China, Tianxia, and the Plan to Break the International Liberal World
Modern China is resurrecting this dynasty of tributary taxation, through economic dependence, soft loans, and creating a Chinese diaspora throughout Asia and Africa.
The world stands at a paradigm shift; a thunder of meeting, fighting tectonic plates. Vaclav Klaus, in a forthcoming article in The Hungarian Conservative, laments the passing of an old order. The move from one epoch to another is reminiscent of Mathew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” where the ebbing of the sea of faith had ceased caressing the shores of the world. Now is “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind.” Likewise, the thunder of change beckons in the dismantling of Westphalia and the end of a unipolar liberal world.
The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended the Thirty Years War, ostensibly between Catholic and Protestant Europe; a war in which approximately eight million people had died. The Peace gave birth to the idea of “Westphalian Sovereignty” from the ruins of the certainty of the Holy Roman Empire. For our purposes, although Westphalia was not tantamount to the birth of nation-states, it did establish a conception of the sacrosanct nature of borders and a right to self-determination. This type of sovereignty has faced challenges from two fronts after 300 years of its principled acceptance, although not “rigorous” application. Firstly there came the tsunami of globalization—and, like its predecessor, the Bretton Woods system, toppled national frontiers with its ebullient energy. This was the self-satisfied 1990s, that sad decade when “The End of [Insert Idea]” followed one after another; when historians, in true Hegelian hysteria, competed to forecast the end of something or other. The “End of History” was here; it was a triumph of Enlightenment virtues, a liberal democratic mission to be exported, of capitalism and Coca-Cola.
That era of Occidental thinking is drawing to a close. When the “New World” discoveries and Britain’s maritime ascendancy set in motion the modern nomos of the world from the fifteenth century onwards, that also appeared fixed and certain. Each epoch believes in the permanence of its own ideal, its territory and nomos.
Nomos was the Greek phrase Carl Schmitt used to describe these lurching, giant states (or civilizational states) and their remit to conquer the world, from the Roman Empire onwards. Nomos derives from a state’s geographical, cultural, and resource domination. The jus publicum Europaeum which came out of the end of the Holy Roman Empire formed the basis for European hegemony. The curse of progress, its Achilles heel, is to believe in the eternity of the present.
The new nomos of the Earth is not globalization or liberal democracy. It is not Islam. In fact, it is something fed and nurtured by all empires or civilizations once they lose the spirit of their early hegemony and hand over the keys to a competitor; it is a type of complacency. They wave goodbye to the ethos which made them successful in the first place. Homogeneity is key to a successful empire.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi speaks of how Xi Jinping has strived to transform the present structure of international relations. Xi has “made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years,” with a striking iconoclastic reference to Westphalia. This, again, is at odds with the up-to-now prevalent view of China—the distant, insular, Silk Road repository of Confucian splendid isolation. The Occident, wearing its kulturbrille, only sees what it wants to see: a benevolent world of liberal democratic norms.
As Gloucester warns in King Lear, “Tis the times plague, when madmen lead the blind.” The Faustian pact between Russia and China is not a causal necessity of the Ukraine conflict but an alliance to systemically rewrite the nomos of the world. The Chinese have a phrase: Tianxia, meaning “All Under Heaven,” which places order and conformity above all else. The emperor was always not merely the Emperor of China, but of the world. Chinese thinking equates the existence of one sun to one earthly ruler. The emperor was akin to the divine right of European kings. The Qin Han dynasty, from the third century BC, saw a Confucian legalism that ruled for more than two millennia in Eastern Eurasia, until the end of the nineteenth century.
Modern China is resurrecting this dynasty of tributary taxation, through economic dependence, soft loans, and creating a Chinese diaspora throughout Asia and Africa. The Occident, like Oedipus, has gouged out its eyes of perception—a willing blindfolding for the outsourcing of manufacturing capacity and cheap imports. Yet in China, according to Wang Fei Ling, “foreign policy analysts have presented the rejuvenated Tianxia idea as a legitimate or superior alternative to and powerful critique of the Westphalia world order.”
It is a mythical, easy sell to the Chinese population, with a hereditary view of other Asian states as tributaries. Ideas-based civilizational states, like China and Russia, utilize narratives of historic destiny, like the “conservative revolution” thinkers of Weimar. These states see their goals as long-term and historic, divinely ratified. They see beyond the short-termism of representative democracy. Economic growth is just one aspect of such a destiny. Western notions of “progress” are aligned with a colonial view of globalization. It is a Westphalia 2.0: nation-states and FDI-driven global capital. The winner of this race is able to utilize resources, investment, and labor. China arrived late at the party; but it has arrived.
Not surprising that the pushback by Russia also focuses on this perceived imbalance. The war in Ukraine was not a sudden vision by Vladimir Putin—Russians use planning trajectories for their economy and geopolitical forecasting. It was only last year that, the RAND Corporation published Russian Military Forecasting and Planning, based on research since 2019.
The main weakness of the Occident is short-termism with regard to forecasting and planning. It is endemic to the West’s government and reduces the ability to see long term, beyond the next election. The Western focus on liberal norms, rights, and global democracy only works in a game played by everyone. Once the Westphalian system of nation-states became consumed by empire building and now, globalization, the quid pro quo, the balance, was gone.
The RAND report postulates that Russia sees the geopolitical dynamic as having two possible paths. One is the continuance of a unipolar world of liberal governance and globalization, based on a Western financial system and U.S. dominance in foreign policy. The second alternative is Russia probing and attempting to dismantle this hegemony. This is due to their perceived inability to achieve economic goals, along with access to capital and technology. An axis consisting of China and Russia makes this much more likely. The Ukraine war is not about Ukraine itself—it is this vying for position; it is this intrinsic planning, what the Russians call a “VPO” analysis, which sees its strategy as a long game. Underlying all of this is a military perspective that needs to match adversaries. The Russians forecast that, under existing trajectories of globalization, by 2040, the United States will be 60 percent stronger in military capacity. Globalization is a Janus-faced chalice for Russia; at once a source of oil revenue, yet potentially debilitating. Economic sanctions compound the problem and restrict access to technologies and capital. For the Russians, war is a means to disrupt the flow of geopolitics. The second alternative sees a VPO of a reformed military balance in which China, by 2040, equals the United States in military capability and the Russian deficit is reduced to 20 percent.
This vision, called “Bipolarity 2.0,” now drives Russian and Chinese policy. It aims to create favorable blocs in BRICS group (named after Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Yet, faced with losses of weapons and manpower in Ukraine, the Russian game is spluttering. The technological boycott could be brutal for Russia. Hence the Russian “soft” policy of building alliances with Western dissidence—the parties of a “cultural” diaspora who see the negative dynamic of globalization culture. Hungary, Serbia, Italy, and the United States have a populist groundswell of democratic resistance to liberalism. This may be a fertile ground for Russia, as Western norms deracinate their own societies from the inside. The oft-quoted “liberal democracy” is fraught with contradiction. Representative democracy is a miasma of democracy; it is a system to regulate and administer an international system of capital flows dependent on migratory cheap labor and resources. Elite manipulation is now noticing pushback in liberal democracies as a working class, culturally disenfranchised bloc supports more nationalist, indigenous populism. This may be a bigger threat than the external great power game.
For the Chinese, tianxia is back on the agenda after the hiatus of communism. China, according to Henry Kissinger, “considered itself, in a sense, the sole sovereign government of the world.” For Xi Jinping, China becomes a middle kingdom of tributary vassal states. Tianxia brings order to the chaos of Westphalia.
It is this fusion of idealized myth and realpolitik which drives China and Russia: the borderless tributary empire of the Chinese emperors and the endless steppe of Dostoyevsky’s Russia. The rhetoric of China’s “Global Security Initiative” of April 2022, continued the underlying vogue of expansive dominance, purporting “security for all in the world..and oppose the pursuit of one's own security at the expense of others.” There is also a rebuffing against the internal damage of globalization to core Chinese cultural values—Geliguojia, or “separated country” of the emperors. It is the best of both worlds for Xi and a continuation of Mao’s vision of communism on a world scale.