We know what “old school” means, and we don’t say “new school.” It is because we assume, both consciously and unconsciously, repeating what once proved its effectiveness is likelier to be successful. Innovation is either a leap of faith of just a gamble. Foreign policy is the field in which people are most reluctant to be innovative; decision makers in particular understandably go old school. It is why studying the history of foreign policy is essential to making a prediction on future foreign policy.
Let’s take a look at China, such an unfathomable behemoth. Sometimes it appears to be packed with rational technocrats then it behaves like a ruthless conqueror. What is the adequate clue to understand Chinese politics? I would suggest the Ming dynasty for two reasons: one is the ethnic and nationalistic affinity between the Ming dynasty and the People’s Republic of China in terms of the Mandarin Chinese supremacy, and the other is the Chinese Communist Party’s strong obsession with geopolitical hegemony is very similar to the Ming dynasty’s foreign policy. In other words, the Ming way is Modern China’s old school.
Since the Song dynasty, the Mandarin Chinese had been ravaged and dominated by the “barbarians,” most notably the Mongolian Yuan dynasty; the Mandarin Chinese took back the control over the Chinese Mainland when Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Empire in 1368. Ming China enjoyed the power vacuum in Asia as no major competitors except the Japanese pirates had challenged its authority for three centuries. Unlike the Mongolians, the Ming Empire did not wage a major war of conquest: its major military expeditions were strategically defensive. The basic attitude of the Ming foreign policy was isolationism. Unlike the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, however, the Ming Empire did not rely on a closed-door policy based on its geographical seclusion but employed hegemony-driven isolationism. The Ming Empire happened to be the only hegemon in Asia and its best interest was to keeping its geopolitical supremacy without clashing other civilizations.
The Ming Empire carried out two hegemonic policies to secure isolationism: displaying its military might and collecting tributes from vassal states. The voyages of the Ming treasure fleet, from 1371 to 1436, were irrational in terms of investment and return. The Ming treasure ships were not the merchant marine but the full-scale fleet. The voyages were neither for territorial expansion nor for trade. It is mysteriously unclear why the emperors continued the expensive expeditions. The material gains from the voyages were the tributes collected from various civilizations, and yet the tributes did not contribute significantly to the imperial finance. Thus, the voyages were to serve political interests rather than economic interests. By collecting tributes, the Ming emperors assumed that the “vassal states” recognized their supremacy – a typical Sinocentric worldview. Isolationism secured by geopolitical hegemony is the Ming legacy and what the Chinese Communist Party aims to fulfill: the hegemon can intervene in vassal states’ politics but not vice versa. The People’s Republic of China’s ostentation of military presence in the South China Sea and economic retaliation against South Korea indicate that China tries to establish the hegemon-vassal international order. The crucial difference is, however, the Ming dynasty had not had a formidable rival until the Manchus started the anti-Ming campaign in 1582 whereas China has already several geopolitical competitors, namely the United States, Japan, and India.
Not every old school solution is the best solution. Although the Ming dynasty’s old school isolationism appeared splendorous, there are more than one reason that the People’s Republic of China should not go the Ming way. The Great Leap Forward was an isolationist nightmare. The Ming dynasty relied on the agriculture-based closed economy whereas the modern Chinese economy highly relies on international trade. China’s military expenditures to implement the hegemon-vassal relations continue to grow on one hand, and the extensive international trade to finance the Chinese supremacy weakens the hegemon-vassal relations on the other hand. The Ming way is expensive to maintain; nothing damaged the Ming dynasty more seriously than the self-inflicting financial pressure did. The beginning of the end was when the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Joseon Korea, its vassal state, from 1592 to 1598; the Ming finance had already been pressured from its imperial extravagance, corrupted bureaucracy, and financially corrosive foreign policy. After the years of aiding Joseon, the Ming Empire was on the verge of bankruptcy and the emperors exploited the Mandarin Chinese, the main taxpayers. Rebellions by the Mandarin Chinese weakened the national defense, and the hegemon state could no longer stop the invading Manchus, who eventually founded the Qing dynasty in 1644. In the same year, the Ming era was put to an end, not by the Qing dynasty but by the Mandarin rebel leader Li Zicheng.
The Ming Empire’s greatest challenges came from the East: Toyotomi Hideyoshi from Japan and the Qing empire from Manchuria. The 21st century is reminiscent of the precarious 17th century; China’s trouble also comes from the East but it is not President Donald Trump. It is Kim Jong-un. The North Korean dictator is shaking the Pax Sinica with his nuclear ambition and not even interested in playing the role of China’s vassal state. Should China go old school? It will be extremely costly to put North Korea back to the post of a vassal state. Perhaps it is a time for Xi or his heirs to seek a new strategy.