Americans have been present in the Pacific since the dawn of the Republic. At the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, the country consisted of just 13 states huddled along the Atlantic seaboard, but in the geography of sail navigation Boston and New York were just as close to China as were London, Liverpool, and other European ports. More importantly, the United States was by far the largest whaling country in the world, and with the Atlantic increasingly “fished” out, the whales were in the Pacific. The “Canton trade” with China and the whaling grounds of the northern Pacific made the nascent United States the second most important trading country in Asia (after England).
When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”
“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”
“Man cannot control the current of events,” remarked Otto von Bismarck, “he can only float with them and steer.” The great German Chancellor understood that it is much easier to design a grand strategy for international politics than to implement one.
Back in the 1980s, books about Japan became bestsellers worldwide, with the ascent of Japan from the ignominy and abject destruction of 1945 to the position of the #2 economy on the planet, with the #1 spot not far off in the breathless predictions of some at the time.
Discussions on the so-called “rise” of China at some point tend to cycle ’round to the question as to whether these developments are new or instead herald a return to a status quo ante, a consideration which depends in no small part as what that status quo actually was. That China was dominant in East Asia at least until the 19th century is subject to hardly any debate; there is less consensus as to what that dominance consisted of and whence it derived.