Is China expansionist?

January 19 2007

Early Chinese history was about the expansion southward of the dominant Chinese ethnic group, the Han, from its original home in the Yellow River basin. See this post on the Shang dynasty and the beginning of civilisation in China.

As well as occupying the space we now call China, sometimes as a minority, the Han Chinese spread into Southeast Asia in a diaspora. Migration on a large scale began in the nineteenth century. At various times, the Chinese state also controlled or claimed suzerainty over parts of Southeast Asia politically.

But since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the state has not shown a strong desire for territorial expansion. Was that only because of its weakness? Will China become expansionist in the future? Recent rows with Japan show that Chinese nationalism is alive.

Toynbee in reply to Daisaku Ikeda:

I agree that since 1839 [the first Opium War], the Chinese have fought only in self-defense.

They were involved, Ikeda had said, in three major wars which they did not start: the Opium War (there were actually two wars), the Sino-Japanese War, and the Korean War.

[But] I think they interpret self-defense as including the recovery of the frontiers that the Chinese Empire had attained when the Qing dynasty [or Ch’ing or Manchu dynasty, China’s last, 1644-1911] was at its zenith, during the latter part of the reign of Ch’ien Lung.

He reigned from 1735 until 1796. His regnal name is the Qianlong Emperor. We have met him already, impersonating Alec Guinness in a post called Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

Ch’ien Lung incorporated what we think of as Chinese Turkestan into the Qing dynasty’s rule. This is now the huge Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It used to be known as Sinkiang in the West. Some Uyghurs, who are mainly Moslem, now have aspirations to independence.

Ch’ien Lung also took control of Tibet. China lost Tibet after the empire fell in 1911, but took it back immediately after the revolution of 1949.

So he was a kind of Trajan. But he was not successful in Southeast Asia.

This accounts both for China’s reconquest of Tibet – from the Tibetans’ point of view an act of aggressive colonialism – and for China’s otherwise inexplicable breach with India, which had previously been China’s best friend.

The breach with India happened in 1962.

China broke with India over some strips of territory in the high Himalayas that, although worthless in themselves and strategically superfluous for China, had, I guess, symbolic importance, because India claimed a frontier line imposed by the British when China was too weak to object.

In 1914 the McMahon line had advanced the border of India into Tibet. The line runs between Bhutan and Burma and divides India and Tibet/China. So the present Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is called South Tibet by China.

Wikipedia suggests that China did have a strategic concern, but a defensive one, namely to protect the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which ran near the Indian border and was the primary route for supplying the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Tibet before the opening of Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006, which now runs from Xining in Qinghai province to Lhasa (map below).

The war was fought in “AP”, but also at the other end of Tibet, in the China-administered region of Aksai Chin, an almost uninhabited area in northern Kashmir at the junction of Pakistan, India, Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Aksai Chin is a separate dispute. It was part of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh until Ladakh was annexed by Kashmir in the nineteenth century. It was thus absorbed into British India. The Republic of India claims it, but a Chinese highway runs through it connecting Tibet with Xinjiang. China therefore has a strategic interest in it and considers itself the heir to this part of Ladakh.

Neither dispute has been resolved.

The Sino-Indian war was one of the largest ever fought at such an altitude. (Cf the Kargil War, fought between India and Pakistan in the mountains of Kashmir in 1999.) It coincided with the Cuban missile crisis, so it was seen in the Western media as another act of aggression by a Communist state. It is not clear to me which side started it. Perhaps China.

I see no indication that China intends to expand beyond [my italics] her frontiers of the year 1796, the year of Ch’ien Lung’s death.

The editor didn’t pick up on Toynbee’s slip when transcribing this conversation or he made his own: it was Ch’ien Lung’s reign that ended in 1796. He died in 1799, and retained influence during the final years.

Toynbee then turns towards China’s northeast.

Indeed, though recently the Chinese have clashed with the Russians along the Amur River, they do not seem to be seriously intending to try to recover the vast territories beyond the left bank of the Amur and the right bank of the Ussuri that China was compelled to cede to Russia in 1858-61. The Chinese element in the population of these territories was, and is, very small.

The Amur rises in China and now forms most of the border between Russia and China, before it turns north at the Russian city of Khabarovsk. Its mouth is in the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk, opposite the northern end of Sakhalin.

The Ussuri rises in Russia, flows north, joins the Amur at Khabarovsk, and forms part of the eastern border between Russia and China.

The right bank of the Amur is the northernmost part of China, hundreds of miles north of Beijing, and the northern edge of Manchuria: ie of the territory between Mongolia and China’s eastern border. The Russian side is sometimes called Outer, or Russian, Manchuria.

The Qing or Manchu dynasty hailed from Manchuria, so their claims beyond the Amur were ancestral. They were ceded without a war, like so many other concessions to foreign powers by the Qing in the nineteenth century.

Toynbee could have added, in support of his argument that China does not even wish to return to all of its borders of 1796, that it has no declared wish to reconquer Mongolia.

Mongolia (that is, the country called Mongolia, aka Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia being a Chinese province) was ruled by the Qing from the end of the seventeenth century until the end of the Chinese empire in 1911, when it declared its independence.

Toynbee made these points in response to these remarks by Daisaku Ikeda:

“I do not think that the Chinese are a people with aggressive ambitions. On the contrary, I regard them as essentially pacifists seeking peace and security for their own country. […] It seems to me that the Chinese participate in hostilities only when it is necessary to defend themselves. In my opinion, the Chinese people developed a nationalistic inclination as a natural reaction against the successive invasions by foreign countries – including Japan – that have occurred since the Opium War.”

China’s natural attitude, according to that view, is not an aggressive nationalism so much as a calm Chinese ethnocentrism.

None of this has touched on China’s overseas claims. The biggest of these is, of course, Taiwan. But this is seen as already Chinese. China could invade. Reclaiming it would satisfy Toynbee’s 1796 test.

Not that Taiwan is an ancient Chinese possession. It wasn’t settled by the Chinese until 1662, when Koxinga, a former pirate and a Ming loyalist in opposition to the Ch’ing, landed there and expelled the Dutch. He established the Kingdom of Tungning, which ended in 1683, when his grandson was defeated by a Qing armada and Koxinga’s followers were expatriated to the furthest reaches of the empire, leaving approximately 7,000 Chinese on Taiwan. So Taiwan began as a centre of Ming resistance, just as it is now the centre of Republican resistance.

There are some uninhabited islands near Taiwan which the Japanese (who had Taiwan between 1895 and 1945) administer and China claims: the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, Diaoyutai or Tiaoyutai Islands in Chinese, Pinnacle Islands in English.

Then there are the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and gas and oil deposits, whose true extent is unknown and disputed. The PRC, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the entire group of islands, while Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines each claim various parts. Several of the nations involved have soldiers stationed there and control various installations on different islands and reefs. Taiwan occupies one of the largest, Taiping (Itu Aba Island). The disputes remain a plausible scenario for a major east Asian war involving the PRC, or a smaller war between other claimants, a scenario depicted by Tom Clancy in his novel SSN.

The Paracel Islands are disputed for the same reasons. They have been controlled and administered by China since 1974, but other countries lay claim to them.

More on Chinese rivers here.

Below this post, five maps. Of, from left to right:

  • China’s administrative divisions and territorial disputes
  • the new Qinghai-Tibet railway
  • Aksai Chin
  • Manchuria (where you can see the very short border between Russia and North Korea)
  • Indian states and Union Territories, showing the Indian version of the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, which China disputes, and of Kashmir, which Pakistan and China dispute

The first three from Wikipedia and stated to be public domain, the fourth distributed freely with the online version of the 2004 edition of the CIA World Factbook, the last from I have requested permission.

china-administrative.png  qinghai-tibet-railway.png

aksai-chin.jpg  manchuria.jpg


With Daisaku Ikeda; Richard L Gage, editor; Choose Life, A Dialogue, OUP, 1976, posthumous

From the Japanese English-language edition, The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, Kodansha International, 1976

17 Responses to “Is China expansionist?”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I suppose, when you look at China’s global economic strategies, that all this does is bring home how irrelevant territorial issues now are.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    John Derrick writes apropos the Qinghai-Tibet railway:

    I have been following that railway for some time, since before it opened. […] It is controversial, both because it is seen as cementing the Chinese occupation of Tibet and because of the huge number of Chinese workers killed in its construction.

  3. Stephen Marsh Says:

    I’m not sure abt DD’s comment that global economic expansion has made actual and possible territorial claims irrelevant: I think it’s more a question of making them less prominent in the world media. There have been disturbing reports about the massive upgrading of the Chinese armed services, and the sabre-rattling over Taiwan never really stops.

  4. […] The Kunlun: China (Tibet), at the northern fringe of the Takla Makan, are not shown. Nor the Altai: running northwest from China across eastern Kazakhstan and western Mongolia into Russia, starting east of the Tien Shan. I’ll deal with the Kashmir dispute later, but see this post. […]

  5. […] China-Tibet March 18, 2008 This post from early last year asked the question: Is China expansionist? […]

  6. […] Aksai Chin (an almost uninhabited area in northern Kashmir claimed by both India and China: see this post), the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, Qinghai province, Sichuan province, Yunnan […]

  7. […] Uyghur protests July 6, 2009 Some rudimentary context in an old post. […]

  8. Mark Toynbee Says:

    Nice to find a site dedicated to one of my illustrious forbears.

    I was actually directed here because I was hunting up something on Indian civilisation, not googling my own name, honest…

    • davidderrick Says:

      Are you a relation?

      • Mark Toynbee Says:

        Well, Toynbee is such a rare name we must be, but it’s so far back in time we’ve never found the link between the two legs of the family. I get a vicarious celebrity from Polly Toynbee being in the news regularly, and of course I’m proud to have the same name as the man who founded modern history.

      • davidderrick Says:

        I’m not sure I’d agree that Toynbee founded modern history. But a fine name anyway.

  9. […] – were echeloned right across Asia from the banks of the Don [map] to the banks of the Ussuri [description] – were all derived from a single mother community, the Cossack Army of the Dniepr; and we find […]

  10. […] Click. (Strange spelling of Uzbekistan.) The Hindu Kush is a western extension of the Pamirs. On Aksai Chin, see this post. […]

  11. […] of the Russia-China border is formed by the Argun and the Amur and in the south the Ussuri, a tributary of the Amur (low […]

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