The past and the future

By Razib Khan | September 12, 2007 4:16 am

A comment on another weblog asked why the United States might have a confrontation with China at some point in the future. They pointed out, correctly, that Chinese imperialism has been weak tea in comparison to the world-striding European form. That is, the Middle Kingdom asserted a pretense of being the universal empire, but engaged in little projection of imperialism outside of its traditional sphere of influence (e.g., Korea, Vietnam and the Tarim Basin). That is the past, and it should inform our perception of the course of the future. But prior information needs to be updated with current conditions, which may change the parameters. The China of the past was a subsistence economy which produced the vast majority of its goods and services in its own enormous internal market. In fact a common Chinese conceit, quite often justified, was that there was truly nothing that the outside world could offer in trade aside from currency or vice (i.e., opium). This is not the contemporary situation; modern China is a growing consumer society with an insatiable appetite for raw materials and food. There is no feasible way that China can sustain itself without the rest of the world, so it seems entirely likely that the Chinese state of the 21st century will involve itself in overseas affairs. That being said, the past is likely a guide that the Chinese imperialism of the 21st century will not take the form of massed invasions and conquests, but rather client-patron relationships which reinforce the rise of a new hegemon.


Comments (8)

  1. Dunc

    Interesting that you make absolutely no comment about the US end of a possible confrontation… Ask yourself which has the more distinct record of confrontational behaviour in recent history – the US or China?

  2. cuchulkhan

    Did the china of the past have a way of dealing with surplus males?

  3. cuchulkhan

    Perhaps a return to the eunuch system.

  4. pconroy

    China is becoming the new imperial power in Africa – they are currently scouring the continent for resources – mostly in the form of raw materials, hydrocarbons and such. They are also devastating the local economies with cheaper imports of the most basic items, like clothing, footwear and cheap utensils.
    They probably also have their eyes focused on the Russian Far East – as that would be the nearest source of hydrocarbons.
    Elsewhere I predict in the next 20 years that China will be the dominant car maker for the world – outdoing the Japanese, Germans and Americans.
    I will also predict that they will be the first country to use solar energy on a wide scale – due to necessity.

  5. Dunc, it’s a bit dated but you might be interested in a bit of proclivity to violence comparisons by civilization I shamelessly copied from Samuel Huntington’s book here.
    On second thought, I think I’ll make it a post of my own on my blog. Here it is.

  6. Sandgroper

    Conroy, I wish to Christ they’d hurry up, the bloody air here is killing me. There’ll soon be too much of a fog of airborne particulates for any solar energy to penetrate.

  7. pconroy

    About 2 years ago, I had a discussion with a Palestinian-American, who had spent a lot of his life in Lebanon, and he said Muslims did not fear the US at all – as they felt that they had no stomachs for a protracted conflict, however they did fear China. He went on to say that it was predicted in the Koran that there would be a great conflict between the Arab/Muslim world and China in the near future.
    What’s interesting is that if China doesn’t go solar (or nuclear) then such a conflict could potentially occur!

  8. j

    There are millions of Muslim Chinese. Chinese people is definitely not into religious or ethnic conflicts. They want to prosper, and that’s all. All their mental constitution is wired towards harmony and honest hard work. If someone has to fear foreign aggression, it is the Chinese alone. Now that China is growing rich again and the West is getting poorer, China has reasons to fear renewed foreign exploitation, including military intervention and/or drug smuggling.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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