Pierre Asselin, of Hawaii Pacific University, discusses Sino-Vietnamese relations

The third annual Hoover Institution Workshop on Modern China, entitled “China and Its Neighbors: What History Can Tell Policy Makers,” was held during August 3-7, 2015. This year the workshop featured five speakers from the United States and Japan who evaluated the rise of China and assessed China’s impact on neighboring states’ policy planning. Workshop attendees presented their research to the Hoover/Stanford community as well as to scholars and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Participants were as follows:

Pierre Asselin (Hawaii Pacific University) considered the history of Sino-Vietnamese relations, with an emphasis on the period 1949-79.  He addressed the rise and fall of the alliance between Beijing and Hanoi during the Vietnam War as well as their brief but brutal border conflict that took place just a few years after the reunification of Vietnam under the aegis of communism.  The tensions that pervade the relationship between Vietnam and China today, Professor Asselin argued, have much if not everything to do with the burden of history.  For the Vietnamese in particular, the South China Sea dispute has become a paramount foreign policy concern owing not to the strategic and economic value of contested islands there but to the burden of history, which mandates that Hanoi never again be servile before Beijing, especially on matters affecting its sovereignty.

Steve Phillips (Towson University) argued that disputes over Taiwan’s international status and national identity could lead to a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait or even a Sino-American conflict. The leaders of an increasingly powerful and confident People’s Republic are adamant that the island is part of China awaiting reunification. Beijing has threatened to use force to prevent a move toward permanent de jure independence. On Taiwan, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party accepts the principle of one China and the promise of unification in the distant future. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party seeks eventual independence even as it hopes to avoid antagonizing Beijing. Each party explains the island’s future in part on an understanding of its past. 

History, as Professor Phillips maintained, is a way for us to learn about the island’s political development; it is also a tool used by nation builders to further their agendas. His presentation introduced Taiwan’s history through the lens of those who see the island as an integral part of China versus those who seek permanent separation from the mainland. Each side offers a straightforward narrative to bolster its case. One emphasizes Taiwan’s long-standing cultural, economic, and political ties to China. The other promotes an image that highlights conflict and separation across the strait. Policy makers will benefit from understanding these perspectives and seeing how Taiwan’s history combines elements of assimilation, ambiguity, and ambivalence toward China. china_workshop-3.jpg

Deborah Kaple (Princeton University) discussed the relationship between two socialist brothers: Russia and China. In the 1950s, China and the Soviet Union had a fraternal relationship, even calling themselves “big brother” and “younger brother” in each country’s propaganda. Professor Kaple played on this notion of family, arguing that the China-Russia relationship wended its way through four stages of familial ups and downs. In the first stage, younger brother China sought to imitate its elder brother, the USSR, and earnestly copied and mimicked the elder brother’s structural model. This quickly led to a midlife spat, during which the two siblings fought for supremacy as the younger brother struggled to become autonomous from the dominant elder. In the third stage, the older brother faltered, and the younger brother realized he could make his own path and avoid the elder brother’s catastrophes. In the fourth stage, the brothers switched places, as the former older brother Russia came back into the fold and found himself in the situation of having to learn from China, the younger, now dominant, brother. Russia had to adapt new rules that China set in the global system. As Kaple forcefully argued, what we see in the end is the now dominant brother China forging a new path but still retaining an important shared genetic makeup with Russia, who after all these years, is still his brother. These structural traits, Kaple noted, appear to be long-lasting and difficult to shed and continue to link China to its former brother.

Kawashima Shin (Tokyo University) raised fresh perspectives on how Chinese intellectuals and politicians in the Republican era perceived the traditional tributary system in the face of modern diplomacy. Young Chinese diplomats such as Wellington Koo and Alfred Sze intended to revise unequal treaties and restore lost national rights with the idea of removing China’s national shame. Although intellectuals and political elites including Koo and Sze wanted to restore the original China, they could not agree on what the original China consisted of. Regarding the tributary system, the image of traditional China’s external relations with neighboring countries was confusing. Whereas some deemed it negative in terms of China’s modern diplomacy, others recognized it as useful in countering Western imperialism. Professor Shin also discussed how the Chinese Nationalists such as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek viewed China’s tributary relations. His presentation raised crucial questions that are often neglected in existing studies of Chinese diplomatic history.

Judd C. Kinzley (University of Wisconsin at Madison) closed this year’s summer workshop with a discussion of the emergence and development of the oil industry in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. His presentation focused on the centrality of Soviet investment and planning in the 1930s and 1940s, which he argued helped set a pattern of development that continues to shape the political economy of Xinjiang. Those patterns have played a largely overlooked role in fueling recent interethnic tensions between Han Chinese and Turkic Muslim Uighurs in the region. 

For more information about the Workshop on Modern China, please contact the workshop organizer, Hsiao-ting Lin:, and coordinator, Bronweyn Coleman:

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