“We will pursue this beautiful vision—a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, freedom, and peace,” President Donald Trump wrote in his letter accompanying the National Security Strategy.
Beijing has long endorsed the concept of sovereignty. From 1954 to today, it has stressed that the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence—mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence—are the foundation of its relations with the world.
China and the United States, therefore, should be able to coexist.
Unfortunately, coexistence looks increasingly unlikely. Trump’s Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, is beginning to articulate the notion that China is the planet’s only sovereign state. Beijing and Washington, inevitably, are bound to clash.
On the surface, China’s recent pronouncements sound benign. Xi is known for speaking of the “Chinese Dream,” but he has a far bigger one. “One World, One Dream,” the slogan for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, evokes a united international community. That was Xi’s handiwork as he was then the Politburo Standing Committee member responsible for the Games.
Xi was also responsible for “a community of common destiny.” Introduced in late 2012, the phrase, as the official China Daily puts it, “epitomizes the direction in which the Chinese government believes global governance should head.”
These words have ominous overtones. Unfortunately, Xi’s phrases incorporate the imperial-era concept of tianxia or “All Under Heaven,” the idea that the Chinese emperor ruled the entire world. “One can argue that there has never been a more universal conception of rule,” writes journalist Howard French in Everything Under the Heavens.
So when Xi speaks of a community where destiny is common or that everyone shares the same dreams, he is surely evoking China’s rich imperial history and hinting he should rule all domains, near to Beijing and those far from it.
The tianxia concept can be traced back almost three millennia, and it has dominated Chinese political thought for most of that period. The justification for tianxia was simple.
“All political power and all judicial verdicts must come from a singular source of the son of heaven, just like all light of life comes from a single sun,” writes Fei-Ling Wang of Georgia Tech, explaining Chinese thinking on the issue in his newly released The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power. Accordingly, Chinese leaders have been obsessed with avoiding division and have sought as their ultimate objective a “Grand Unification” of the world.
It is in this context that in September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi connected in Study Times, the Central Party School newspaper, Xi Jinping’s benign-sounding statements to their ambitious meaning. Wang wrote that Xi’s “thought on diplomacy”—“thoughts” hold a high place in the Communist Party’s hierarchy of ideas—“has made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years.”
Three hundred years? Wang with his time reference was almost certainly pointing to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which recognized the sovereignty of individual states and is therefore considered the basis of the international system since then.
Wang’s use of “transcended” definitely suggests Xi is contemplating a world without sovereign states—or at least no others than China. And China’s leader has only added to suspicions when he said “The Chinese have always held that the world is united and all under heaven are one family,” as he did in his 2017 New Year’s Message.
Is tianxia possible in today’s world of nearly two hundred sovereign states? British leftist Martin Jacques thinks so. He believes China, due to its unrivaled heft, could one day preside over “a global tributary system.” We should not be surprised by this view as the title of his 2009 book is When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.
And some Chinese, such as Communist Party house scholars, promote the imperial conception of the world. “Leading PRC foreign policy analysts have presented the rejuvenated tianxia idea as a legitimate or superior alternative to and a powerful critique of the Westphalia world order,” writes Georgia Tech’s Wang. “Some PRC scholars have declared that now is the time for China to be the destined world leader to reorganize the world as one, to turn the China Dream into the World Dream.”
Whether feasible or not, Xi’s tianxia ambitions will lead Beijing to engage in conduct intended to destabilize the Westphalian system. That system, Chinese leaders believe, are “politically lethal” to the polity of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi’s imperial ambition—his Dream—can in no way be reconciled with Trump’s “beautiful vision” of sovereign states. Today, that vision of beauty describes the world as it now is: many sovereign nations held together by treaties, conventions, covenants and norms as well as multilateral institutions and American might.
In short, a China controlled by rulers with a tianxia mindset will find it hard to either recognize the sovereignty of others or coexist with them, especially peer competitors like the United States.
Many have criticized the characterization. Yes, the document got it wrong. China is not revisionist. It is nothing short of revolutionary.
Chinese leaders, for the first time since Mao, have returned to dreams of global domination.