China’s Trade Surplus with the World & Accumulation of Reserves/银/Silver: Just the last 10 years or more than 1000 years already?

After finally getting round to filling in the [Post-in-Progress] posting here, I wanted to add some quotes from the Andre Gunder Frank book there under a quiet comment.
But then I reckoned that while there is a time for polite protocol, sometimes you just have to tell it like it is.

So, am adding the quotes here as a post in its own right.
While the points presented here may again be difficult to accept for many (I know, this recent series of ‘distorted lens’ posts have been tough reading), try to keep an open mind and just note it for KIV later.
Who knows, perhaps in 30 years, a whole new generation in half the world will grow up learning the facts listed here as restored historical truths, from entirely new textbooks written from the opposite perspective from across the ‘hemisphere’.

From Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient: Global economy in the Asian Age (1998):
[As usual, my comments in red]

World Division of Labor and Balances of Trade [section on China in the World Economy]


Hamashita also argues that “the foundation of the whole complex tribute trade formation was determined by the price structure of China and … the tribute trade zone formed an integrated ‘silver’ zone in which silver was used as the medium of trade settlement ” of China’s perennial trade surplus (Hamashita 1988:17).

Hamashita’s rendition of the Chinese tribute trade system follows that of the Ming and Qing institutional codes. They distinguished and ranked–and, in response to changing circumstances, modified–geographical groupings of “tributaries” and specified their respective allowable ports of entry. These ranged from Korea and Japan in the north through various parts of Southeast Asia in the south and India in the west, and included Portugal and Holland. However ideologically intent on regarding the celestial Middle Kingdom [ie. 中国/China] as the center of earth, the Chinese were also realistic and pragmatic enough to recognise that commercial trade and its quid pro quos were a form of what they liked to term “tribute”, which others had to pay to them.

[…]the Chinese courts were then essentially realistic: others preponderantly did have to pay China for readily available exports that it considered of less value than the massive amounts of scarce silver shipped into China every year. That these payments were ideologically called “tribute” did not change their essential function, which indeed did express the commercial “tribute” in silver that others, including of course the Europeans, were obliged to pay to the Chinese in order to trade with them. […] but it rather accurately expressed an underlying reality: the entire system of multilateral trade balances and imbalances, including the subsidiary roles of India and Southeast Asia relative to China’s industrial superiority, acted as the magnet that resulted in China being the ultimate “sink” of the world’s silver! These bullion settlements of commercial transactions [and it is restarting again today, with China’s recent move this year to settle intra-regional trade within Asia, ie. with South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, in RMB; bypassing the USD and EUR altogether] and the center-periphery relations with and among Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, West Asia, and Europe and its economic colonies played a central role in the world economy right through the eighteenth century. Hamashita calls them “a continuous chain of satellite tribute relations” among these regions. China’s central position probably did permit its internal price structure to exert significant influence…

[…] Hamashita (1988:18) is right when he insists that in order to do any business at all, Westerners had little choice other than to participate in the already established “tribute trade network”… However that is saying little more about de facto trade with China than what was the rule everywhere in Asia: the only choice the Europeans had was to attach their trading wagon to the much larger Asian productive and commercial train, which was steaming ahead on an already well-established track (or rather caravan and maritime network).
[In case any gent reading at this point wants to shout: Blasphemy!, just calm down and think dispassionately for a moment: why were Vasco da Gama, Magellan and all others after them, so desperate to find their own ways to the fabled Spice Islands and the mysterious producers of tea, ‘fine china’+ fired porcelain from the land of Cathay (and cut out their Arabian+Javanese middlemen)? And eventually, why were there eight nations falling over themselves to gatecrash the closed-door party along coastal China+Formosa?
The Western nations desperately wanted in on the gravy-train of the then flourishing global trade network, which was centered in China.]

Moreover, the Chinese “tribute trade network” in East and Southeast Asia was–and for two millenia already had been–an integral part of this wider Afro-Eurasian world economic network. What the Europeans did, was to plug the Americas into it as well.


The economic and financial results of the “China trade” were that China had a balance of trade surplus with everybody else, based on its unrivaled manufacturing production and export of silks, porcelain, and other ceramics. Therefore, China, which like India had a perpetual silver shortage, was the major net importer of silver and met much of its currency needs out of imports of American silver, which arrived via Europe, West Asia, India, Southeast Asia, and with the Manila Galleons directly from Acapulco. China also received massive amounts of silver and copper from Japan and some through the overland caravan trade across Central Asia.


So, the Sinocentric international order also absorbed commodities from outside China’s East and Southeast Asian “tributary” network. That means that this network itself was part of the world economy/system, and not a separate world onto its own, as Hamashita would have it. … The dispute is only about how far-reaching the economy was, of which China was central.

Ikeda (1996) also makes much of Hamashita’s “model” of a Sinocentric East Asia to counter received Eurocentrism and to offer a perspective that accomodates the resurgence of China today. … Ikeda speculates on the past, present, and probably glorious future of this Asian “world-economy”, but he is still unwilling or unable to see that both and other regional “world-economies” as well were all part and parcel of a single global world economy. That global economy may have had several “centers”, but if any of them (pre)-dominated over the others in the system as a whole, it was the Chinese (and not the European!) center. “China, not Europe, was the center of the world” writes Brook (1998) in the introduction to his study of Ming economy and society.

Some other observers have also noted the possibility that China may have been central to the entire world economy: Frederic Wakeman (1986:4,17) writes that “according to Channu, the Chinese domestic [seventeenth-century] crisis may actually have helped precipitate the global crisis: “It is the ups and downs of trade with the Chinese continent which commands the ups and downs of the galleon trade iself. … The Chinese polity and the society it governed were thus able to recover from the seventeenth-century crisis sooner than any major power in the world.”

Dennis Flynn’s focus on silver also leads him to recognize the centrality of China at least in the world silver market. Thus, Flynn and Giraldez (1995c) plead for “reserving a central place for China” and by extension its East Asian tributary system, which included perhaps two-fifths of the world’s population, in the world silver trade.

Elsewhere Flynn and Giraldez (1995b: 16,3) go on to say that “we view silver as a crucial driving force underlying the emergence of global trade” and therefore “we argue that the emergence of a new monetary and fiscal regime within Ming China was the driving force behind global trade in the early-modern period … in the context of a Sino-centered world economy.” That was certainly very much the case.

However, neither China’s–nor anybody else’s–hunger and thirst for silver would then (and still does not now) translate into effective demand for silver and money, unless there was (and is) an equivalent effective supply forthcoming, for which there is demand by those who can pay in silver or other money. [OMG! … Frank was right on the money when he wrote this in the 1990s; but could he have ever imagined the scale of this “hunger and thirst”, with the last 10 years of unceasing printing and supply of US Treasury obligations (silver), and China’s seeming insatiable purchase of these bills.]
So equally or even more significant is that China did effectively produce this supply of goods (including also some gold) thanks to the high productivity/low cost competitiveness of its manufactures on the world market.
[We’re all coming back to full circle now.]

Thus, we can and should make an even stronger case than Hamashita does: the entire world economic order was–literally–Sinocentric.
Christopher Columbus and after him many Europeans up until Adam Smith knew that. It was only the nineteenth-century Europeans who literally rewrote this history from their new Eurocentric perspective. As Braudel observed, Europe invented historians and then put them to good use in their own interests but not those of historical accuracy or objectivity.

–Andre Gunder Frank
ReOrient: Global economy in the Asian Age (1998)

What was it that Corsican Le Petit Caporal/Little Corporal has been misquoted as saying, about not waking the sleeping giant/dragon?

Peace y’all.