Talking History: The Chinese Classics and Foreign Policy

China's ancient past offers an image of what China's future foreign policy might look like.

In the aftermath of the Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, some Western observers have raised concerns about a China more prepared to operate "out of area" and have wondered about the type of global order China seeks. Some have wondered if Beijing's plans for the 21st century reflect a break with past Chinese traditions. Perhaps an examination of some of China's classical historical texts is in order.

First, even a casual perusal of some of the Chinese classics indicates that our Western notion of what constitutes a historically Chinese "sphere of influence" (essentially limited to East Asia) is somewhat deficient. This becomes clear when considering what is to be found in the entries grouped under the rubric of "Traditions regarding Western Countries". [NOTE: My thanks to Paul Halsall of Fordham University and his Asia History Sourcebook, from which the following excerpts are taken.]

For instance, in the 123rd chapter of the Shiji of Sima Qian, we read of the first embassy sent by the Chinese to the Parthians (the nation then in control of what we today would consider to be Iran) in 91 BC, following the campaigns undertaken under the orders of Emperor Wudi in Central Asia. A Parthian ruler, probably Mithradates II (123-88 BC), sent a return embassy to "to come and see the extent and greatness of the Han Empire."

The Hòu Hànshu (The Book of the Later Han), contained the notes and observations of the famous General Ban Chao, who campaigned in what is now Uzbekistan, reached the shores of the Caspian Sea, and established outposts of the Chinese army only a few days march from the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, a city on the Tigris in the heart of present-day Iraq. He also sent an emissary to treat with the Roman Emperor Nerva under Gan Ying (who turned back before reaching Italy). The Chinese presence in the region caused one of the kings of Armenia to send tribute to China, and the 86th chapter of the Book of the Later Han records that the Emperor An Di made an Armenian potentate a daduwei, a "great commander in chief" of the empire, in essence, recognizing him as a vassal.

In the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest, Ambassador Robert Blackwillnoted, "Too often we do not know our history" when touching upon India's "civilizational ties" to the Greater Middle East. The same might be said of China.

And in ancient China's relationship with the other superpower of its day, the Roman Empire, we might gain some insight into the type of multipolar world order Beijing has in mind for the future.

What is striking from the Chinese classics is the emphasis on the Roman Empire as "another China"-an equal state on the opposite side of the world creating a balance for the global order. By the first century, enough "Westerners" had made their way to China so that differences in physiognomy could be registered, and yet the Hou Hanshu, in describing the Romans with approval for the type of empire they had created, had this to say: "The inhabitants of that country are tall and well-proportioned, somewhat like the Han, whence they are called Da Qin." Da Qin-"Great Qin"-is a reference to the founding dynasty of China, and reflects the opinion that on "either side of the world" are to be found two similar peoples, two similar states, even to the point of suggesting that the Romans somehow "resembled" the peoples of the Chinese empire in appearance.

In the Weilüe of Yu Huan, written in the early third century, an even more revealing passage occurs, when Yu says that the Romans call their realm "another Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo)"-perhaps drawing upon the Roman notion of their empire as the "circle of lands" around the "Middle Sea" or a reference to the Greek concept of the Roman realm as the oikumene, the civilized world.

Indeed, in these classical texts, one gets a sense of a global order defined by two "Middle Kingdoms", each with their own set of vassal states and subordinate realms, linked together by a series of smaller independent powers (such as the Parthians or the Gupta kingdom in India) that facilitated contact between the two "Qins". I found an echo of these ancient sentiments in recent comments by a former Chinese ambassador to Germanywho opined that the way forward in international affairs is for leading states, each reflecting their own particular history and culture, each influential in their own regions of the world as well as on the global scene, to foster dialogue to find common solutions.

It is very true that most modern Chinese foreign policymakers are not read in their classics, just as few members of the State Department can be said to be well-versed in Thucydides, Polybius or Herodotus. But our "civilizational" heritage does help to shape attitudes and worldviews. Looking at China's past can help provide some understanding about the type of future they hope to create.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.