EVERYTHING UNDER THE HEAVENS: how the past helps shape China's push for global power.

AuthorHarris, Peter
PositionBook review

Author: Howard W. French

Published by: Scribe, Melbourne, 2017, 352pp, $35.

In this much-acclaimed book, Howard French sets out to explain why China's ultimate goal is to restore 'an updated kind of tributary system', thus effectively reviving the tribute system of the Chinese imperial era, and also to become a true global power, supplanting American power in East and South-east Asia. By the tribute system French means the 2000-year-old system whereby other states paid homage to the Chinese imperial court, accepting that it ruled all under heaven (tian xia). More generally he takes it as a symbol of the abiding sense of superiority that the Chinese displayed towards other states and cultures from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) onwards, if not earlier still.

To illustrate his point about the tribute system French addresses Chinas dealing with a range of countries and on a range of issues. These include the South China Sea, Chinas scornful claims to which, French argues, put it Very close to resorting to its familiar old civilizational case', and its old imperial tian xia perspective.

Two important parts of the book focus on Japan and Vietnam. In the case of Japan, French describes how from the late 19th century on Japan gradually undermined imperial China's 'disintegrating tian xia in favour of a new, Japan-centred regional order in East Asia, in the first instance by annexing the Ryukyu Islands. Before then the islands were ruled by a king, who sent tribute to China (in contrast to Japan, which, as French notes, sat outside China's tributary realm). Their importance today consists of the fan that the United States' largest military base is on the largest of the islands, Okinawa, while to the south-west of them, between Japan and Taiwan, lie the tiny Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, ownership of which is a cause of contention between Tokyo and Beijing. French sees this contention turning into 'a frontal challenge' by China before too long. Indeed, he argues, everything suggests that China sees its path to modernity following the old fault lines of these tiny islands, through which it is determined to redress old grievances and bring Japan to heel.

In the case of Vietnam, French describes the prolonged historical effort of the Vietnamese to achieve independence from China, and their subsequent assumption of tribute status, maintained until Vietnam's colonisation by the French in the late 19th century. He goes on to recount the complicated history...

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