The latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine carries an article on the inevitability of China becoming the next superpower, one of a mounting cascade of articles on America’s decline and China’s rise. For many Chinese, it is high time for their country to regain its rightful place in the world, after a century and a half of humiliation, beginning with the Opium War of 1839-1842 and culminating with the invasion and occupation of much of China by Japan 100 years later.

As Martin Jacques explains in his bestselling “When China Rules the World:” “China had already begun to acquire its modern shape in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ” and, a millennium ago, it was “the greatest maritime nation in the world.”

Chairman Mao Zedong used to enjoin: “Let the past serve the present, let foreign things serve China.”

Today, his successors are heeding his words. They selectively apply Marxism (a foreign import) to China’s needs and have resurrected Confucius, whose descendants’ corpses were dug up and desecrated during the Cultural Revolution.

President Hu Jintao has appropriated the Confucian concept of a harmonious society. But a harmonious society also has implications beyond China’s borders. In theory, when virtue prevails in the world, then there will be a harmonious global society.

This is the ancient Chinese concept of Tianxia, or “all under heaven.” The emperor, who was the son of heaven, was by right the lawful ruler of all under heaven, which can be understood variously as all of China or even as the whole world.

Thus when, in 1793, King George III of England dispatched Lord McCartney to see the Qianlong emperor about establishing embassies in each other’s countries to facilitate trade, the emperor saw this as a request from a tributary state.

Today, there is an attempt to revive this idea of Tianxia, with China of course in the center.

In May, Stanford University held a three-day workshop on the concept of Tianxia, which was defined as the Chinese vision of world order. The conference was sponsored in part by the Chinese government, through Stanford’s Confucius Institute.

Stanford said the workshop was meant to examine China’s new responsibility in the interstate world system.

This suggests that China sees an evolving world order with itself at the center. Other countries would offer respect and deference to Beijing while the Middle Kingdom would dispense largesse to countries that know their place and know how to behave.

Beijing is attempting to smooth its rise on the world stage by making use of traditional Chinese philosophical concepts, such as harmony and benevolence, to allay fears of an increasingly powerful China.

But in reality to what extent did Confucian theory affect the behavior of the Chinese government through the ages?

This was the subject of a book published earlier this year by Columbia University Press called “Harmony and War,” written by Professor Yuan-kang Wang.

Professor Wang’s conclusion was: “Confucian culture failed to constrain Chinese use of force. Instead, China was clearly a practitioner of realpolitik, behaving much like other great powers have throughout world history. Chinese decisions to use force were predicated on leaders’ assessment of the relative strength between China and its adversary.”

Would China’s neighbors be comfortable with a revival of the tributary system and treat China as their suzerain?

Perhaps they won’t have a choice but, at present, every indication is that even the Confucian societies in Asia are resisting China’s dominance.

Certainly Lee Kuan Yew, without doubt the world’s most distinguished ethnic Chinese statesman, rejects this scenario. He has called on the United States to maintain its military presence in Asia to balance a rising China.

“The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity,” he said. “So we need America to strike a balance.”

Referring to territorial disputes between China and small Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Lee referred to the dispatch by China of patrol boats to the area. “Later, behind these small patrol craft will be a blue-water navy,” he said.

This is the current response in Southeast Asia to China’s growing strength. If the United States should be unable to maintain its presence in Asia, the countries of the region may have little choice but to accommodate themselves to China’s wishes.

Then, we may see in the 21st century the re-creation of a system of international relations that disappeared hundreds of years ago, and that never actually worked the way that it was meant to do in theory.

– Frank Ching