Long before the United States was inspired by its ideology of Manifest Destiny to pursue territorial expansion to the Pacific Ocean in the mid-nineteenth century, China had its own version of manifest destiny with the Silk Road that extended westward from Xi’an, the ancient capital of the Middle Kingdom. In America, Manifest Destiny was the national conviction that the United States had a divine mission to expand geographically westward to the Pacific Ocean in order to seize land, extract natural resources, and spread American virtues and cultural values.

Like an archetypal projection, some senior US government officials have recently invoked this sacred charge to describe China’s assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas. According to CBS News, the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2014 that China has been “quite aggressive about asserting what they believe is their manifest destiny,” referring to Beijing’s actions in the East and South China Seas.

Testifying on worldwide threats before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February 2015, according to The New York Times, the director reiterated that China was expanding its outposts in the South China Sea to include harboring ships and potential airfields as part of Beijing’s “aggressive” effort to exert national sovereignty. Underscoring Washington’s concerns over land reclamation activities and increasing tensions between China and the neighboring countries of Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and others over disputed reefs and islands, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the committee, provided supporting evidence that showed commercial satellite imagery of the expansion of Chinese occupation of Gaven Reef in the Spratly Islands over the past year. In May 2015, President Barack Obama sent the P8-A Poseidon, the most advanced surveillance and submarine-hunting aircraft, to monitor the reclamation of the artificial islands that China is creating in the disputed South China Sea.

The interpretation of these activities and concerns associated with the East and South China Seas, however, provides a useful but incomplete understanding of the complexities of these evolving foreign policy issues as they relate to Beijing. While one could easily connect these events to the pursuit of Manifest Destiny, it could also be interpreted as an exercise of the Monroe Doctrine, depending upon the lens through which one views this imbroglio.

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

Clapper’s use of “Manifest Destiny” was clearly a contextual reference born out of the American Experience, and meant as a rhetorical device to inform Congressional leaders that, just as the United States exercised its territorial ambition and national will to expand America’s western frontier to the Pacific and beyond, Beijing likewise had its own strategy for territorial enlargement. In the eyes of the West, Beijing’s continuing conflict with Japan, escalated by the establishment of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in November 2013, as well as its aggressive reclamation projects in the South China Sea, is prima facie evidence of China’s ambition to extend and establish absolute control over the sea and air on its eastern periphery, and become the regional hegemon. One might imagine a Chinese version of John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress” with a hammer and sickle on the forehead of the diaphanous maiden advancing on the East and South China Seas in the name of Communism while all opponents of its cause fall back in retreat.
In the Chinese narrative, however, the Diaoyu (or Senkaku in Japan) islands in the East China Sea have been a part of its territory since ancient times, and current disputes over its sovereignty is a political fallout from World War II that must be redeemed. As to the South China Sea, the historical U-shaped “nine-dash line” based upon Xia and Han Dynasty records, as well as a 1947 map made by the Nationalist Kuomintang, establishes “indisputable sovereignty” over these waters, notwithstanding a lack of a formal claim supporting the nine-dash line. In essence, China is simply following the same historical footsteps as the United States with its own Ménluó—a transliteration of Monroe—Doctrine in the East and South China Seas. It is worth noting that whatever those claims may be, China has not been in any position to impose its sovereignty over these maritime territories, militarily or economically, until recently.

As these confrontations become more acrimonious and volatile, China appears to feel less constrained by having to navigate the contours of diplomacy to negotiate its claims. With trillions of dollars in reserves and a military increasingly capable of power projection, China appears to find the Melian Dialogue (by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War) far more useful and efficient to its designs than the negotiating table. In its part, the United States continues to exercise America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) as well as the surveillance of Chinese activities. It does not take much to see that when these mutual antagonisms are complicated by routine commercial traffic, the situation will eventually be ripe for an incident in the manner of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor in the Sea of Japan in 1983.

The importance of the South and East China Seas is hard to overstate. More than half of the world’s oil tankers as well as merchant ships travel through this maritime region. It is one of the busiest and top ten container shipping ports in the world. The resource-rich South and East China Seas are also surrounded by energy-importing and export-led Asian Tiger economies. Much of these trade and transportation linkages is also closely connected with the economies of the US and other Pacific nations. If there is a possible conflict, there is general recognition that virtually everyone will be losers with no clear winners. The question is then raised, for whom would a potential war in this region be of most benefit? Will our policymakers on both side of the Pacific unite and seek a greater public good that has already raised millions out of abject poverty, or will we all “run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it,” as Pascal had warned in Pensées?

Irreconcilable Differences?

It would be difficult to convince anyone that two philosophical, political, and cultural antipodes such as the United States and China could possibly have any shared values or interests. To begin with, the United States is only about 240 years old; virtually a rounding error in comparison to the age of China, albeit the late Premier Zhou Enlai, in one of his first meetings with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1971, would strike a conciliatory tone toward America by suggesting that China was younger than the United States since China was only 22 years old, dating from the founding of the new People’s Republic of China (Kissinger, On China, 2011). The United States is a polyglot society with largely a Judeo-Christian history. Originally established as a consequence of Americans seeking to free themselves from the yoke of European and colonial powers, the Founding Fathers of the United States created a republic “under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

China, on the other hand, is a civilization that has existed for millennia. The famed Sinologist Lucian Pye at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology once opined that, even in modernity, China remains a “civilization pretending to be a nation-state.” It is largely a homogeneous society with a long history of various religious and philosophical beliefs that gravitated primarily around the Daoist traditions and Confucian values. It was finally united as a nation-state by the Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949 after centuries of internecine warfare under feudal warlords and ideological factions.

Given these historical differences and political orientations, the contributions that China has made to the world are largely drowned out in the din of jingoism today. To be sure, China’s early contributions had certainly been recognized by our Founding Fathers. Contemptuous of European powers and their aggression on American colonies, Benjamin Franklin had turned to China for inspiration and said, “Chinese are regarded as an ancient and highly civilized nation.” Franklin further suggested that he wanted the United States to be governed by a meritocracy based on learned men with moral virtues, according to “what Confucius proposed to the princes” and “according to this [Confucian] model” for a “happy and flourishing empire” in America (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1737). Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, wrote that “this country may be improved beyond” what “might have been expected” if we could be “so fortunate as to introduce the industry of the Chinese, their arts of living and improvements in husbandry, as well as their native plants, America might in time become as populous as China, which is allowed to contain more inhabitants than any other country.” Others, such as George Washington imported Chinese plants for his Mount Vernon estate and Thomas Jefferson adapted Chinese architectural designs for his Monticello residence. The transcontinental railroads were not only constructed using Chinese laborers, but also required capital investment from Howqua; the richest and most powerful of the Cohong merchants in China, who had invested heavily in American railroads (and had profitable trade relations with the Boston Brahmin family of John Murray Forbes, 1813-1898; the wealthy ancestors of US Secretary of State John Kerry).

China’s later contributions to the West, however, have largely been swept away as inconvenient narratives in the broader sweep of Cold War history. In World War II, China was the first to face Japanese aggression, fighting alongside American and British forces in Burma trying to secure the Stilwell Road—a major logistical route to Kunming in Yunnan province. China’s reward in the aftermath was a seat at the United Nations Security Council; hardly just compensation for the tens of millions of lives lost and displaced through Japanese atrocities that included biological experimentation. In World War I, thousands of Chinese gave their lives in Flanders Fields on behalf of the Allies, thousands more are buried in Liverpool and the Commonwealth war cemeteries. One hundred and forty thousand in all labored on the Western Front digging ditches, working in armaments factories, docks, and rail yards or worked as interpreters. So inconvenient is the Chinese Labor Corps to the World War I historiography, that they have been called “the forgotten of the forgotten.”

As a consequence of the latest confrontations in the East and South China Seas, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and other headline grabbing news, attention has been diverted from these contributions to those Cassandras calling on the US to prepare for an inevitable conflict with China. This is not only dangerous, but myopic, since there are significant areas of shared interests that are critical to the welfare of both nations, of core national interests, and serve as a virtual sine qua non to what it means to be a functioning society in the twenty-first century. This shared interest has been a part of Chinese history for thousands of years, and has been a part of the historical narrative of the United States even before the birth of our nation. Yet, it is not uniquely Chinese nor is it American. It is intrinsic to all humans, and it is a part of what it means to be a human being. It is the natural desire to engage in trade and commercial intercourse.

Manifest Destiny in Historical Context

In March of 1776, a few months before the Continental Congress announced their independence from the British Empire, Adam Smith had published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in which he observed that, as a consequence of the division of labor, humans have developed the natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” It is no surprise then, that his contemporary and one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, would declare in Common Sense, that for the new republic, “Our plan is commerce...Her trade will always be a protection.”

The Commerce Clause (trade “with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes”) in the US Constitution enshrined the founding vision that would serve as a binding mechanism of all thirteen states despite their religious, ethnic, and racial divisions; just as the commerce-driven ancient Silk Road served as a “melting pot” of Cosmopolitan China, the pinnacle of Chinese splendor during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Signaling this new commercial policy orientation and departure from Europe, the purpose-driven trading nation dispatched the Empress of China from New York Harbor to Canton (Guangzhou) on President George Washington’s Birthday in 1784, establishing the “commercial republic” three years prior to the adoption of the US Constitution. Indeed, a number of wealthy families from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina flourished in the international culture of exporting American ginseng and fur while importing Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain (i.e., “Chinaware”).

The fairly peaceful and mutually beneficial Sino-American trade and investment relations continued until the first Opium War in the 1840s when both nations began to turn inward and China became preoccupied with the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) while the rupture in the United States led to our Civil War (1861-65).

While promoting commerce, the Founding Fathers also cautioned against foreign entanglements. In his Farewell Address (1796), President George Washington had cautioned “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. . .It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” Jefferson also made his Inaugural pledge, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.” With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, this was one of Jefferson’s specific charges to Captain Meriwether Lewis before sending him and his close friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark, on their now famed expedition to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent [to the Pacific Ocean and to China] for the purposes of commerce” and to materialize Jefferson’s vision of Empire of Liberty through “a commercial intercourse.”

Empire of Liberty or Celestial Empire?

Thus, our national mission of going westward from the eastern Atlantic seaboard was as natural a phenomenon of Manifest Destiny in America as the “Mandate of Heaven” in the Middle Kingdom. Such belief systems on both sides of the Pacific Ocean were inherently associated with the concepts of the Mandate of Heaven (representing the emperor as the “Son of Heaven”) in China or “Nature’s God” in America. The latter notion of Nature’s God was hallowed in America’s founding documents, and is understood to be a belief in God based upon the observation of nature and not through any specific religion.

This is in no way to suggest that the legacy of Manifest Destiny left no scars. The annexations led to wars with Mexico and Spain, displaced Native Americans (even after the infamous “Trail of Tears” under President Andrew Jackson), and created tensions in western settlements with Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush in California. The popular slogan of Manifest Destiny at that time, “it was God’s will for the US to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean,” led the United States to expand its western frontiers to annex Hawaii followed by the Philippines, Guam, and other Pacific islands to create an Empire of Liberty.

On the other side of the Pacific, the Middle Kingdom had its own perennial conviction of creating a “Celestial Empire” with commercial endeavors and economic enterprises. The Chinese concept was operationalized through the expansive trade network of the ancient Silk Road and tributary exchanges with foreign countries throughout Eurasia and beyond. Extending more than 4,000 miles, the Silk Road derived its name from the profitable Chinese silk trade with Central and South Asia that began during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

A great number of foreign merchants and missionaries representing myriad religious beliefs came to China for spiritual fulfilments and trading purposes. The ancient capital city of Xi’an (or Chang’an) as well as other commercial cities such as Chengdu, Guilin, Hangzhou, Lanzhou, and Luoyang were also developed, along with sacred sites of worship for Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, and other religious offshoots, including Nestorian Christianity. From the coastal cities of major rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, and Pearl Rivers, Chinese ships traveled through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to reach Africa, Asia, and the Persian Gulf region—long before Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer of America, was born in 1451.

Until the end of Qing Dynasty in 1911, China used round metal coins with a square hole in the center. The square represented the earth and the circle signified the heavens. This medium of trade and commerce essentially symbolized the cosmic heaven-earth union through which the Chinese Celestial Empire needed to build and expand westward, allowing other cultures within different territories to communicate and trade among the various parts of the Middle Kingdom. The center of commercial and diplomatic power resided in the Dragon Throne of the emperor, which signified supreme harmony, peace, and prosperity.

The expanding Silk Road and commercial civilization became legendary in China with the publication of The Journey to the West during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The central figure in this classic Chinese novel, the Venerable Xuan Zang, was a Buddhist monk who traveled on the Silk Road to the “Western Regions” during the Tang Dynasty. In his recorded nineteen-year journey (626-645 AD) through Central and South Asia (to Sri Lanka), the scholarly monk witnessed the rise of a Cosmopolitan China where traders and pilgrims from numerous nationalities created a commercial civilization together along the Silk Road.

The folklore of The Journey to the West narrative has been intrinsically rooted in the conscious movement of Chinese people and the “Chan” religion that combined Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophies and rituals; the latter being an import from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and ancient India, the birthplace of Buddha. The prosperous Tang Dynasty epitomized the transcontinental power of trade and commerce that made the Celestial Empire a reality for China.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Admiral Zheng He, a devout Muslim of Mongolian descent from Yunnan province, embarked on seven well-known expeditions (1405-1433 AD) reaching the shores of East Africa and the Middle East (including the holy Muslim city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia) through the “Western” or Indian Ocean. His primary goal was to inform the distant cultures of Chinese splendor as he announced the Mandate of Heaven that was bestowed on the emperor, and extended the Celestial Empire’s tributary system for cordial diplomatic and commercial relations. While the relatively peaceful treasure voyages of Admiral Zheng were neither consequential nor transformative in the end, the Ming dynasty’s maritime innovations and navigational technology during the development of the maritime Silk Road have been celebrated as historic, entrepreneurial, and superior to those originating in the West.

While the nature and origin of these land and sea routes varied in their developmental phases, the two historical examples of the Ming and Tang Dynasties are still powerful narratives for developing a sense of “Chinese exceptionalism” and divine destiny for the revival of the Celestial Empire. In this context, Beijing’s restoration of an ancient “manifest destiny” is, in some respects, a precise characterization of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Silk Road trade strategy (i.e., the “One Belt, One Road” policy) in the twenty-first century.

The Sino-American relationship waned during the ensuing years of two World Wars, the Cold War, and other regional conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Moreover, divergent political ideologies and misunderstandings between China and the United States prevented the revival of previously existing commercial and trade dealings, which were not restored until President Richard Nixon normalized relations between the two nations in 1972. With President Deng Xiaoping’s trade liberalization and economic opening in the 1980s and Beijing’s entry into the American-led World Trade Organization (WTO) under President Bill Clinton in 2001, the growing Sino-US commercial interactions have been mutually advantageous and have driven the world’s economy to create a new global middle class—an unprecedented achievement in human history.

The Silk Road and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

China, increasingly assertive and possessed of its own manifest destiny, is now viewed as a rising power not unlike the United States was in the nineteenth century with its own Manifest Destiny. But one should not assume that the corollary is a military confrontation. While American concerns are justified that intentions can change overnight but capabilities take years to build; nevertheless, Henry Kissinger has indicated, “Conflict is a Choice, Not a Necessity.”

In the United States, tensions and conflicts between and among our fifty states and the federal government have always existed. In fact, it is the nature and story of America and the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. The challenges and tragedies have often presented opportunities for creativity and innovation, keeping the national union intact by trade and commerce. Likewise, the story of China—despite its struggles in Tibetans in Xizang, Uighurs in Xinjiang, natives in Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan in the Republic of China (RoC)—has historically been driven by the perennial Chinese consciousness of their ancient Silk Road strategy and commercial history in maintaining the Confucian union with its classic tributary system.

This millennia-old imperial tributary scheme had influenced China’s trading partners and neighboring nations to gravitate around the Sino-centric world order of the Middle Kingdom. The ancient tradition, which flourished throughout many dynasties until the early Qing Dynasty, still serves to underpin President Xi Jinping’s thinking on his Twenty-first Century Silk Road and Economic Belt initiatives with a constellation of China-led infrastructure development projects and trade strategies in Asia and beyond.

Western media today tend to sensationalize Chinese and American disputes in the East and South China Seas while conveniently overlooking the progress that has been made in Sino-American relations. The establishments of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the US-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade are only two examples of high level engagement critical to cooperation. Differences, in fact, are not unlike the disagreements and conflicts that often arise in American interstate commerce or land and economic rights with Native Americans within the United States. The trade competition (and strategic cooperation) employed by the Obama White House’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), President Xi’s New Silk Road, and a host of Free Trade Agreements (both bilateral and regional pacts with China and the US separately) need to be understood through the historical lens of commercial vision, Nature’s God, and the Son of Heaven metaphors to bring people together through trade and commerce as it was originally intended—not by any religion, ethnicity, political ideology, or a common language.

The visionary battle of international commerce between TPP and the Silk Road (by its extension through President Xi’s creation of AIIB and the Silk Road Fund) is now being played out on the global stage. These tectonic events poses a visionary question for America: Could our Jeffersonian leaders in the nation’s capital have create an Empire of Liberty or pursued a Hamiltonian world with military strength and industrial might alone? The history of both nations clearly demonstrates that trade brings people together, whereas religion, ethnicity, and language fail to do so. With peaceful trade and industry, the nominally “communist” regime in China and “democratic” America seem to share a common link of commerce that binds them together.

Trade for "Interdependent" Peace

Learned policymakers on both sides of the Pacific will employ mirror-image trade strategies with the recognition of the evolving nature of consumer-producer and creditor-debtor relationship between China and the United States. The special offering of American Nature’s God or the Chinese Mandate of Heaven means that the Sino-American commercial interactions will require the two countries to exercise caution in interdependent trade diplomacy to maintain “interdependent peace.” The rule-based global trade architecture through the WTO would serve well as a mechanism to resolve differences, not rapacious or retaliatory competition, or military threat. Former US President Harry S. Truman, an influential global governance architect of the post-World War II, said:

"When Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over the water in the Arkansas River they don’t call out the National Guard in each state and go to war over it. They bring a suit in the Supreme Court of the United States and abide by the decision. There isn’t any reason in the world why we cannot do that internationally."

Just as the fifty states must resolve their own contested interstate and federal-state issues, the US and China must reflect on the legacy of their manifest destiny to forge a new commercial civilization that Nature’s God and the Mandate of Heaven has intended for them. President Truman appeared to capture this ordained vision when he said, “It will be just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for us to get along in a republic of the United States.” Despite the differences of prevailing political ideologies, the founding American project as a republic—not a democracy—is destined to bind through trade and commerce with the People’s Republic of China, and the potential conflicts and disagreements in Sino-American relations must be resolved by employing the likeness of Truman’s axiom, in which our interstate commerce disputes are settled—and governed peacefully.

The future of Sino-American relationship is, therefore, predicated on the continuation of establishing a more prosperous commercial civilization for the general welfare of all people. The Preamble of the US Constitution emphasizes that “We the People of the United States” need to “promote the general Welfare” and “secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” to “form a more perfect Union.” In this context, the enlightened Founding Fathers seemed to have mirrored the concept of the ideal Confucian theory of social order—the Grand Union—in The Book of Rites, in which Confucius (551-479 BC) said:

"When the grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky (tian-xia-wei-gong), they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability...Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent vision was secured for the aged...They showed kindness and compassion ..."

The future of Sino-American relationship is, therefore, predicated on the continuation of establishing a more prosperous commercial civilization for the general welfare of all people.

In other words, this benevolent Confucian concept of “tian-xia-wei-gong” can also be interpreted as “the people are the source of power” or “making the world under heaven impartial and common to all.” By invoking the Confucian philosophy, President Xi told the 2015 Boao audience in Hainan that China’s new vision of a Pacific world order, which encompasses “a harmonious and stable domestic environment and a peaceful and tranquil international environment. . .The Chinese nation loves peace and has, since ancient times, held high such philosophies that ‘harmony is the most valuable,’ ‘peace and harmony should prevail,’ and ‘all men under heaven are brothers.’” The latter resonates with what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the US Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal” in his vision of establishing an Empire of Liberty through commercial intercourse.

With all due deference to our Founding Fathers, it may be worth considering that the United States is neither a nation-state nor a civilizational-state; it is a replica of the world. That original vision, which created the American civilization with immigrants, has seemingly been lost in money and party politics. The question for sensible American leaders is this: Shall the “Indispensable Nation” return to its founding vision and still create its mirror-image of a Jeffersonian Empire of Liberty to benefit global citizenry through a commercial civilization? More to the point, in its current trajectory, will the “Indispensable Nation” remain indispensable in human affairs?