Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 by Odd Arne Westad

I recently completed Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.  Although it took me a while to read it due to its length (469 pages), I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Here is a brief description of the book from the publisher:

As the twenty-first century dawns, China stands at a crossroads. The largest and most populous country on earth and currently the world’s second biggest economy, China has recently reclaimed its historic place at the center of global affairs after decades of internal chaos and disastrous foreign relations. But even as China tentatively reengages with the outside world, the contradictions of its development risks pushing it back into an era of insularity and instability—a regression that, as China’s recent history shows, would have serious implications for all other nations.

In Restless Empire, award-winning historian Odd Arne Westad traces China’s complex foreign affairs over the past 250 years, identifying the forces that will determine the country’s path in the decades to come. Since the height of the Qing Empire in the eighteenth century, China’s interactions—and confrontations—with foreign powers have caused its worldview to fluctuate wildly between extremes of dominance and subjugation, emulation and defiance. From the invasion of Burma in the 1760s to the Boxer Rebellion in the early 20th century to the 2001 standoff over a downed U.S. spy plane, many of these encounters have left Chinese with a lingering sense of humiliation and resentment, and inflamed their notions of justice, hierarchy, and Chinese centrality in world affairs. Recently, China’s rising influence on the world stage has shown what the country stands to gain from international cooperation and openness. But as Westad shows, the nation’s success will ultimately hinge on its ability to engage with potential international partners while simultaneously safeguarding its own strength and stability.

An in-depth study by one of our most respected authorities on international relations and contemporary East Asian history, Restless Empire is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the recent past and probable future of this dynamic and complex nation.

In order to understand the book more, I think it is important to understand the author.  Westad is a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  He has held visiting fellowships at Cambridge University, Hong Kong University, and New York University and has published several books, including The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times.

I did not take the book as a groundbreaking study of Chinese relations with the world.  I took it as a great introduction to Chinese history from 1750 to the present.  Although the initial 50 years is a little scant, Westad more than makes up for that paucity in his discussion from 1800 onward.

Westad highlights three eras in Chinese international relations during the time period from 1750 to the present – fluctuations between embracing the world and sharp turns inward.  These eras are as follows:  British opening of China and European exploitation; Guomindang rule of China as a republic; and Chinese Communist rule to the present.  In each of these eras, Westad succinctly describes the important events between China and the world.  For example, in the first era when China was opened by the British beginning in the 1830s with the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars.  Westad summarizes the position of the British (opening China to British trade – particularly opium) and the Chinese under the Qing  Dynasty (protecting its population from opium and foreign exploitation).  This initial opening was further exploited by the British and other countries, primarily European, but eventually including Japan and the United States to a lesser extent.

During the three eras, Westad focuses on Chinese relations with the rest of Asia, but also with Western nations. He pays particular attention to its relations with Japan, Korea, India, and the United States.  He adds a smattering of references to China’s relationship with dictatorships in Africa.

I enjoyed the entire book, but I particularly appreciated viewing Chinese international history through the eyes of the Chinese.  It is so easy to judge a country from the perspective of your own country, but you get a better perspective of a situation when you see an opposing country’s viewpoint.  Westad has done that when discussing the relationship between the Chinese and American governments.  Based on their history of exploitation by foreigners, it is no wonder that the Chinese view the American government with deep suspicion.  They embrace American commerce, but they are wary of the American government’s intentions.  By no means do I endorse the communist view of the world, but I can understand it better.

Another strength of the book is Westad’s objectivity.  He criticizes the various Chinese governments when they did something incredibly stupid (such as the Great Leap Forward).  However, he also gives praise when the government does something rational – the embracing of capitalism to increase the economic strength of the country.

In short, the book is a great introductory read for novices of Chinese international relations.

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