense of exceptionalism based in large part in large part on the Confucian character of its politics. Wang argues that Chinese think “of of historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture.” They have not, as many of the West fear, been an aggressive power that is poised to dominate present-day Asia through violent means. Ultimately, China’s rise, according to Chinese exceptionalism, will be peaceful.

In the post, Wang dissects and challenges three key myths about Chinese exceptionalism regarding their relations with other nations: 1.) China did not expand when it was strong; 2.) The Seven Voyages of Zheng He demonstrates the peaceful nature of Chinese power; 3.) The Great Wall of China symbolizes a nation preoccupied with defense. Wang shows how each of these fall short of the complete truth.

In deconstructing the myth about the Chinese Wall, Wang concludes by writing:

In essence, Confucian China did not behave much differently from other great powers in history, despite having different culture and domestic institutions. As realism suggests, the anarchic structure of the system compelled it to compete for power, overriding domestic and individual factors.

Thus, Chinese history suggests that its foreign policy behavior is highly sensitive to its relative power. If its power continues to increase, China will try to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia. This policy will inevitably bring it into a security competition with the United States in the region and beyond. Washington is getting out of the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan and “pivoting” toward Asia. As the Chinese saying goes, “One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers.” Brace yourself. The game is on.

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