David Kang explores China's international relations within East Asia in the early modern period

Wed, April 1, 2009

Dr. David Kang's lecture explored China's international relations within East Asia in the early modern period, focusing on China's relationship with Korea, Vietnam and Japan, as well as with the nomadic peoples on its borders. He was particularly interested in the way the concept of hegemony was interpreted by the Sinicized states, and whether hegemony might have had distinctive characteristics in the context of East Asian international relations.

Dr. Kang first focused on the fact that, through almost five centuries between 1368 and 1841, there were very few military actions between China and the three other states in the Sinic sphere of influence. This is in contrast to the constant violence and instability between these states and the "nomadic" peoples to the north and west of China and Korea. Dr. Kang contended that Wohlforth's argument, which explains the relative stability prevailing between the East Asian states with the concept of unipolarity, cannot account for both outcomes. Dr. Kang proposed that the reason for the largely peaceful relations between the East Asian states was the distinctive features of Chinese hegemony, which established a stable order in which those states could interact. He termed this a "hierarchy within anarchy."

This order was not dependent purely on the size and power of China but more on the social purpose projected by China and the consequent legitimacy granted to it by the smaller states, which in turn benefited from the system. The East Asian States and nomads both operated within a unipolar system, but whereas the secondary states accepted Chinese authority, the nomads rejected it. The former operated within the order established by China and were therefore considered civilized. The latter in large part rejected Chinese influence, making them barbarians from the Chinese perspective. The rules of Chinese international relations were different depending on whether other states or peoples accepted fundamental norms established by China.

Hegemony was defined by Dr. Kang as a kind of hierarchy in which secondary states willingly accept limitations to their sovereignty by a larger country. For such a hierarchy to be stable, it has to have a legitimate social order or purpose. This legitimacy is granted by other countries and is therefore inherently social. If the secondary states find the goals of the hegemon acceptable, they will give it legitimacy and hence authority, where authority is defined as having legitimacy. Power alone is therefore not authoritative. At this point Dr. Kang posed the question of whether China's relationship with smaller states involved only pure power or had elements of legitimacy. He asserted that the Sinic states shared a common understanding of legitimacy. This understanding was based on the Confucian idea of relations, which places all people and groups within social hierarchies. As evidence of this, Dr. Kang pointed out the differences between the European model of formal equality of nation states and the East Asian model of formal inequality. China was ranked first, with Korea and Vietnam coming second, and Japan ranked much lower. This ranking was culturally based, with the secondary countries accepting China's leadership and their ranking within the system dependent on the degree of this acceptance.

From the East Asian perspective, then, legitimacy may be as important as power. Given these observations, Dr. Kang asked whether the United States is simply a superpower or has actual legitimacy. He suggested that avoiding conflict may depend on China finding a position in the U.S.-dominated Western system in which it is comfortable. Dr. Kang concluded that East Asia's experiences raise many new areas for research in the study of international relations, among them being the relationship between legitimacy and power.

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