Strong China = Peace?
China’s military expansion and economic ascendancy may be good things, bringing stability to the East Asian region, a new book finds.
As China’s economic ascendancy and military expansion have prompted fears of a more aggressive China, a timely new book recasts the prevailing understanding of East Asian relations, showing how a strong China has historically created stability in the region, not conflict.
In East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, David Kang of the USC College contrasts the relative peace in East Asia when China was the unquestioned hegemon of the region with the incessant conflict in Europe borne of a system based on formal equality and balance-of-power politics.
Kang notes that from the founding of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 to the start of the Opium Wars in 1841, China only engaged in two large-scale conflicts with its neighbors, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. The reason for this was a formal hierarchy and tribute system, in which China’s neighbors explicitly accepted their subordinate status.
“The best evidence that secondary states saw China as legitimate are the voluntary adoption of Chinese and Confucian ideas and institutions; the absence of evidence that Koreans, Vietnamese or Japanese were smirking at Chinese behind their backs; and the use of the tribute system by the secondary states in their dealings with one another,” explains Kang, director of the USC Korean Studies Institute.
With the arrival of Westerners in East Asia, this tributary system of international relations came to be seen as “backward” or “despotic,” and was gradually replaced with Western notions of equality and sovereignty.
The version of events that is currently taught in schools — and which many Westerners accept at face value — is remarkably different from the region’s actual history, Kang writes. “In this new set of global norms, a subordinate position to China was ‘obviously’ a sign of weakness, even though it had previously been a sign of cultural and civilizational strength.”
Today China is reemerging as East Asia’s largest economic and military power. The anxiety over this development reveals the crucial difference between the present and the height of China’s hegemony in the region five centuries ago.
China’s rapid economic growth has led to intense questions about whether China can peacefully coexist with its regional neighbors and with the United States. Much of the debate about China’s rise has focused on its military power or its economic interdependence with the U.S.
“Though it’s natural for contemporary scholars to focus on yardsticks such as economic size and military spending,” Kang says, “the research presented in this book leads to the conclusion that the more important factors are the intentions and beliefs that states have about one another.”
In other words, the crucial thing about a hierarchy in international relations is not whether the hierarchy exists, but whether all nations view it as legitimate. China wants to be a leader — but leaders need followers, and whether East Asian states are willing to follow China depends not just on mere size, but on whether they view China as a stable, status quo country. In historical times, China was the unquestioned civilizational center of East Asia, but today that isn’t the case.
“By these criteria, then, China has a long way to go before becoming a leader. It has virtually no cultural or political legitimacy as a leading state,” Kang says. “Few contemporary East Asian states or peoples look to China for cultural innovation or for practical solutions to present problems, and although China self-consciously promotes its own soft power, the real question is whether other states and peoples will accept it.”
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