Lessons from History: The Roots of Modern Chinese Foreign Policy

Jack Mountford

January 1841. British warships, led by the revolutionary iron steamship Nemesis, bombarded the fortified island of Chuenpi, which guarded the approach to Canton. After the fort was captured, the conspicuously-titled Nemesis single-handedly engaged a fleet of approximately 15 “war junks” — a Chinese sailing ship of ancient design. Through a combination of canon-fire and rudimentary Congreve rockets, the British ship forced the surrender of the Chinese formation, following the destruction of 11 ships. The Chinese termed the Nemesis the “devil ship”.

This crushing defeat was one of many that culminated in a decisive British victory in the First Opium War (1839–1842). This conflict arose from the attempts of Qing-dynasty China to suppress the illegal importation of opium into China by foreign (primarily British) traders. Tensions escalated when Qing officials confiscated and destroyed 1,400 tons of the drug, imported from India and stored in Canton warehouses by British merchants. When the Chinese government refused to provide compensation, Britain dispatched a fleet which would ultimately capture Canton and force the capitulation of the Qing government. Subsequent treaties and conventions led to the cession of Hong Kong and the forced opening of Canton and other Chinese ports to foreign trade. The Treaty of Nanking in particular became known in China as the first of several “unequal treaties”, which almost exclusively followed military defeat at the hands of a foreign power. The importance of this conflict, which is scarcely remembered in Britain, cannot be understated from the Chinese perspective. The legacy of the Opium Wars is deep-rooted, and endures to the present. Many see the conflict as the beginning of modern Chinese history.

The Modern Chinese Navy is certainly more powerful — and assertive — than its nineteenth century predecessor (Image: United States Naval Institute)

Today, stories of Chinese aggression in the West Pacific — particularly in the South and East China Seas — often dominate the headlines. In recent days and weeks, China has conducted various military exercises in the region, often involving mass concentrations of forces. On 8 December, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) flew a nuclear-capable bomber across several disputed maritime borders, apparently in response to President-Elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Chinese military growth has come to dictate the policies of many nations in the region, including the US “Pivot to Asia”, as well as efforts at rearmament in East Asian nations including Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. China has invested heavily in warships, submarines, fighter aircraft and missile technology, as well as the extensive logistical networks that support them. Recent reports have also indicated that China has begun to fully militarise artificial islands under construction in the South China Sea has, despite an earlier pledge to the contrary. The rate of military expansion currently being observed has caused great alarm amongst many in the region.

What motivation, has driven this rapid build-up? The answer is found in the history of China’s interactions with foreign powers. The legacy of defeat in the Opium War has had an enduring transformative effect upon China’s national outlook. Gone was the Confucian worldview which had previously dictated interactions with the outside world, and which saw China as standing at the centre of the globe. In its place, China was forced to assimilate into the European-centric Westphalian system of national sovereignty, which rested upon the system of sovereign territories and respected national borders. More than this, however, the legacy of defeat fundamentally altered China’s societal consciousness, creating what William Callahan describes in his 2010 book “China: The Pessoptimist Nation” as a “victimhood complex”, which continues to influence government thinking to this day. Chinese nationalists came to describe the hundred years following the Opium Wars as the “century of humiliation”, referring to the period of foreign intervention and imperialism by both the western powers and Japan.

This calamitous period in China’s history, as well as the nationalist mindset that it produced, has created a determination amongst successive Chinese governments to never again be defeated by a technologically advanced enemy. As such, China’s explosive economic growth has been accompanied by equally massive increases in military spending, aimed at bringing China to parity with its competitors, both in the region and internationally. Specifically, this has focused on securing the Chinese mainland against attack through a strong maritime defence. This would certainly explain the rapid naval expansion seen in recent years, as well as recent efforts to create artificial islands in the South China Sea. This, combined with expansive stockpiles of anti-ship missiles, creates a powerful deterrent against any nation that would seek to attack China by sea.

China is a nation with a long and varied history. Periods of relative stability and progress have been accompanied by times of calamity and stagnation. As with all nations, these historical experiences have had profound effects upon the modern national consciousness and, in the case of China, have created a determination to achieve parity with foreign powers. The legacy of “humiliation” that began with the Opium Wars continues to affect Chinese thinking to this day. This conflict, which barely features in public consciousness in Britain continues to have profound geopolitical impact in Asia and the Pacific almost 200 years later. The opium smugglers of the 1830s doubtless had little idea of how deeply their activities would impact upon subsequent history. Perhaps these smugglers would not have engaged in such actions, had the full consequences been revealed. Attempts at a quick profit from running drugs have culminated centuries later in a politically unstable and potentially dangerous situation. Aside from providing yet another argument against drug use, the Opium Wars represents the roots of a modern Chinese foreign policy which threatens to destabilise the entire region.