A worker inspects a statue of the ancient Chinese voyager Zheng He in Shanghai in 2005. (China Photos/Getty Images)

As trade tensions rose between the United States and China last week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis took aim at China and its leader, Xi Jinping, suggesting Xi was attempting to revive a 400-year-old dynasty.

Speaking about various threats facing the United States during a speech at the Naval War College's graduation ceremony on Friday, Mattis said that China “harbored long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order,” pointing to a specific historical era. “The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding that other nations become tribute states kowtowing to Beijing,” he said, invoking the dynasty that ruled China from 1368 to 1644.

It was a relatively obscure historic reference for Mattis, who serves under an administration that often tends to justify its foreign policy in the simplest of terms. But by invoking the Ming Dynasty, Mattis appeared to be offering a high-brow warning about Xi's ambitions for the world.

Indeed, there are similarities. Xi's China is in the midst of an ambitious global infrastructure plan dubbed “One Belt, One Road” that will see billions of dollars spent around the world. Critics say that this plan is designed to burden foreign nations with debt and increase Chinese influence. Many of the areas of interest to the early Ming Dynasty are echoed by the modern-day “One Belt, One Road” projects. The Straits of Melaka between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra are one major area of recent Chinese investment, for example.

Xi likely sees parallels himself, though he would portray them more positively. The Chinese leader has played up the Ming-era expeditions of maritime explorer Zheng He — a Muslim-born eunuch who led a Chinese armada on ambitious voyages across the Indian Ocean in the early 15th century. At the Belt and Road forum last year, Xi said that Zheng and others were now remembered as “friendly emissaries leading camel caravans and sailing treasure-loaded ships.”

But if Mattis was hoping to sound an alarm about China's international ambitions, some experts argued that Mattis is inadvertently buying into the very historical narrative that Beijing is using to justify its moves abroad. “I personally don't associate any dynasties with contemporary China,” said Tansen Sen, a history professor at New York University Shanghai. “To do that is to accept the Chinese narrative of a 5,000-year history.”

Other China scholars said Mattis had a point, if a weak one. “There's been an academic discussion about whether we are seeing the revival of the tribute system” in modern China, said Tim Brook, a historian of China at the University of British Columbia. He was referring to the Ming-era system in which foreign countries remained independent but offered “tributes” or “gifts” to the Ming emperor to avoid conflict.

In fact, both Mattis and Xi may be glossing over parts of the Ming dynasty that don't suit their respective thesis. Though Zheng's adventures are now portrayed as missions of peace in China, many historians view them as aggressive attempts by a domestically insecure Ming emperor to assert supremacy over his neighbors. And while those attempts were often successful, they were also extremely costly — eventually prompting anger back home.

And even if Xi wanted to reassert the “tribute system” that flourished under the Ming dynasty, Brook said, “neighboring countries wouldn't accept it.”

Though Mattis has long stood out from his Trump administration peers for making more nuanced public statements about foreign policy, these complexities call into question what real lessons can be learned from the defense secretary's comparison. After Mattis's speech on Friday, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Paul Musgrave mocked the defense secretary on Twitter, jokingly suggesting that China would be “recruiting tens of thousands of eunuchs any day now.”

Yet Musgrave said he was genuinely worried Mattis would make the comparison. “Employing these kinds of metaphors, especially obscurantist ones, can also serve to foreclose policymakers' judgments, like when U.S. Cold War policymakers used metaphors like 'Munich' to justify why they couldn't seek accommodation with the Communist bloc,” Musgrave wrote in an email to The Post.

Of course, looking back to the past in a failed bid to find lessons for the present is nothing new. Michael Szonyi, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard, noted that the Ming dynasty itself was trying to revive a foreign policy that it mistakenly believed had existed in prior dynasties. “Now those who invoke the comparison with Ming make the mistake of thinking that the Ming model really existed in the Ming,” Szonyi explained. “They are likely to fail, too.”

“The past is always more complicated that politicians want it to be,” Brook said.

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