How China Sees the International Order: A Lesson from the Chinese Classics

March 18, 2021

Many Western analysts and international relations scholars take the intellectual and historical foundations of statecraft for granted. They invoke the “Thucydides trap” when pondering whether the world will be able to accommodate China’s rise and cite Machiavelli when thinking about Beijing’s practice of realpolitik. While these perspectives are important and useful, they tend to interpret the problem of Chinese global power in analytical terms derived only from the Western intellectual and historical experience. Chinese foreign policy thinkers know the Western canon, of course. But China has its own rich intellectual tradition that informs its statecraft just as deeply as the Western tradition informs that of North America and Europe.

The Chinese strategic canon contains sophisticated debates that cover most of the categories that comprise modern international relations. There are, for example, concepts analogous to Western ideas of both liberal internationalism and of realpolitik, or realism. But it is also important to understand at what points Western and Chinese concepts diverge. I argue that while Chinese and Western views are quite similar on the subject of realism, they differ on the subjects of international cooperation and the rules-based order. This mismatch is important because the strategic goal of the United States over the past three decades has been to somehow induce Beijing to abandon its own concept of a hierarchical international order and to submit to a rules-based and liberal one. A look into the Chinese strategic canon, specifically the story of “Zhu Zhiwu Persuades Qin,” shows why this goal is unattainable.

Introduction to the ‘Zuozhuan’

The origins of the Chinese intellectual tradition of statecraft lie in the chaotic time after 771 B.C. when the formerly unified Zhou kingdom began to disintegrate. Consisting of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, this time holds roughly the same position in Chinese political thought as the classical age holds in the West. These centuries saw feudal city-states vying by means of diplomacy and war to survive or dominate an increasingly anarchic world system. This experience brought forth one of the most important books of the Chinese canon, the Zuozhuan, a veritable treasure trove of statecraft, war and diplomacy. In “Trapped by Thucydides? Updating the Strategic Canon for a Sinocentric Era,” John Sullivan does an excellent job of introducing the Zuozhuan to readers of War on the Rocks and suggests that it can “help Westerners better understand many of Sun Tzu’s more vague pronouncements.” This essay responds to Sullivan’s point with a translation of one of the Zuozhuan’s most famous stories, “Zhu Zhiwu Persuades Qin.” The story shows how a small state saves itself from destruction and even prevails over much larger and more powerful adversaries by means of deft diplomacy. In doing so, it also sheds light on Chinese conceptions of realism and ethics in international affairs.



A little background: At the time of the events chronicled in the Zuozhuan, the smaller city states that emerged in the Spring and Autumn period were gradually destroyed and annexed into larger and larger states. Eventually, there were only seven very powerful kingdoms surviving in a world that resembled in important ways the European international system on the eve of World War I. The rulers of states such as Jin, Qin, Zheng, and Chu carried feudal titles like duke and earl, but they ruled as quasi-kings in their own territory and carried out independent diplomatic policies. Some of these rulers achieved the recognized status of hegemon, which meant that they had accumulated enough power and prestige in the world to act as the de facto boss of other states. In fact, there was de jure authority associated with the title, for the hegemon ostensibly acted in the service of the nominally plenipotent Zhou king. The story takes place in 630 B.C., when Jin acted as hegemon under the leadership of one of China’s legendary statesmen, Duke Wen. The interstate system at the time also had a form of ritual law that governed relations between feudal courts — but these interstate norms were coming under increasing pressure as the system fragmented and eventually descended into total anarchy.

Source: Wikicommons (Image by Hugo Lopez–Yug)

Finally, some quick geography and an introduction to the story’s cast of characters: As shown on the map, Zheng is a very small state situated between the much larger and more powerful states of Jin to the north and Chu to the south. Jin is allied with Qin against Zheng and Chu. Qin, meanwhile, is to the west of Jin and Zheng. It has sent its army roughly 100 miles through Jin territory to attack Zheng. As the story begins, Zheng, facing a Qin-Jin siege, sends an envoy to persuade Qin to break its alliance with Jin. Duke Wen is the ruler of Jin and the great hegemon of the age. Zi Fan is his uncle and adviser. The Earl of Qin is the ruler of the state of Qin, and the Earl of Zheng is the ruler of Zheng. Yi Zhihu is a minister to the Earl of Zheng while Zhu Zhiwu, the star of the story, is one of his diplomats.

A Translation of ‘Zhu Zhiwu Persuades Qin’:

Duke Wen of Jin and the Earl of Qin had surrounded Zheng because of Zheng’s lack of ritual respect for Jin and because of Zheng’s secret alliance with Chu, an enemy of Jin. Jin’s forces were encamped at Hanling and Qin’s were encamped at Fan’nan. The Zheng Minister Yi Zhihu said to the Earl of Zheng, “Our city is in peril of destruction. If you send Zhu Zhiwu to see the Qin Lord, Qin will certainly withdraw its army.” The duke followed his advice. But Zhu Zhiwu declined, saying, “Even when I was young and strong, I was not the equal of others. Now that I have grown old, I no longer possess the capability to act.” The duke replied, “That I was unable to employ you earlier and only now have come to you in an emergency is my fault. But if Zheng is destroyed, you, sir, will also have nothing to gain by it.” Zhu Zhiwu agreed to the plan.

By night, Zhu Zhiwu was let down over the city wall by a rope, and he ran off to see the Earl of Qin. He said to the earl, “Qin and Jin have surrounded Zheng. Zheng already knows it is finished. But if destroying Zheng had any benefit to you, my Lord, would I dare even to bother your attendants? To lead your army through Jin territory in order to annex Zheng — you know how dangerous that could be. What use is it to you to destroy Zheng only to annex our territory for Jin? Jin’s gain is your loss. If, however, you spare Zheng and make us the Master of the Eastern Roadway, we will supply all that you lack, and you will surely suffer no harm. Moreover, as you know, when you once did a favor for Jin, you were promised in return possession of the towns of Jiao and Xia; but Jin reneged. In the morning, Jin sent an army across the river and had by evening built fortifications around both towns. Now, then, when will Jin’s lust for conquest ever be satisfied? Once the men of Jin have annexed Zheng to your east, they will desire to extend their territories to the west. If they don’t take lands from Qin, where will they seize them? You will be dismembering Qin in order to profit Jin — perhaps you should think about that.”

The Earl of Qin was pleased and entered into an alliance with the men of Zheng. Qin sent its high officials Qi Zi, Pang Sun, and Yang Sun to command garrisons for Zheng, and the earl returned to Qin with the rest of his army.

Zi Fan, the uncle of Duke Wen of Jin, requested permission to strike the Qin army as it retreated through Jin territory. The duke said, “No. If it were not for our alliance with the Earl of Qin, we would not have reached the height of power we now enjoy. To rely on the power of another and then destroy him is not humane; to lose your alliances shows a lack of understanding; to change order into chaos makes no military sense. Perhaps we should return home.” And Duke Wen of Jin and his army also departed from Zheng.

Lessons from the ‘Zuozhuan’

This story poses two opposite views of the nature of international relations and statecraft. One view, represented by Zheng and Zhu Zhiwu, sees the problem in stark terms of naked self-interest and sees statecraft as an art of deception in an anarchic system. The other view, represented by Jin and Duke Wen, sees a system of states bound together by ritual and ethical norms and emphasizes limits on the legitimate use of force and the need for balancing.

In a desperate diplomatic maneuver, Zheng sends an elder statesman, Zhuzhiwu, into the Qin encampment to attempt to peel Qin away from its alliance with Jin. He succeeds in convincing the Qin ruler that Jin is both perfidious toward its allies and insatiable in its territorial ambitions. Qin’s ruler comes to believe that a Qin-Jin triumph over Zheng would end in Jin encroachment into Qin territory and is persuaded to flip his allegiance to Zheng. Zheng comes out the winner of the conflict. It not only avoids destruction but ends up vastly stronger in its relations with both Jin and Chu by means of its new alliance with Qin. Meanwhile, Jin emerges significantly weaker, as it now has ambiguous relations with Qin and has been thwarted in thinking that it could punish the weaker power of Zheng at will. More importantly, it is no longer able to wield its powers as hegemon as easily as it did before Zheng’s virtuoso practice of realist diplomacy.

Zheng’s appeal to Qin is based on two rhetorical moves. First, Zhu Zhiwu appeals to the self-interest of Qin by offering to guarantee, as “Master of the Eastern Roadway,” the flow of cargo along the east-west trade routes, thereby relieving Qin of geopolitical pressure to its east. Second, he convinces the ruler of Qin that Jin is insatiable in its desire for expansion and that it will eventually swallow up its own allies. Persuading Qin is a triumph of rhetoric over reality, for we see at the end of the story that Duke Wen is not as perfidious as Zhu Zhiwu claims. When Duke Wen’s uncle and adviser begs permission to attack the Qin army as it withdraws through Jin territory, the Duke refuses, on ethical grounds!

Zhu Zhiwu’s practice of realpolitik comes quite close to some of the key tenets of Western realism as articulated by such theorists as Hans Morgenthau. For example, Zheng’s actions adhere closely to Morgenthau’s second principle of political realism: “interest defined in terms of power.” Yi Zhihu and Zhu Zhiwu both balance power and interest in their respective roles as minister and diplomat. Yi Zhihu tells the Earl of Zheng that the balance of power is not in Zheng’s favor, as the state faces a siege by two of the great powers of the age. Zheng’s interest is in defeating the Qin-Jin alliance. But he does not advise a military response because Zheng does not possess preponderant power. He advises instead the prudent path of deceptive diplomacy to be carried out by Zhu Zhiwu. The diplomat’s appeal to Qin emphasizes both power and interest. Qin’s economic and security interests would be served by Qin’s breaking of the alliance with Jin in favor of an entente with Zheng and Chu. Zhu Zhiwu also argues that the power balance between Jin and Qin favors Jin, which eventually would end in Qin’s annexation. Power and interest coincide for both Zheng and Qin, which is the calculation that prompts the Earl of Qin to flip his alliance.

While Zhu Zhiwu portrays Jin as an amoral power motivated solely by ambition, Jin proves in the end to understand that there are moral and practical limits to the use of force. Duke Wen understands that his power lies not only in his own military capabilities, but also in alliances with other important powers. Attacking Qin would have ended all relations with that state and would have isolated Jin, possibly ending its status as hegemon. To Duke Wen, power is not simply a matter of military intimidation. Attacking Qin would, on the contrary, have been an unwise military error. Indeed, he justifies his decision on the grounds that it would not be humane (ren 仁), which implies a repudiation of the ethical obligations between allies that are the key underpinning of interstate order. Jin’s purpose appears not to be territorial ambition, as argued by Zhu Zhiwu, but rather system balancing within an ethical frame. Jin is willing to suffer a diminution of its dominant position in the interest of interstate ethical norms. One of Jin’s justifications for surrounding Zheng is Zheng’s violation of those norms. The word used in the text is “lack of ritual respect” (wuli無禮). Ritual is a key philosophical term used here specifically in the context of relations between states. It assumes the existence of legitimate moral and political obligations binding all states in a rules-based system of relations.

At first glance, the interstate order represented by the figure of Duke Wen appears to share key characteristics with modern conceptions of a liberal international order. Duke Wen’s realization that his military and political power depends on the cooperation of other actors in the system is an expression of what is now called reciprocity, the idea that interdependence requires deference and cooperation among states. This cooperation in turn requires interstate institutions and legal regimes and norms. Jin invokes these norms in its original charge of “lack of ritual respect” and organizes an expedition to enforce those norms — not unilaterally, but as a legitimate collective action sanctioned by Duke Wen’s status as hegemon, which carries the authority of the feudal king whom all heads of state nominally serve.

However, in the exchange between Duke Wen and his uncle about whether to attack Qin, we see that their concept of international order was ultimately hierarchical and political-ethical. In their view, the system was based on networks of hierarchical ritual obligations of deference between states that were embodied in political and ethical ritual and symbol, not in codified positive law designed to govern relations between equal international political and legal entities. This is a bedrock principle of China’s geopolitical worldview that has persisted through the centuries. Beijing’s conception of international order remains hierarchical and political-ethical to this day, and ritual and symbol remain extremely important. Beijing’s concept of an acceptable international order involves deference on the part of regional powers to China’s political preferences and security interests. More specifically, it involves their integration into an economic system of bureaucratic capitalism with socialist state planning that fosters “mutual benefit” under the aegis of Beijing as the hegemonic power.

Yet, American policy since the normalization of relations in 1979 has prioritized the integration of China into the American-sponsored liberal international order, understood as involving democracy, global capitalism, and freedom of international navigation. The administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama both sought to convince China that it was in its own self-interest to become not only a “responsible stakeholder” but also a key sponsor of the American order. This line of thinking was most recently reaffirmed by the anonymous author of “The Longer Telegram,” which asserts that the “foremost goal of US strategy should be to cause China’s ruling elites to conclude that it is in China’s best interests to continue operating within the US-led liberal international order rather than building a rival order.” This, as we see here, is at odds with the vision of international order articulated in the Zuozhuan and in centuries of historical experience thereafter. It is not simply that China sees the present liberal order as unequal and dominated by the United States. Beijing is asserting an entirely different geopolitical order as the legitimate one rooted in its own intellectual tradition and in its experience of Asian history.

Reading the Chinese strategic canon provides a perspective on Chinese geopolitical thought and practice impossible to achieve with methods derived from Western international relations theory or from the history of Western strategic thought. Analysis of the vignettes contained in books such as the Zuozhuan can help shed light on why Beijing has resisted Western calls to be a responsible stakeholder and can suggest ways to think through differences between Chinese and Western approaches to statecraft and diplomacy. These vignettes also highlight the need for a more comprehensive and global strategic canon. When we speak of Machiavellian realism, we will increasingly need to think of it in comparison to the realism of the Chinese tradition demonstrated by figures like Zhu Zhiwu. And when we consider the requirements of a rules-based international system, we will need to make the same comparisons with Chinese views of global order found in the philosophy and actions of Duke Wen of Jin and his successors.



David K. Schneider, a former Foreign Service officer, is associate professor of Asian studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is author of Confucian Prophet: Political Thought in Du Fu’s Poetry (752-757). His writings on international affairs have appeared in The Diplomatic Courier, American Diplomacy, China Business Review, Wikistrat, and The National Interest.

Image: Wikicommons (Taipei National Museum)