Norwegian historian says China must develop closer, stronger relations with its neighbors

Odd Arne Westad insists those who claim China has been inward-looking for much of its recent history are making a serious error.

The Norwegian historian believes it is a major fallacy that often leads to a completely false view of the former Middle Kingdom.

“Anyone in East Asia in the mid-18th century who said the Qing Empire (1644-1911) was particularly inward-looking would have been sent off to have their heads examined,” he says.

“This is not an inward-looking empire. It has imported technology and knows a lot about the outside world. It certainly knows much more about Europe than Europe knows about China.”

This line of argument is one of a number of themes in Westad’s new book Restless Empire, China and the World Since 1750, which despite being published only in September has already been critically received both in China and the West.

It challenges head on the perception that China became weak and lost the Opium Wars in the 19th century and other encounters with Western powers simply because it was unworldly.

Westad balances his argument, however, by saying that sometimes being inward looking is no bad thing.

“You have to be careful because today in China there is this idea that looking outward is always for the good and being more restrained in dealing with the rest of the world and looking inwards is bad. That is not always so,” he says.

Westad, 52, amiable and bluff with a heavy Norwegian accent, was speaking in his cramped offices in the IDEAS Centre at the London School of Economics, which specializes in international affairs and of which he was appointed director this year. Others who occasionally lecture there include historians such as Niall Ferguson.

He acknowledges examining Chinese history through the prism of the country’s international relations is an unusual perspective.

“I always wanted to do a book as a result of studying Chinese history and language that deals with a certain longitude in terms of China’s approach to the world. I thought it was important to have a book for English and Chinese-speaking audiences. There is nothing quite like it available at the moment.”

Although he speaks Chinese as well as Russian, German, French, English and his native Norwegian, Westad is best known for being a Cold War historian rather than a Sinologist, and so the book represents something of a departure.

He rejects, however, any idea China was somehow peripheral to the Cold War. “I think China at many stages during the Cold War is essential to how that conflict develops and ends up. Not least – as many people now forget – if it hadn’t been for the United States and China working together in the 1970s and 1980s, it would certainly not have ended as it did.”

It would be absurd to doubt Westad’s Chinese credentials for writing such a book. His first encounter with the Chinese language was at Oslo University and later when he went to Beijing as a foreign exchange student in the late 1970s. He now teaches students for the master’s degree in international affairs at Peking University for one month every year.

His language ability has also helped him delve into some primary sources for Restless Empire.

“I started working on this book about the same time as a lot of Chinese material both on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan started to become available. So I have been able to incorporate that a little,” he says.

“I am an international historian who has a need for the use of languages in terms of what I do. I approach languages as a historian would approach languages. I read it much better than I actually speak it.”

The book deals with the evolution of Chinese foreign policy to the present day, where it finds itself after a period of slumber having to take a position on a number of global issues as a result of becoming the world’s second-largest economy.

“If you compare the United States and China in terms of their growth as great powers, you find that the former learned very slowly in the 20th century that if you want to be in the center of international affairs, you have to be at the center of a system that integrates your neighbors.”

China is trying to develop a collaborative relationship with the rest of East Asia but he says it is difficult for China in its current stage of development to take on a global leadership role.

“I sympathize with those trying to create a Chinese foreign policy on concepts of Chinese national interest. I don’t think it is fair or to be expected for China in this generation to take up a global leadership role,” he says.

Much of the focus in foreign affairs is now on the relationship between the United States and China and how this is likely to play out.

Westad, whose next book will be The New Penguin History of the World with the best-selling historian Andrew Roberts, admits there is a love-hate dynamic to it, which is not dissimilar to the relationship between some European countries and Washington.

“There are lots of things (with the China-US relationship) that are seen as problematic that aren’t really problematic in the longer run,” he says.

“I think very often Europeans have a love-hate relationship with the United States in many ways. Look at the French, for instance.”

Westad says when he teaches in China some of his students have a sense of Westerners – particularly Americans – looking down on them, which fuels within them a certain kind of nationalism.

“There is an idea that outsiders are not really accepting them for what they are. They are not seeing them as equals. What puzzles me sometimes is a sense of nationalism is more developed today than it was in the China I first got to know just after the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76),” he says.

Westad does not agree with some intellectuals, such as the British author Martin Jacques, who argued in his seminal book When China Rules the World that we are now moving into a more Sinocentric world.

“It (China) has no need to create a specifically Sinocentric world because China today gets as much benefit from the way the international system operates as other participants in that international system,” he says.

“I think Chinese culture, including its language and philosophy, will be more central to the way the world operates. The world won’t be orientated towards China as one significant power. It would take a very long time for that to happen.”

– Andrew Moody