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The Three Kingdoms: Three Paths for China’s Future

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The Three Kingdoms: Three Paths for China’s Future

One era in China’s past remains a source of relevance for Chinese society today.

The Three Kingdoms: Three Paths for China’s Future
Credit: Shang Xi

On June 22, 2015, I joined hundreds of American and Chinese representatives at the opening ceremony of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The ceremony presented two competing views about China’s behavior on the world stage. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and U.S. Secretary John Kerry praised China for becoming a world leader, helping the U.S. to fight Ebola, bring Iran to the negotiation table, and jointly develop Afghanistan. But U.S. Vice President Joe Biden took a more negative stance. He said that if China really wants to be a “responsible competitor,” it must respect international law, ensure freedom of the seas, and protect human rights.

Even after more than 200 years of Sino-U.S. relations, China remains an enigma for U.S. policymakers and scholars. Just how do you explain China’s conflicting behavior? What is China’s intentions for the existing international system? One way to anticipate China’s future behavior is to look at its past. Chinese leaders continue to draw on ancient military texts such as the Thirty Six Stratagems and Sun Tsu’s Art of War to inform its current strategies, but little attention has been paid to another important era in Chinese history: The Three Kingdoms period (220-280). This period, expressed in Luo Guanzhong’s Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, continues to be a source of relevance for Chinese society. Mao Zedong frequently quoted Three Kingdoms in his speeches. In 1943, he encouraged his Communist comrades to come together to defeat the Kuomintang, saying “three cobblers with their wits combined equal Zhuge Liang the master mind.” This common idiom alludes to the famous Three Kingdoms military strategist, Zhuge Liang. Years later, Deng Xiaoping called Cao Cao – another Three Kingdoms character – a “first-class politician” who was able to “unify China” under one mission.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has also alluded to Three Kingdoms in his professional career. When Xi was sent to the countryside town of Liangjiahe during the Cultural Revolution in 1968, he often shared stories with his colleagues about classic Chinese novels like Three Kingdoms as they slept in a lice-infested cave. In a November 2015 speech in Singapore, Xi said that the characters from classics such as Three Kingdoms and Water Margin demonstrate the core values of the Chinese people: loyalty, humility, and determination.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms focuses on the time period after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220. The once united China fractures into a fierce contest amongst warlords, all bent on reuniting the country. Eventually, three kingdoms emerge as the main contenders: The Wu, Wei and Shu. The Wu kingdom symbolizes regional hegemony. Wu king Sun Quan had no grand ambitions to take over the world; all he wanted was to protect the Riverlands, his family’s historical territory. But Wu fought tooth and nail to keep its independence and hegemony over its sovereign territory. When the Wei kingdom attacked the Riverlands at the Battle of Chibi (also known as Red Cliff), Wu joined forces with Shu to protect its regional hegemony. China today is positioning itself to be the regional hegemon of Asia. It is a leader in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to counter the Western-dominated World Bank and IMF, and has developed the anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) military strategy to keep out possible hegemons – like the U.S. – out of the East Asian littoral. China also seems to be strengthening ties with Russia in order to check U.S. global influence.

The second kingdom is the Wei Kingdom, which represents tyranny. The main villain of the Three Kingdoms is Cao Cao, a ruthless leader who used alliances to turn neighboring states into vassals, and routinely broke those alliances as soon as he saw an opening to strike. Cao Cao’s famous quote in the story is “I would rather betray the whole world then have the world betray me.” Likewise, China uses its economic influence to coerce weaker states into submission. It builds infrastructure in Latin America and Africa, but rarely ever teaches the local workers how to maintain it, creating a system of dependence. In return, China demands that these countries give up their natural resources to China for years or even decades. Militarily, China is also becoming ever more aggressive against Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, and against Japan with the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Finally, there is the Shu Kingdom, which reflects humane authority. The Shu emperor Liu Bei personified the sage king. Liu Bei relied heavily on his reputation as a virtuous, benevolent man who strictly followed the law to establish himself as the humane authority. As a leader, Liu Bei did not rely on his own ideas; he had a circle of faithful strategic advisors. In dealing with the two enemy states, Shu allied with Wu to fight against the stronger Wei. China has increased its international engagement through such projects as the One Belt One Road, which plans to link Western China with Central Asia, Europe, and South Asia. President Xi Jinping, along with his advisor Liu Mingfu, have made popular the concept of the “China Dream,” when China will soon become the leading global power. These actions suggest that China wants to be like Liu Bei of Shu, a wise king that hopes to be the humane authority of the world.

U.S. Options

Each of the Three Kingdom strategies affect U.S. interests in one way or another. Having a response ready for each of them will help the U.S. protect its global interests. Wei-Tyranny is the most threatening to U.S. interests because China would displace the U.S. as the dominant power in the international system and bully U.S. allies in Asia and beyond. In response to Chinese tyrannical behavior, the U.S. must openly criticize Chinese actions and support countries around China’s periphery to resist unequal economic agreements with China. This could be done by increasing economic aid to vulnerable Asian countries like Cambodia, Burma, and Mongolia, while strengthening ASEAN to serve as a strong counterweight to China. The U.S. already has a mutual security treaty with Japan; it should seriously consider concluding something similar with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries looking to resist China’s aggressive expansion. If China were to become blatantly aggressive in the South China Sea, the U.S could also implement a distant blockade, whereby U.S. ships secure the Strait of Malacca, effectively cutting China off from 80 percent of the oil it needs from the Middle East and Africa.

Wu-Hegemony is also problematic because China could seek to limit U.S. interests in Asia. In this case, the U.S. should encourage China to play a constructive role as a regional leader by supporting such initiatives as the AIIB. It also needs to step up its surveillance to know whether China changes its strategy to be a tyrant or humane authority. This means that the U.S. diplomatic corps and intelligence community must be on the lookout for Chinese officials who advocate for humane authority or tyranny, and whether those officials have the ear of Xi Jinping and other high-level decision makers. If China strategy changes, then the U.S. should change its own strategy accordingly. To thwart China’s regional A2/AD strategy, the U.S should continue to demand freedom of the seas and develop its own way to counter China’s attempt to push it out of Asia. One such strategy is Aaron Friedberg’s “maritime denial”; that is, forming a quarantine around the East Asian first island chain.

If China chooses the Shu-Humane Authority strategy, that decision may benefit or challenge U.S. interests.  On the one hand, China could share similar values as the U.S. and thus will not be an ideological competitor on the world stage. Xi Jinping has consistently stated that the U.S. and China must forge a “new type of great power relationship,” one that is a “win-win” partnership, not a zero sum rivalry. U.S. President Barack Obama put it another way: “I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” If this is true, then the U.S. should encourage China to be a humane authority and work with the U.S. to maintain and improve the current international system.

On the other hand, if China offers an alternative vision for world order, then this could be as threatening as tyranny from the U.S. perspective. Yan Xuetong believes that China’s quest for humane authority is a “zero-sum game” and a “battle for people’s hearts and minds” around the world. If China continues to try and establish itself as a humane authority, the U.S. must also regain its moral authority in the international stage. That would include finally ratifying such treaties as UNCLOS to demonstrate moral leadership. Doing so will show the U.S. support for multilateralism and help check Chinese unilateral action in the South China Sea. The U.S. should also continue to point out the hypocrisy in China’s new moral narrative, highlighting its continued human rights abuses, domestic corruption, harsh treatment of dissenters, cyber theft and spying, and blatant media censorship. U.S. diplomats already bring these concerns to Chinese diplomats, but these conversations usually take place behind closed doors. Instead, U.S. officials should condemn Chinese actions more publically. This means that Congress should increase financial support for human rights organizations operating in China. The U.S. should also shame China’s actions through international institutions such as the UN, WTO, and IMF, and through economic and human rights NGOs as well. It means encouraging U.S. newspapers to put Chinese human rights abuses on front pages at least as often as articles about China’s economy. At the moment, U.S. journalists and officials tend to prioritize bilateral economic relations over a “name, blame, and shame” campaign against China, but the latter tactic may be more beneficial to maintaining U.S. leadership and encouraging China to become a freer, more democratic society in the future. These actions would help steer international public opinion to support U.S. legitimacy and credibility in the international arena and diminish China’s claim to humane authority.

No policymaker knows for sure what China’s true aspirations are – perhaps not even the powers that be in Beijing.  But U.S. officials, scholars, and journalists can use the Three Kingdoms analogy to frame China’s actions in China’s own culture and history. Chinese leaders can use the Three Kingdoms as an allegory from their own history to gauge how their actions may be perceived by its neighbors, allies, and strategic competitors. Analyzing how China draws from ancient texts like the Three Kingdoms could help paint a clearer picture about China’s future behavior and aspirations for the world.

Leland Lazarus is an M.A. candidate at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is also a former associate producer for CCTV America.