Treaties - overview

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Treaties, like today's corporate contracts, are seldom concluded between "equals", although legal fiction holds that they are. Differences in power, whether ascriptive, monetary, or physical, permeate every aspect of treaty making.

Chinese historians, Chinese governmental authorities and indeed, the Chinese populace as a whole, are very much aware of this fact, and their tendency to raise the matter in one form or another on occasions which may seem to non-Chinese to have nothing to do with such inequalities, may make their bahavior seem odd.

However, the Chinese have had a good deal of historical training in this area, and history is taught well in China. As Burton would say: "The locals will remember."

Chinese historians classify past treaties with China as "Equal" and "Unequal". The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689), the first-ever treaty signed between "China" and an external authority, they accept as an "Equal" treaty between the Qing empire and Russia. The Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing; 1842), they call "Unequal." Why? Because it was signed only after a clear demonstration of Britain's superior power; i.e., after a punishing war in which Chinese ships, normally used to do little more than pursue and capture pirates in China's southern waters, were demonstrated to be no match at all for British ships, long the masters of the world's oceans. (Had British—or any other European—military forces approached China from the north by land routes, the results would have been quite different!)