Beijing’s Jekyll-and-Hyde lurch from conciliation to confrontation in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas has taken observers aback. Commentators have concentrated mainly on figuring out why China would shift its stance so abruptly, but an equally intriguing question is, why is it such a surprise to the US that Beijing would object stridently to foreign naval operations off its coast?
The short answer is that although in its early years the US endured abuse from great sea powers, it never underwent a “century of humiliation” comparable to China’s. Absent a traumatic history of its own, the US tends to overlook or discount the lasting psychological damage China suffered from its encounter with seaborne conquerors.
Imperial powers like Britain, France, Germany and Japan made a weak, backward China an object of plunder during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing in the PLA Daily before this summer’s US-South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea, General Luo Yuan (羅援) reminded readers that this waterway represents “a maritime gateway by which foreign invaders once reached the Chinese heartland.”
This is neither hyperbole nor simple bluster. Beginning with the first Opium War from 1839 to 1842, Western powers seized seaports along the coast, imposed “unequal treaties” on the Qing Dynasty, and stationed gunboats along rivers. Long subordinate to the Middle Kingdom, Japan smashed China’s Beiyang Fleet in the Yellow Sea in 1895 before wresting Taiwan from Beijing under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
Nor did dynastic China’s litany of disgrace stop there. In 1900, Western imperial powers raised an expeditionary force to put down the “Boxer Rebellion” poised to overrun foreign diplomatic missions in Beijing. The multinational force — including US and Japanese contingents — crossed the Yellow Sea, landed at Tianjin, and advanced on the capital, effortlessly crushing all resistance. Beijing was sacked via Luo’s maritime gateway.
Foreign naval operations along the Asian seaboard trigger the reflexes of Chinese nationalists — of whom there are many. The Chinese leadership has consistently opposed such operations. Now it apparently thinks it has accumulated enough diplomatic and military clout to act on its opposition.
Memories about the sea run long in many nations. Why not in the US? In 1814, after all, the country suffered its own counterpart to the Boxer intervention, when British Redcoats landed along Chesapeake Bay, marched inland and burned the White House. Much like Chinese nationalists today, 19th-century naval advocates invoked the sacking of Washington to justify building a large US navy. Never again, they argued, would the US permit such an indignity.
However, while the Boxer Rebellion remains a living memory for many Chinese, the War of 1812 is mostly a forgotten war, kept alive primarily by Francis Scott Key’s stirring The Star Spangled Banner. Why the disparity? First, the US was a young nation in 1812, clinging to the Atlantic seaboard. It was not a venerable civilization like China, accustomed to centuries of primacy in its home region. External aggression rankled less.
Second, the US was a loose federation of states, not an imperial dynasty. The seat of national government was not a touchstone for national consciousness the way the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace pervade Chinese national memory. Furthermore, the White House was known as the “Executive Mansion” into the late 19th century. Torching an edifice bearing such a banal name aroused only short-lived rancor.
Third, the War of 1812 was a one-off thing, not part of a long-running pattern of exploitation. By 1838, in fact, Abraham Lincoln (who later became US president) could confidently proclaim, “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth [our own excepted] in their military chest; with a [Napoleon] for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” Heady stuff.
Nor was the war’s outcome disgraceful in the manner of a Boxer Rebellion, when the defenders barely put up a fight. US forces struck back as the conflict wound down. The military result was a draw at best, but General Andrew Jackson’s heroics at the Battle of New Orleans helped the US salvage its pride. Imperial China had no “Old Hickory” to remove the sting from defeat.
Precisely because history has largely exempted the US from humiliation at foreign hands, it takes extra work for Americans to comprehend the motives of nations not so historically blessed. If China analysts strive for empathy, they may be less shocked when innocuous--seeming words or deeds elicit a strong response.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
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