How have different cultures and peoples constructed their political communities and organized their international life in history? In which ways has order been differently conceptualized and pursued through a diverse range of institutional practices in different cultural and world historical contexts, and why? What were world orders like before the rise of capitalism and the expansion of Europe and the imposition of the Westphalian model? How is it possible to explain why different international societies, as we understand them today, have created different fundamental institutions and adopted radically different institutional designs in their pursuit of peace and cooperation across space and time? Why is it important to consider the transformation of international orders beyond European history in theorizing International Relations? From where does the current global order emerge in deep world historical terms? These are among a number of key questions raised in collective critical reflections on and re-evaluation of the theorizing enterprise within the discipline of International Relations (IR). They are questions that have been explored and interrogated during the last two decades as part of our efforts to understand the still unfolding systemic transformation of international relations. The search for answers to these questions marks a discernible turn in the studies of IR to History.
Ostensibly, this historical turn in IR theorizing is a critique of the Realist claim of ‘timeless wisdom’ and, more broadly, of the failure of mainstream IR theories to take history seriously. It is an expression of dissatisfaction with universalizing IR theories. Contemporary IR is said to be ‘historophobic’, as ‘it views historical analysis as superfluous, or exogenous, to the subject matter of the discipline’.1 Waltzian neo-realism is said to be ‘cleansed’ of history in the sense that history becomes ‘reducible to perennial anarchical structure’ in international relations.2 History matters in IR, if at all, only ‘as a field of data to be mined, for cases to be shoehorned in the pursuit of grand theory building, and for evidence of the cycles of history that realists used to mark historical time’.3 In a scathing criticism of the ‘underdeveloped conception of the international system’ in mainstream IR theories, Barry Buzan and Richard Little argue that conceptualization of the international system has been bedevilled by presentism, ahistoricism, Eurocentrism, anarchophilia and state-centrism.4 If Eurocentrism and ahistoricism are mutually constitutive, both Eurocentrism and ahistoricism in IR theorizing have made us oblivious to the simple fact that the fundamental institutions in contemporary international society—contractual international law and multilateralism—have, as Reus-Smit reminds us, been with us for little more than 150 years, and represent significant institutional variations from their predecessors.5 By the same token, both the so-called ‘Westphalian order’ and the putative transformation of global politics today (i.e. we are going beyond Westphalia) are historically contingent.
These criticisms suggest an imperative to develop greater historical and cultural sensitivity to the evolution of international orders and their transformations in world history. They encourage research to historicize the past as a way to understanding the present as problematic and the future as contingent on history. More profoundly, therefore, this historical turn necessitates reorienting and reconfiguring the substantive research agenda of International Relations, which aims at an ambitious disciplinary progress, i.e. to develop historically sensitive theorizing and theoretically informed international history.
It is in this intellectual context that growing interest has developed within the discipline of IR in the tributary system in East Asian history—the Chinese world order—not just as historians’ imagination but as an enduring historical puzzle. More broadly, there has been growing interest in the traditional Chinese political and moral thinking, in the philosophical discourse, in both Ancient and Imperial China, about peace and war, conflict and cooperation in relations between states and political communities, in the historical articulation of the Chinese vision of a world order and in the construction of institutions in regulating and governing the practice of international relations in East Asia.6
There are, too, compelling political and policy rationales for the growth of such interest. The rapid rise of China has caused ‘a cauldron of anxiety’7 within both academic and policy communities worldwide, and provoked fierce debate about power transition and/or hegemonic succession between the United States and China and the implications for the future global order.8 It has invited reflections on whether an emerging hegemonic China is likely to take the future of Asia back to its past,9 and, more recently, there has been a marked shift from a discourse of China's rising power to that of its purpose. ‘What will China want?’;10 ‘What Does China Think?’;11 ‘What kind of a world does China hope to shape?’12 and ‘What kind of world does China want?’13—these are new questions asked and debated in the media and among academics in Washington and European capitals. That such questions are bluntly asked and publicly debated testifies to the urgency and the importance of understanding how traditional Chinese worldviews, philosophical legacies and discursive practices in regard to international relations in Chinese history inform the present Chinese leadership of their visions of the future of global order and rising China's role in shaping this order.
Scholarship produced in China constitutes this historical turn in IR theorizing. In the Chinese epistemic community, the philosophical reflections of Zhao Tingyang on the traditional concept of Tianxia have caused considerable excitement as well as controversies.14 This best represents an intellectual effort in China to re-imagine the future world order by rediscovering Chinese intellectual and philosophical heritage. Renewed interest within China in exploring the theory and practice associated with the traditional notion of Tianxia has captured the scholarly imagination globally.15 It has also evoked a strong sense of unease, scepticism, anxiety and even suspicion of an unspoken political agenda to re-invent a Sino-centric world order and revive China's hegemonic ambition to dominate and order the world once more.16
In leading the efforts to bring scholarship produced within and beyond China on these subjects together on the same platform, The Chinese Journal of International Politics has made a special contribution to nurturing interest in ancient Chinese international thought and to encouraging and promoting a debate about the discursive and institutional practices in Chinese international relations in East Asia before the arrival of the European international society. Dr. Zhou Fangyin's article, ‘Equilibrium Analysis of the Tributary System’, published in CJIP in 2011, deepens and extends this debate and offers a glimpse of contentions and controversies in recent Chinese scholarship on the tributary system.17
Starting with a summary critique of the existing scholarship on the tributary system in China, Zhou sets out to unravel the central puzzle, which he defines as the stability and historical continuity of the tributary system.18 Noting that, ‘The value of research into the tributary system lies in its being not just an imagined system or a conceptual construct, but an actual configuration of institutions’, Zhou treats the tributary system as a set of institutional frameworks within which ‘the Middle Kingdom and the periphery states engaged in ongoing strategic interactions’. Using a game theoretical approach, Zhou attempts to construct a model that explains the dynamic equilibrium of the tributary system which represents, in his words, ‘a spontaneous order, an endogenous and self-reinforcing institutional arrangement of East Asia, which appeared and was reproduced as an outcome of continuous strategic interactions among actors within the region’. Throughout Zhou's theoretical construction and empirical analysis, there is an explicit assumption of states as rational actors who are driven by material interest and incentives in their strategic reaction and interaction. The equilibrium is, in his words, ‘the result of rational choice and strategic interaction among China and its neighbouring states’.19 Effectively, this reduces Zhou's conceptualization, as well as analysis, of the tributary system to a defensive mechanism for Imperial China, and characterizes the institutions embedded in the tributary system as ultimately no more than instrumental.
This last point is particularly clear in Zhou's selection of historical case studies. He gives rich historical details of both Imperial China's relations with Burma under Emperor Qianlong and its relations with the Korean Peninsula during the Sui and Tang dynasties. He focuses on examining the tributary system as a complex of institutional arrangements and practices for dealing with a particular security challenge to Imperial China, which could be defined as frontier pacification. As Zhou candidly states, such historical analysis ‘makes apparent the respective advantages and disadvantages of the tributary system as a strategy for maintaining border stability’. By taking this narrow focus, however, he fails to see these institutions as a more broadly conceptualized social structure with particular institutional innovations geared to solving a wide range of problems, among states in East Asia, of co-existence and cooperation.
This particular analytical bias, although possibly enlightening in one way, as Zhou clearly demonstrates, is at the same time self-limiting and, hence, unsatisfactory. In particular, it is devoid of any social analysis of the construction and constitution of the tributary system as a particular historical social structure in East Asia, or as a particular set of institutional and discursive practices that define, govern and regulate the so-called Pax Sinica. This is a tributary system, so to speak, without soul. Nevertheless, Zhou's equilibrium analysis of the tributary system has teased out two genuine puzzles of great theoretical interest. The first is that of the longevity, resilience, adaptability, malleability and relative stability of the tributary system. The second is the institutional arrangement, configuration and innovation associated with the system as a collective solution invented by and consented to among East Asian states to counter the perennial problems of inter-state conflict, co-existence and cooperation. Implicit in Zhou's analysis of Imperial China's relations with the Korean Peninsula during the Sui and the Tang dynasties is a suggestion that culture matters, and that internalization of the Chinese system and culture ‘played an important role in bringing about the equilibrium’.20
In the discussions that follow, we take up the challenges issued by Zhou. Before setting out our approach, it is worth noting that the use of the ‘tributary system’ as the key analytical term in the studies of China's traditional foreign relations, introduced by John King Fairbank, among others, has many critics.21 It is clear that the application of this analytical term in explaining how Imperial China conducted its relations with other polities and peoples is not unproblematic.22 Rather than abandoning the term, in order to transcend the limits of its traditional usage, we have chosen to conceptualize it differently in the following discussions, in international society terms, as informed and inspired by the English School of International Relations and constructivism. In so doing, we hope to offer a different, but ultimately complementary, analytical approach to unravelling the puzzles associated with the tributary system that Zhou has already partially teased out.
Instead of the instrumental reasoning and strategic rationale that Zhou focuses on in explaining the rationality of the tributary system, our approach emphasizes cultural elements and the social constitution of the tributary system. We look at the tributary system not just as a structure of strategic interaction and economic exchange between Imperial China and other participants in the system, but as an articulation of the existence of international society in East Asia, constitutive of a social order in East Asian history and politics. This approach is heavily influenced by the English School of International Relations and richly informed by the constructivist insight of fundamental institutions as constitutive of the normative foundation of international society. We, therefore, conceptualize the tributary system as an international society with its own social structure which embodies complex social relations among participating and constituent states, and which has a particular set of institutions that help to define norms of acceptable and legitimate state behaviour.
We contend that the tributary system is not just a defensive mechanism invented and exploited by Imperial China as a hegemon for its frontier pacification, as Zhou argues rather persuasively in his article, but more importantly, an institutional innovation by East Asian states as institutional solutions to a wide range of problems in inter-state cooperation. Rather than presupposing the instrumental and strategic rationality of the tributary system, we investigate the institutional rationality and moral purpose of the state in this Society. Instead of making an a priori assumption of China's superiority, in both materialistic and ideational senses, as a hegemonic state in East Asia with a historical reality, we argue that the Chinese hegemony does not exist outside social recognition by other states and interrogate hegemony as an indispensable institution in managing the tributary system. In contrast to Zhou's game-theoretical approach, ours is more critically reflective and interpretive. Our overall purpose is to suggest an alternative analytical perspective which, we argue, can significantly enrich our understanding of the tributary system as a historically and culturally contingent social order in East Asia.
Conceptualizing International Society
Hedley Bull articulates the classic conceptualization of international society. In his words, ‘A society of states (or international society) exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions’.23 To differentiate international society from international system, as conceptualized by the English School, Hedley Bull and Adam Watson later state that ‘By an international society we mean a groups of states (or, more generally, a group of independent political communities) which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behaviour of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others, but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements’.24 Bull further identifies five key institutions in contemporary international society, namely, the balance of power, international law, diplomacy, war and great power management, that help maintain and uphold a world order, which he defines as ‘a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society’.25 This conceptualization of international society is much more than Terry Nardin's notion of international society as ‘a practical association’26 can accommodate or would allow.
Extending the classical English School definition of international society, Barry Buzan defines the existence of Bull's ‘anarchical society’ in terms of ‘acceptance of the deep rules of the game that states share with each other sufficiently to form a kind of social order’. The most visible manifestation of the existence of such a social order, Buzan argues,27 is in the primary institutions that evolve to constitute both the players and the game of international relations, and, as Clark argues,28 to define what behaviour is and is not seen as legitimate. These organic institutions—such as sovereignty, non-intervention, territoriality, nationalism, war, balance of power, international law, diplomacy, great power management, the equality of peoples, colonialism—are composed of principles, norms and rules that underpin deep and durable practices. They are distinct from the more familiar secondary institutions (such as regimes and intergovernmental organizations) that are recent, instrumental, mainly state-designed expressions of the underlying social structure of modern international relations. Primary institutions form the social structure of international society, which is dynamic and always evolving, albeit usually slowly and with a great deal of continuity.29
Building on the idea of primary institutions, anarchic international societies at any level can be arranged along a spectrum from relatively shallow and thin to relatively deep and dense. The following four types reflect basic organizing principles inherent to increasing degrees of international social order:
Power Political represents an international society based largely on enmity and the possibility of war, but where there is also diplomacy, alliance-making and trade. Survival is the states’ main motive, and no values are necessarily shared. Institutions will be minimal, mostly confined to rules of war, recognition and diplomacy.
Coexistence represents a Westphalian system in which the core institutions of interstate society are the balance of power, sovereignty, territoriality, diplomacy, great power management, war and international law. States seek to retain both diversity and a degree of order.
Cooperative requires developments that go significantly beyond coexistence, towards the pursuit of specific joint projects. It can come in many guises, depending on the type of values that are shared and how/why they are shared. Examples of interstate cooperative projects might include the creation of a shared market economy, the pursuit of human rights, joint pursuit of big science, collective environmental management and the like.
Convergence means the development of a substantial range of shared values within a set of states to make them adopt similar political, legal and economic forms. The range of shared values has to be wide enough and substantial enough to generate similar forms of government (liberal democracies, Islamic theocracies, communist totalitarianisms, etc.) and legal systems based on similar values in respect of such basic issues as property rights, human rights and the relationship between government and citizens.30
In a scheme that runs partly in parallel with what Buzan labels as ‘primary institutions’, Chris Reus-Smit conceptualizes ‘fundamental institutions’. Such institutions are, in his words, “generic” structural elements of international societies’.31 They are authoritative because they embody ‘sets of prescriptive norms, rules, and principles that specify how legitimate states “ought” to resolve their conflicts, coordinate their relations, and facilitate co-existence’.32 What is perhaps most insightful is Reus-Smit's argument that these fundamental institutions are shaped by ‘higher order values’, which he calls ‘constitutional structures’ of international societies, metavalues that define legitimate statehood and rightful state action. ‘Constitutional structures’, in his words, ‘are coherent ensembles of intersubjective beliefs, principles, and norms that perform two functions in ordering international societies: they define what constitutes a legitimate actor, entitled to all the rights and privileges of statehood; and they define the basic parameters of rightful state action’.33 This view is supported by Clark34 who argues that ‘the evolution of specific legitimacy formations forms the essential history of international society’, where legitimacy is defined in terms of rightful membership and rightful conduct.35 Reflecting on the history of European international societies, Reus-Smit further posits that three normative elements are constitutive of such constitutional structures. They are: a hegemonic belief about the moral purpose of the state; an organizing principle of sovereignty; and a norm of pure procedural justice. It, hence, follows that as the emergence of international societies is contingent on different historical and cultural contexts, international societies vary in their constitutional structures, which inform the establishment of different fundamental institutions.36
That there existed an indigenous social order in the history and politics of what we call East Asia today is beyond dispute, be it called the Chinese world order, the tributary system, Pax Sinica, the East Asian order, international society in East Asia or any other. Acknowledging this is to recognize that East Asian states and peoples had historically chosen and established complex institutions and practices informed by their history and culture in dealing with challenges of security, conflict, co-existence and cooperation. As Adda Bozeman astutely observed, this social order, or ‘international’ system, ‘proved to be more enduring and successful than the comparable order of any other historical nation’.37 The question, then, is in what way the English School's conception of international society, as embodied in common institutional practices, can help us understand the tributary system as an institutional puzzle, and whether the constructivist insight of constitutional structure informing fundamentally different institutional practices in comparable international societies can shed light on, and be enriched by, the East Asian historical experience. The answer to these questions entails an analytical framework that takes the tributary system as informed, shaped and constrained by its constitutional structure. If this is granted, an analytical understanding of the historical and cultural particularity that underlies the framing of this constitutional structure is in order.
Culture and the Constitutional Structure of the Tributary System
Martin Wight once famously claimed that, ‘We must assume that a states-system will not come into being without a degree of cultural unity among its members’.38 This claim has been subject to critical examination, particularly in the light of the existence of a universal global international society today. One critical question that has been asked is whether, following Wight's logic, ‘a society of states lacking a shared culture because it has expanded beyond its original base will be unstable’.39 Wight's claim, however, seems to hold validity in a number of historical cases he chose to study, which Hedley Bull accepted ‘were all founded upon a common culture or civilization’.40 If, historically, common culture is prior to international society, as speculated by Wight, and if Reus-Smit is right that constitutional structure is a higher order value that shapes fundamental institutions of international society, it is reasonable to infer that shared cultures by different groups of states are likely to lead to framing and forming of international societies with different institutional designs and practices, whose constitutional structures vary as they are informed by different cultures and civilizational influences in different historical periods. Is this, then, what happened in East Asia historically? Given that China was historically the cultural heartland of East Asia, and that it was Imperial China that imagined, constructed and, to a considerable extent, sustained the East Asian order, the key question becomes: How did Chinese culture and civilization influence the creation and assertion of the constitutional structure that informs the evolution of the tributary system?
Prevalent in Ancient China was a moral conviction that the universe is one peaceful and harmonious whole. Such a moral conviction long predated Confucius and his contemporaries. It assumed a natural harmony between heavenly and earthly forces and projected an image of the entire universe as a world-embracing community. Central to the conception of this cosmic–social order is the notion of universal kingship. The Confucians, however, ‘restated and amplified’ this universalist thought.41 ‘The Confucian conception of tian xia’, in Joseph Chan's words, ‘refers to an ideal moral and political order admitting no boundaries—the whole world to be governed by a sage according to principles of rites (li) and virtue (de)’.42 This ideal moral order, in other words, has universal applicability. It follows that ‘the political order, being an instrument in promoting the moral order, is naturally seen as also universal, having no boundary of territory or of ethnicity’.43 This dominant Confucian discourse has exercised decisive and perpetual influence on the Chinese imagination of order and human agency in relation to this order. The preordained order of natural harmony in such cosmic unity could only be realized, Confucians repeatedly emphasized, when man's conduct correlated to it by observing strictly five important human relationships appropriately formulated. They were: those between husband and wife; father and son; older and younger brother; friend and friend; and sovereign and minister. All kinds of political conduct must conform to these norms within and beyond the family as well as the state and in the sphere of humanity taken as a whole.
This clearly suggests that the moral purpose of all political and social communities and institutions, be it family, tribe, state and empire, is to promote, establish and maintain moral and political order and social and cosmic harmony. This belief is deeply embedded and explicitly expressed in the Confucian worldview. As Benjamin Schwartz asserts, ‘The orthodox line of Confucianism considered the main purpose of the state to be the support and maintenance of the moral, social and cultural order of social peace and harmony’.44 This is, then, the hegemonic belief of the moral purpose of the state in the Chinese world. As a key component of the constitutional structure, it is decidedly different, both from that conceived for the Ancient Greek society of states, which is the cultivation of bios politikos and from that of modern international society, which is an augmentation of individuals’ purposes and potentialities.45 This observation is of particular importance because the difference explains crucially why a particular set of institutional designs was chosen as we find in the tributary system, and where fundamentally East Asian order differs historically from other comparable social orders.
Associated with the Confucian notion of universal kingship is a specific Chinese cosmology that China is not a higher civilization, but the civilization—the centre of the world—around which the world was organized hierarchically, in civilizational terms. As Paine succinctly, if harshly, puts it: ‘Only in the late nineteenth century did the Chinese learn that civilization had a plural’.46 This assumption of cultural superiority is accompanied by a perennial discourse on the distinction and relationship between the Chinese and the barbarians. The discourse is about cultural unity of the Chinese world as much as about how civilization and barbarism define each other. Chinese is, however, a more culturally than racially and ethnically defined concept. Non-Chinese ethnic groups, peoples and states can, therefore, be sinicized—i.e. barbarians can be transformed—in theory, by exposure to Confucianism and to Chinese culture and civilization. Distinctions can therefore be maintained between ‘inner’ barbarians (more sinicized) and ‘outer’ barbarians (less sinicized). All ‘uncivilized’ barbarians could become ‘civilized’ barbarians, if they are willing to be ‘transformed’.47 Evolving from this discourse is a rigid dichotomy in Imperial China's conceptualization of its relationship with other peoples and political entities; a relationship of super-ordination and subordination as a system of co-existence between the Chinese and the non-Chinese world in full compliance with the Confucian assumptions of cosmic harmony. This Confucian conception of a civilizational world sees China sitting at the centre, pretending to assign to others a proper place according to how ‘civilized’ they are. An elaborate set of rituals (li) are designed and evolved as a traditional ‘standard of civilization’ for others who wish to enter, or to be accepted, into the Chinese world to observe and fulfil.
This discourse of Chinese and non-Chinese—civilization vs. barbarism—informs the construction of the constitutional structure of the tributary system in two important ways. First, it determines that the organizing principle of the tributary system has to be what we call ordered sovereign inequality. Pax Sinica is inherently unequal, as it has a concentrically-structured social hierarchy defined in cultural and civilizational terms. As David Kang notes, social status in this hierarchy ‘was a function of cultural achievement, not economic wealth or military power’.48 Participants and aspiring participants in Pax Sinica, nevertheless, remained sovereign entities, to the extent that they retained their autonomy and independence in conducting their domestic and ‘foreign’ affairs, even when they intersubjectively accepted or acquiesced in this rank-ordered social hierarchy. Second, it means that Chinese ritual practices define the prevailing systemic norms of procedural justice acknowledged and accepted by participants in Pax Sinica. Contestations that Imperial China's purported tributary states not infrequently mounted to these norms of procedural justice throughout history are testimony to the institutional importance of such discursive practices to the functioning of the tributary system.
The constitutional structure of international society in historical East Asia is, therefore, radically different from the European ones that Reus-Smit investigated (see Table 1), as three normative components of such a structure, namely, the moral purpose of the state, organizing principle of sovereignty and norm of procedural justice, were conceived and conceptualized in historically specific cultural and historical contexts. Although this constitutional structure entails historically contingent imagination and creation of fundamental institutions in the East Asian society of states, basic institutional practices so entrenched must nonetheless reflect and embody metavalues constitutive of the constitutional structure. The tributary system emerges both as an articulation of such metavalues in practice and as an historical institutional choice and innovation to manage problems of conflict, coexistence and cooperation between China and other East Asian states.
|Ancient Greece||Imperial China||Modern Europe|
|1. Moral purpose of state||Cultivation of bios politikos||Promoting cosmic and social harmony||Augmentation of individuals' purposes and potentialities|
|2. Organizing principle of sovereignty||Democratic sovereignty||Ordered (sovereign) inequality||Liberal sovereignty|
|3. Systemic norms of Procedure justice||Discursive justice||Ritual justice||Legislative justice|
|Interstate arbitration||Tributary system||Contractual international law and multilateralism|
|Ancient Greece||Imperial China||Modern Europe|
|1. Moral purpose of state||Cultivation of bios politikos||Promoting cosmic and social harmony||Augmentation of individuals' purposes and potentialities|
|2. Organizing principle of sovereignty||Democratic sovereignty||Ordered (sovereign) inequality||Liberal sovereignty|
|3. Systemic norms of Procedure justice||Discursive justice||Ritual justice||Legislative justice|
|Interstate arbitration||Tributary system||Contractual international law and multilateralism|
Sources: Zhang Yongjin, ‘System, Empire and State in Chinese International Relations’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 27, No. 5 (2001), p. 57; Chris Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State, p. 7.
To a significant extent, this constitutional structure is of ‘China's own imagining/making’. The tributary system, as the basic institutional practices underwritten by this constitutional structure, is clearly a hegemonic construction: the institutional preference of the hegemonic power. The normative pattern in Imperial China's foreign relations, the so-called Chinese world order, Fairbank observed, ‘was a set of ideas and practices developed and perpetuated by the rulers of China over many centuries’.49 It is also true that a critical examination of Chinese historical records demonstrates that the Chinese themselves found their assumptions of cultural superiority to be more myth than reality.50
These comments, though, miss an important social dimension of the phenomenon. David Kang raises an interesting argument in his observation that Imperial China's lack of interest in proactively exporting its own ideals and values, ‘allowed surrounding peoples and polities to contest, modify and adapt Chinese ideas to their own ends’.51 Different degrees of acceptance of the superiority of Chinese culture and civilization imply that the claim is not just a type of pure cultural arrogance on the part of Imperial China. Without social recognition or rejection, social acceptance or contestation, the ideas and practices of the Chinese world order and Chinese cultural assumptions of superiority would have no substantive social existence in East Asian international relations. They would play no significant structuring role in shaping the norms of legitimate and acceptable behaviour for, and social identity of, not just Imperial China, but, equally, of other constituent states. Ideas, beliefs, norms and values central to the constitutional structure of Imperial China's own imagining become intersubjective to varying degrees (or not) among Imperial China and others only through a long and tumultuous historical and social process of assertion, imposition, contention, contestation, rejection, acquiescence and acceptance.
As Mancall argues, ‘on the plane of social philosophy, the tribute relationship was conceived of as extending the social structure of civilization into the realms beyond the immediate power of the emperor’.52 In this sense, the tributary system provides an indispensable social milieu within which Imperial China tried to socialize others, through assertion, coercion or coaxing, into accepting basic institutional practices favoured by Imperial China in managing its relations with others and, perhaps more importantly, the metavalues underwriting and sustaining those institutional practices. It, thus, also becomes a social locale where others selectively contest, reject, embrace and internalize those norms, institutions and values through its socialization. It is only through a dynamic interaction of mutual contestations and contentions that the constitutional structure and fundamental institutions associated with it are confirmed and their legitimacy conferred as foundational to the tributary system.
Contestations to normative components of the constitutional structure happened frequently throughout East Asian history. The organizing principle of ordered (sovereign) inequality was under unrelenting assaults both in the Han and the Song Dynasties, and Imperial China did concede to accept, albeit perhaps tactically and temporarily, sovereign equality, in the first instance with the Xiongnu, and in the second with the Liao and the Jin.53 The systemic norms of procedural justice were famously and visibly contravened by Lord MaCartney in his audience with the Qianlong Emperor in 1793. Both the organizing principles of ordered (sovereign) inequality and the systemic norms of procedural justice sustained prolonged challenges even from Japan, a Sinic state, under the Tokugawa.54 In general, however, the constitutional structure per se and, more specifically, the moral purpose of the state, arguably the most important normative component, were not fundamentally questioned until the second half of the 19th century. The fact that the tributary system was replicated in managing bilateral relations among Imperial China's peripheral states—the reproduction of the Japan-centred tributary system and the Annam-centred tributary system, for example—only lends legitimacy to the constitutional structure of the tributary system and its metavalues. So do attempts, successful or not, to adopt or usurp Imperial China's central position in the tributary system, either by the Mongols, or the nomads, or the Japanese.55
The Tributary System as International Society
The constitutional structure of the tributary system, as we have argued above, is unquestionably informed mostly, if not exclusively, by Chinese culture and civilization. It is through participation, socialization as well as contestation, largely within the institutional framework of the tributary system, however, that this constitutional structure and its metavalues become accepted (or not), to varying degrees, as intersubjective ideas, beliefs and understanding between Imperial China and the participants in Pax Sinica. The tributary system, in this sense, constitutes a social milieu not just of Imperial China's own making. This goes well beyond what the central arguments in Zhou's article would allow and could accommodate. The tributary system is, nevertheless, also a bundle of fundamental institutions constitutive of a broad social order in East Asia. Only insofar as these fundamental institutions and common institutional practices become shared norms and conventions, constitutive of deep rules of the game in the relations between Imperial China and other constituent states, does the tributary system constitute the social structure and become the articulation of international society in East Asia. Owing to the nature of its contestable constitutional structure, it is perhaps to be expected that the tributary system and its institutional configurations had a turbulent evolutionary story, and that the institutional practices within this framework varied greatly across time and space in East Asian history and politics.
This understanding opens up the discussion of the tributary system in one important direction. The tributary system embodies, and is designed to deal with, a whole spectrum of interstate relationships from power-political to co-existence and from cooperation to convergence, reflecting relatively shallow and thin and relatively deep and dense societal features and attributes. As we have argued above, the organizing principle of ordered (sovereign) inequality defined in civilizational terms makes the political and cultural order centred on Imperial China concentrically hierarchical. This concentric circle arrangement, however, could also be seen as defined by different degrees of prevalent international social order. As will be discussed below, there is clearly an identifiable core to the tributary system, wherein cooperation and convergence prevail in the relationship between Imperial China and the so-called Sinic states, while Imperial China's relations with its nomadic neighbours to the north remain intensely power-political, with co-existence as the optimal goal.
This kind of careful differentiation of social orders as co-existent within the tributary system is largely absent from the existing literature of historical analysis and theoretical understanding of the tributary system. Without such careful differentiation, it is difficult to understand how, and in what sense, fundamental institutions of the tributary system provide ‘a range of flexible institutional and discursive tools’56 in dealing with the various problems encountered in establishing and maintaining different social orders as appropriate to the system's geopolitical and cultural contexts. Zhou's study, for example, makes no attempt to differentiate Imperial China's relationship with Korea, a Sinic state, from that with Burma, a non-Sinic state concentrically further away from the core of the tributary system.57
Before looking at the societal attributes of the evolving tributary system in more analytical detail, three brief observations are due. First, paying tribute is an ancient institutional practice not unique to Imperial China. John King Fairbank58 noted that the tributary system is, ‘a system that handled the interstate relations of a large part of mankind throughout most of recorded history’. Vattel,59 in his Law of Nations, observed that ‘the custom of paying tribute was formerly very common—the weaker by that means purchasing of their more powerful neighbour an exemption from aggression, or at that price securing his protection without ceasing to be sovereign’. The practice of tribute-bearing and tribute-paying in the East Asian history and politics, however, as will be discussed later, serves more than these instrumental purposes and has significant normative import in confirming legitimate statehood and rightful state action. Second, the relationship within the Chinese tributary system is always bilateral, i.e. Imperial China and one other participant. It is never multilateral. Accordingly, in the structural sense, the tributary system is almost inescapably Sino-centric. Third, as the Chinese conception of the world is civilizational, the tributary system is open to anyone who wishes to participate on terms defined largely by Imperial China. By implication, any participant can exercise agency to withdraw its participation, and this was not uncommon in practice, as Zhou's stories show. The tributary system, thus, has open access and is also inherently elastic.
Although giving a full account of the evolution of international society as such in East Asia is beyond the scope of this paper, it should be noted that there is wide acknowledgment of the precarious and contentious existence of the tributary system throughout Chinese history. The origin of the tributary system as special trading arrangements can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 bc—220) and before. Early historical records of China's tributary relations included various missions from the ancient Roman and Persian empires.60 By, and during, the Han Dynasty, tribute-paying also played important political and diplomatic functions in keeping peace with, as well as winning allies against, the aggressive Xiongnu, the principal threat from the north to the security of the Chinese Empire. It has been widely observed, however, that tributes flowed both ways, from the Xiongnu to Imperial China and vice versa. Both ‘heqin’ (peace and friendship) as an important diplomatic institution and the various peace treaties with the Xiongnu and the granting of ‘diguo’ (equal adversary state) status to the Xiongnu implied recognition of equality.61 The tributary system as such does not presuppose either the existence of common culture or shared understanding of the constitutional structure of the tributary system as a cultural construct. The Chinese, the Xiongnu and, later, the Mongols made no pretence of sharing the same culture and civilization, not least the cultural assumptions underpinning the Chinese conception of the tributary system.62 It is an expedient arrangement acceptable to both parties to facilitate strategic interaction and economic exchanges in search of security.
There is an interesting parallel here in European history. The Ottoman Empire developed extensive and intensive political, strategic, economic and cultural relations with Europe for over half a millennium from the 14th until the 19th century. Yet, such engagement did not make it an unquestioned part of the European international society.63 For two millennia or more, the Xiongnu, the Mongols and, more generally, the nomads to Imperial China's north remained an indispensable political and strategic player in both Imperial China's domestic politics and interstate relations. None, however, was part of the Imperial-China-centred inner circle of international society. What is most interesting is that even after taking over imperial power from the Ming (1368-1644) and establishing the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Manchus continued to regard the Mongols, whom they had recruited as their strategic ally to fight against the Ming, as belonging to fan (藩) (inner barbarians) and created and maintained a bureaucratic institution Li Fan Yuan (Ministry of Outer Dependencies)64 to manage the Qing's relationship with the Mongols, the Tibetans and other nomad peoples.65
The tributary system existed in a rather precarious fashion between the Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when the Chinese empire itself was more divided than united. It was during the Tang, after re-establishment of imperial unity, that the tributary system witnessed rapid and aggressive expansion and institutionalization. It extended to include the participation of many non-Chinese states and polities in Central, South and Southeast Asia.66 Certain Tang records claim that Imperial China had as many as 72 tributaries.67 The hegemonic political, military and economic power of the Tang Dynasty is certainly important in understanding the re-establishment, whether by force or through persuasion, of the tributary system as an institutional expression of Pax Sinica. For the Chinese, more importantly, the Tang hegemony seems a confirmation of their basic cultural assumptions of the superiority of Chinese civilization: that the superior Chinese moral authority is reinforced undeniably by the unrivalled material power of Imperial China. The tributary relationships embodying political and cultural submission of barbarians, thus, became the only acceptable normative order that did not contradict the Chinese worldview. By the same token, as a superior moral power, Imperial China was responsible for maintaining and harmonizing this system and order with the moral examples it set, with institutional innovations it cared to come up with and with military force, if necessary. Through the tributary system, the moral authority of Imperial China can then be translated into what Michael Mann calls ‘normative pacification’ in the social order it presided over.68
The cultural assumptions behind the re-established tributary system and the normative order during the Tang Dynasty did not go uncontested either in theory or in practice, particularly in dealing with states outside the Chinese cultural influence. Even at the height of the Tang power, it treated Tujue and Tufan, Imperial Tang's two rival states to the north, in terms of equality. After the Tang, during the Qidan Liao Dynasty after 907 and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty after 1122, both of which ruled large parts of the territory of Imperial China, emperors of the Song Dynasty paid tribute to the Liao and the Jin dynasties. In certain extreme instances, they even accepted the vassal status of Imperial China to the Liao and the Jin.69 During the Song, Imperial China was said to be operating effectively in a multi-state system among equals.70 Such behavioural deviations from normative assumptions, regardless of whether or not Imperial China was militarily strong (as in the Tang Dynasty) or weak (as in the Song Dynasty), remain enduring puzzles in exploring the theory and practice of the tributary system, which will be further discussed below.
It is not until the Southern Song Dynasty in the 12th century, when the Chinese empire was at its weakest and suffered humiliation as a result of invasion by the ‘northern barbarians’, that the ascending neo-Confucian philosophy formulated a dogma with respect to Imperial China's foreign relations. The dogma asserts that:
national security could only be found in isolation and stipulates that whoever wished to enter into relations with China must do so as China’s vassal, acknowledging the supremacy of the Chinese emperor and obeying his commands, thus ruling out all possibility of international intercourse on terms of equality. It must not be construed to be a dogma of conquest or universal dominion, for it imposed nothing on foreign peoples who chose to remain outside the Chinese world. It sought peace and security, with both of which international relations were held incompatible. If relations there had to be, they must be suzerain-vassal type, acceptance of which meant the acceptance of the Chinese ethic on the part of the barbarian.71
This neo-Confucian dogma informed the Ming rulers in their attempts to consolidate and expand the tributary system. The consolidation, expansion and eventual contraction of the tributary system during the Ming, however, was also closely related to the rise and fall of the political influence and military power of the Ming. The Qing inherited from the Ming the tributary system and a bundle of cultural and moral assumptions behind it. ‘Under the Ming and early Ch'ing [Qing] the theory of China's material-and-moral superiority continued, with greater sophistication, to be the principal assumption of her foreign relations’.72 The tributary system as the East Asian world order, in other words, ‘achieved its classic form in the Ming and Ch'ing [Qing] periods’.73 Zhou notes also that the tributary system reached ‘an acme of sophistication during the waning years of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties’.74
This brief historical sketch, contentious and contestable as it surely is, nevertheless highlights a number of important points in our analytical understanding of the tributary system as an international society. To begin with, the tributary system exists, first and foremost, as a discourse, articulating the ideas of a cosmic–social order with universal kingship centred on the Chinese civilization, and of an all-inclusive moral and political order presided over by the Chinese emperor as the embodiment of benevolence and virtue. As such, this discourse, as apparent in official Chinese records and intellectual history, has a high degree of consistency, in spite of the tumultuous, violent and destructive ‘international’ history of Imperial China over two millennia—a consistency that is in sharp contrast to the precarious historical existence and fluid functioning of the tributary system itself. Second, this moral, social and political order is not culturally exclusive. It transcends culture. It is meant to incorporate into the Chinese world states and peoples with similar cultural heritage and a shared Confucian worldview. It is, at the same time, open to the participation of culturally and ethnically different groups of people and their states, either through persuasion, when they wish to, or by force, when necessary.
Third, the assertions of non-Chinese views and non-Chinese power constitute contestations and rejections of the cultural assumptions behind Pax Sinica as well as its legitimacy. They are constitutive of the evolution of the tributary system, affording it contested social attributes and important social recognition. Fourth, the Chinese grand designs of the tributary system as ideal types often vary from the actual institutional practices of Pax Sinica because of geopolitically contingent strategic imperatives, political expedience, and the economic interests of constituent states, as well as the contingent nature of Chinese power at any historical moment. Fifth, a number of institutions underwrite the tributary system, among which are diplomacy, war, balance of power and trade, but also ordered sovereign inequality (associated with a culturally-determined hierarchy and ‘civilized’ identity), tribute and rites.75 The last three are clearly institutional innovations informed, in particular, by Chinese cultural assumptions, which embody norms, principles and rules prescriptive of acceptable behaviour of peoples and states that came into contact with Imperial China. Not surprisingly, these institutional practices are also those most contested throughout history.
Variations in the institutional practices of the tributary system as a trans-cultural construct, therefore, are the norm rather than an exception or deviation. This is the key to understanding the tributary system as operating simultaneously at different societal levels. At one extreme, the tributary system surely operated to enable and to regulate European economic and diplomatic participation in the existing East Asian order between the 15th and early 19th centuries, particularly in its trading networks and the China market. The existence of international society in this instance, if at all, is shallow, thin and precarious, at best. At the other extreme, Korea, as a model tributary, fully embraced the tributary system, as well the cultural assumptions and legitimation claims behind it, until the end of the 19th century. It is indisputably a member of the society of states centred in Imperial China. Is there, then, a cultural explanation of such variations of the basic institutional practices within the tributary system?
The idea of Pax Sinica as hierarchically concentric presupposes a core consisting of Imperial China and surrounding states most influenced by Chinese culture and civilization. Fairbank76 made the classical statement about the common cultural heritage of the so-called Sinic states, ‘The societies of East Asia—China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and the small island kingdom of Liu-ch'iu (Ryukyu)—had all stemmed from ancient China and developed within the Chinese culture area, the area most influenced by the civilization of ancient China, for example, by the Chinese ideographic writing system, the Confucian classical teachings about family and social order, the official examination system, and the imperial Chinese monarchy and bureaucracy’. Noting China's cultural, economic and political influence as ‘dominant, direct, and pervasive’ over its surrounding Sinic states, David Kang is more specific in his most recent study. In his words,
These three East Asian states [Korea, Vietnam, and Japan] were centrally administered bureaucratic systems based on the Chinese model. They developed complex bureaucratic structures and bear more than a ‘family resemblance’ in their organization, cultures, and outlooks. This form of government, along with the calendar, language and writing system, bureaucracy, and education system, was derived from the Chinese experience, and the civil-service examination in these countries emphasized a knowledge of Chinese political philosophy, classics, and culture.77
Voluntary emulation, copying and replicating of Chinese institutional and discursive practices by these Sinic states are not only found in their ‘state formation, and societal practices, from language and religion to political institutions and economic activities’.78 As Shogo Suzuki79 shows persuasively, Japan under the Tokugawa reproduced a ‘Japan-centric’ tribute system as a contestation to the Sino-centric tributary system, from which Japan increasingly withdrew. This Japan-centric tributary system remains, nevertheless, an emulation of Chinese discursive practices in its fundamental cultural assumptions, but with Japan replacing Imperial China as the most ‘virtuous’ and more ‘civilized’ and in its replication of rituals of the Sino-centric system as its normative foundation. The Chosen Korean court, David Kang80 writes, ‘had divided foreign contacts—such as envoys from Japan, the Ryukyu, and Jurchens—into four grades, with several statuses within these grades’. Further, it ‘borrowed, adapted, and expanded upon rights and policies of the sinocentric tribute system’ in order to develop ‘a tribute system design over time in part to organize interactions with a broad collection of Japanese elites and separate them into a multi-level hierarchy for reception and ritual purposes’. In the words of Hevia, ‘the Korean king constituted his rulership through rituals similar to those of the Qing emperor, organizing, as it were, cosmo-moral order unmediated by the Qing rulership’.81
Among Imperial China and other surrounding Sinic states, there is, in other words, a significant degree of convergence in terms of their fundamental values and shared Confucian worldviews. These shared values generated highly similar government forms, constitute and define these states’ social identity and condition their understandings of not just the socially-sanctioned legitimate statehood, but the nature and purpose of the state as a social agent. This is not to suggest that there was total agreement among these states, or that each did not interpret those shared fundamental values and basic institutional practices in its own culturally specific and historically contingent way, and did not accept them solely on their own terms. In general, however, the Confucian moral conviction of a universal cosmic–social order that underwrites the constitutional structure of the tributary system was unquestionably accepted. There was deeper shared belief in Imperial China's civilizational claims and self-declaration of its imperial virtue as essential to maintaining this universal moral order. There was clear acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the authority of Chinese hegemony derived from its cultural achievements and not from material power. There was explicit (though, in the case of Japan, sometimes grudging) acceptance of the civilizational hierarchy and associated rank order for constituent states.
Coupled with these states’ rational strategic, political and economic calculations, these shared values inspired as well as constrained their institutional imagination and choices that informed the deeper rules of the game in their relations with Imperial China. There was a manifested desire for their ‘civilized’ status to be conferred by their relationship with Imperial China, which was indispensable to their claims to legitimate statehood. The Chinese investiture, i.e. the blessings of the Chinese emperor of a particular ruler as legitimate, therefore, was often eagerly sought.82 Tribute missions, which functionally serve both diplomatic and economic purposes, were regularly and frequently sent and received as expressions of mutual legitimation. The frequency of such missions was taken on either side as confirmation of the degree of their ‘civilized’ status. Rituals, inclusive of all prescribed appropriate formalities and ceremonies in their contact with Imperial China, were strictly observed.
At the core of the tributary system as a trans-cultural construct, therefore, is a mini tributary system among Sinic states, or in the English School parlance, a readily identifiable and more closely knit international society. This is where the ideal type of the tributary system as a discourse seems to have found its matching incarnation in actual institutional practices. This observation would have little significance if this mini tributary system had not ‘worked’, so to speak, as an institutional solution to the interstate cooperation between Imperial China and these Sinic states. As Kang observes, there was ‘a lasting peace’ among China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan over the five centuries between 1368 and 1841 spanning the Ming and Qing dynasties, with only two major interstate wars—China's invasion of Vietnam from 1402 to 1428 and Japan's invasion of Korea from 1592 to 1598. He continues, ‘Apart from those two episodes, these four major territorial and centralized states developed and maintained peaceful and long-lasting relationship with one another, and the more powerful these states became, the more stable were their relations’.83 This is in sharp contrast to seemingly perpetual conflicts and violence that characterized the relations between Imperial China and its nomadic neighbours throughout the same historical period. If common culture explains why different institutional solutions to co-existence and cooperation between Imperial China and its surrounding states are necessary and possible, it also raises an interesting question in another comparative perspective. Both this society of states in East Asia and the modern European international society emerged out of a common cultural area. Why is it, then, that the East Asian international society enjoyed five centuries of lasting peace and stability between 1368 and 1841, whereas the European international society emerging from Westphalia saw three centuries of endemic wars and inherent instability between 1648 and 1945?
The Tributary System, Hegemony and ‘Organized Hypocrisy’
Thinking about the tributary system, a hierarchical order, as international society has two interrelated problems. One is that the tributary system is often mischaracterized, unwittingly, as suzerainty. Accordingly, the relationship that Imperial China had with other constituent parts of Pax Sinica is often described as that between a suzerain and a vassal. This is found in both Wight and Watson.84 Partly, this is perhaps because there is no alternative English word that can better describe and capture the nuances of the institutional practices of the Chinese tributary system.85 This is rather unfortunate, as the typical suzerain–vassal relationship, in the context of the Ottoman Empire, is marked not just by the limited autonomy of vassal states in domestic rule but also by the suzerain's control of foreign policies of vassal states.
This is clearly not the case in the Chinese tributary system. As the foregoing discussions show, although tribute-paying was unmistakably a fundamental institution in regulating relations between Imperial China and its tributaries, as the purported ‘suzerain’, Imperial China made no attempts to control foreign policies of the tributary states other than those towards Imperial China. Participants in Pax Sinica did accept ordered sovereign inequality as the organizing principle of the system. But, to the extent that they retained their domestic autonomy and remained largely independent in conducting their ‘international’ affairs, they carried with them the most important attributes of sovereign entities. In other words, the tributary system, hierarchical as it was, remained a system of multiple actors. Imperial China acted more like a hegemon than as a suzerain, through its moral authority as well as material power. Indeed, Zhou's article implicitly suggests the idea of Imperial China as a hegemon and the role of hegemony in maintaining the tributary system, although he does not explicitly explore it in detail, either in theory or in practice. Zhou's investigation of the occasional punitive expeditions that Chinese emperors mounted, either to help restore order in a neighbouring country (Zhou's case study of Korea during the Sui and the Tang) or with the aim of frontier pacification (Zhou's case study of Burma during the Qing) and his discussions of the investiture from the Chinese emperor sought by and bestowed (or not) upon rulers of Korea (a Sinic state) and Burma (a non-Sinic state)—all show certain acceptance of Imperial China as the undisputable hegemon and its legitimate role in maintaining the stability and working of the tributary system.86 In discussing the relationship between Imperial China and Southeast Asian kingdoms during the Qing, noting in particular ‘the Burma wars’, Hevia observes instructively that ‘armed conflict did not preclude the possibility of reconstituting supreme lord-lesser-lord relations’ between Imperial China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.87
Language and concepts, therefore, are part of the problem, which is one reason why the Pax Sinica case is so interesting and important for developing IR theory. If, however, the tributary system is not suzerain but hegemonic, how does hegemony work historically in the formation and operation of a hierarchical international society like the tributary system? Can we have both hegemony and international society at the same time? This poses a theoretical challenge to the English School, the existing scholarship of which has focused mainly on international societies close to the anarchic end of Watson's spectrum ranging from anarchy, through hegemony, suzerainty and dominion, to empire.88 It could be argued that the concept of international society is relevant only to the anarchic side of the spectrum, because hierarchy removes the multi-actor condition required for a society. This issue has not yet been much addressed in the English School literature, though there is rising interest in hegemony,89 with Clark, in particular, making a detailed case for hegemony as a socially-constructed institution of international society along lines that well fit the Chinese case.90
Both Watson's spectrum and the analysis of classical empires by Buzan and Little also suggest that there is room for international society well towards the hierarchical end of Watson's spectrum in which hegemony itself could be a primary institution.91 Most classical empires were varied and flexible constructions containing many types and degrees of relationship between the constituent parts and the imperial core. As Watson's spectrum suggests, many of the component units of an empire could have a considerable degree of autonomy and this makes room for diplomacy, war, balance of power and other institutions that are hallmarks of international society.92 This view that the internal structure of empires contains substantial scope for ‘international’ relations is nicely captured by van der Pijl's observation that:
The subjects of the empire relate to the state as members of bodies that have constituted themselves prior to it, and to which their primary allegiance pertains … An empire is a hierarchic conglomerate of ethnic or quasi-ethnic social bodies, and its internal structure will often resemble foreign relations of a tribal type.93
Seen in dynamic perspective, classical empires often look like centralizing phases of an international society that will, at other times, take a more decentralized form. The idea that a given set of states/peoples moves through different phases of centralizing and decentralizing modes of political organization makes the case for thinking of empires as forms of international society. More research from an English School perspective needs to be done on cases towards the hierarchic/imperial end of the spectrum, both to understand and compare cases and to understand better and map more systematically, the nature, practices and institutions of non-anarchic international societies. We hope that, just as the English School can offer a useful ‘international society’ perspective to the study of Pax Sinica, so also will the study of Pax Sinica help to enhance and develop the English School's conceptualization of international society by providing an in-depth opportunity to study not only a hierarchical case of it in action, but one that is particularly distinctive in being more based in culture than in raw power politics.
As noted, Ian Clark has recently made a major theoretical breakthrough in the study of hegemonic international societies.94 His main problem case is the one that most other post-Watson English School writers concerned about hegemony worry about—how the English School should handle the fact of American hegemony in an anarchical international society. He traces carefully how the English School literature slid into the thinking that anarchy was the necessary condition for international society, and, therefore, that hegemony, or anything further down the spectrum towards hierarchy, must be antagonistic towards it. He neatly excavates the potential for the logic behind the institution of great power management as applicable also to hegemony, and nicely compares hegemony as a primary institution of war: both can be either antagonistic to international society or constitutive of it, depending on the circumstances.
For Clark, the key is that other members of the society accord legitimacy to hegemony. Legitimacy as the key links Clark's thinking and Reus-Smit's scheme as discussed above. Clark's thinking is a timely theoretical development and can certainly be applied to the East Asian case. The Chinese hegemony within the tributary system, in terms of both material power and moral authority, as our discussions above suggest, did enjoy a certain degree of legitimacy accorded by other participants in Pax Sinica. Yet, the East Asia case has features not easily captured by a theoretical language derived from Western history and experience. Pax Sinica was too formally stratified to count as an anarchic structure, even though a kind of sovereignty was clearly in evidence. And, because of the strong role of culture in the hierarchy, its structure does not fit with the conventional understanding of suzerainty either. Hegemony is the best fit; but even then, this is not hegemony in the generally more political–military form common in the Western experience.95 The challenging question still remains: historically, how did hegemony work as a primary institution in the functioning of the tributary system as international society in East Asia?
There is yet another analytical challenge. The tributary system is at once an enduring discourse and a set of basic institutional practices. The remarkable consistency of this discourse in China's imperial history contrasts sharply with the striking variations in the institutional designs and functional operations, as well as the fluid and precarious existence, of the tributary system. This has led to rather contentious assessment and understanding of the tributary system. At one end, the emphasis is on the tributary system as a set of ideas and discursive practices imagined and perpetuated by Imperial China, intellectually and politically, and as an enduring order in the Chinese world over centuries. At the other end is the observation that the tributary system as such ‘was constantly under challenge, breaking down, being reconfigured and rebuilt. It was never stable, fixed or uniform’.96 There is, in other words, a serious disjuncture between what ‘ought to be’ and what ‘is’ in the theory and practice of the tributary system.
It is all too clear that there are obvious contradictions between the grand design of Pax Sinica as imagined by Imperial China and highly flexible institutional arrangements in maintaining and facilitating an order of co-existence and cooperation between Imperial China and other constituent parties. The systemic configuration is often contingent on geo-strategic imperatives, political expediency and economic considerations. There is little question that normative claims of Imperial China's moral and cultural superiority were constantly contested by those purported tributaries. Cultural differences between Imperial China and its tributaries, ‘led the two parties to see their relationship in far different terms at either end. Generally tributaries from Inner Asia and Outer zones had their own non-Chinese views of their relationship to China and accepted Chinese views only in part, superficially or tacitly, as a matter of expedience. As the mystique of the imperial virtue grows thin across the cultural gap, in Lhasa, Moscow, and Batavia, alternative theories of politics were asserted and sometime clashed with the Chinese doctrine’.97 The idea of Chinese cultural and moral superiority, nevertheless, is not just simply a sustaining and comforting myth or pure fiction. As we have shown in the discussions above, this idea was generally accepted among Sinic states at the core of the tributary system. Such acceptance makes it possible to design and construct a different institutional complex with a highly differentiable set of norms, rules and principles that govern the relationship between Imperial China and the Sinic states concerned.
How can we explain these contradictions? Is it possible to square theory with practice, ideological claims with actual policies? To answer these questions, it is useful to think of the tributary system as characterized by what Stephen Krasner calls ‘organized hypocrisy’ as an enduring attribute in international relations. By ‘organized hypocrisy’ is meant the presence of a set of longstanding norms and rules defining appropriate behaviour within an international society that actors frequently violate but who do not, however, at the same time necessarily challenge the legitimacy of that society.98 Seen in this light, any behavioural deviations from, and contestations of, the prescribed norm, rules and principles are but ‘the normal state of affairs’ in the tributary system. It may indeed be argued that there are purposive institutional ambiguities embedded in the systemic design which allow tributary states some room to interpret systemic rules and norms without challenging the legitimacy of the tributary system. For example, ‘There was never any attempt to be precise about what tributary status meant, and the Chinese were probably wise to leave the question vague and the position flexible’.99 While maintaining nominal tributary relations, Imperial China did not hesitate to pay tribute in reverse.100
Even on the fundamental assumption of Chinese moral and cultural superiority there seems, in practice, to have been sufficient flexibility. Imperial China often compromises rather readily this cardinal principle in its relations with the purported tributaries for domestic political purposes. Joseph Fletcher concludes in his study of historical tributary relations between Imperial China and its Central Asian tributaries that:
Within the empire, the myth of world suzerainty was a useful ideological instrument for ruling China, and as Shahrukh’s ambassadors and the khojas found, it was not to be compromised. But in foreign affairs the myth often proved a hindrance. Then quietly, the emperor practiced what he pleased, not what he preached. Relations on an equal basis with Heart, Lhasa, Kokand, or Moscow were not exceptions to Chinese practices at all. They were customary dealings on the unseen side of a long-established tradition.101
Characterizing the tributary system as ‘organized hypocrisy’ captures well its philosophical assumptions and its actual institutional practices as the two contentious and contradictory sides of the same coin. In this way, it goes a long way to explaining why Chinese ruling elites ‘were able to move back and forth between the assertion of myth and the acceptance of reality so frequently and for so long a time without abandoning this superior view of themselves’.102 It does not, however, help explain another larger puzzle. Why did the tributary system persist even when the Chinese empire was militarily weak and divided as during the Song Dynasty? Why did rival institutional alternatives not emerge to replace the constitutional structures and fundamental institutions of the tributary system during the period of non-Chinese domination of the Chinese empire, as in the Yuan Dynasty with Pax Tartaric and the Qing Dynasty with the Manchu rule? All considered, then, what explains the longevity and resilience of the tributary system as an indigenous social order throughout history in East Asia?
In earlier discussions, we have suggested that what makes the tributary system a social order distinct from, for example, other historical orders in Europe, is its deep constitutional structure, which is shaped and conditioned by contingent historical, cultural and social contexts in East Asia. While this constitutional structure is a hegemonic construction of Imperial China, contentions and contestations to this constitutional structure by others, in particular to its two key components, namely, the organizing principles of ordered sovereign inequality and the systemic norms of ritual justice, have reproduced and reconfirmed this constitutional structure with certain degrees of social acceptance and social recognition. This shared understanding of the constitutional structure enhances the legitimacy of the tributary system. As Schwartz asks rhetorically, ‘can one maintain that the Yuan dynasty did not in the end come to accept the Chinese perception of world order? Can one state the Ch'ing [Qing] dynasty did not become totally committed in the end to this perception of world order in spite of the peculiar Manchu institutions which it had preserved?’103 We have also suggested that the hegemonic belief deeply embedded in Confucianism about the moral purpose of the state, arguably the most important component in the constitutional structure, is rarely challenged, if at all.
We would further suggest here that the persistence and unchanging nature of the dominant idea about the moral purpose of the state over two millennia simultaneously does two things to the tributary system: it exercises critical constraints on institutional architects, in particular, those from Imperial China, in their imagining any alternative institutional designs as possible solutions to Imperial China's problems in its ‘international’ relations; and, in making other institutional designs unimaginable, it so legitimizes the tributary system as the only acceptable social order. The tributary system as a particular social order, therefore, endures as long as the Confucian belief in the moral purpose of the state prevails as a shared understanding among Imperial China and other constituent actors of the system. This suggests a partial unpacking of the larger puzzle mentioned above. First, the tributary system continues to prevail in times of Imperial China's military weakness and its lack of material power precisely because neither military nor material power is a necessary or a sufficient condition for the maintenance of this social and moral order. Second, as long as those non-Chinese elites in the Yuan and the Qing dynasties accept, as their Chinese counterparts do, the fundamental assumptions underlining the prevailing belief of the moral purpose of the state, no alternative institutional designs seem to serve the purpose better.
The tributary system, as Zhou rightly argues, is ‘more than just a conceptual construct’. In our analytical scheme, however, it is also much more than ‘an actual set of policies’ or ‘a continuous set of abstract principles that were applied to both diplomatic strategy and foreign policy over several thousand years of Chinese history’.104 It is a historically and culturally contingent social order in East Asia. In tracing the historical and cultural particularity that underlies the framing of the constitutional structure of the tributary system, we have suggested that this constitutional structure is in the first instance of Imperial China's own making/imagining. It is through long, tumultuous and never-ending historical and social processes of assertion, imposition, contention, contestation, rejection, acquiescence and acceptance that ideas, beliefs and metavalues constitutive of the constitutional structure of the tributary system become intersubjective, to varying degrees, between Imperial China and other constituent parties of the tributary system.
Fundamental institutions defined and shaped by these processes, therefore, do not just reflect the hegemonic institutional preferences, but also represent a collective solution invented by, and consented to among, East Asian states to the perennial problem of inter-state conflict, co-existence and cooperation. The institutional innovations of the tributary system make the East Asian order appreciably different from other regional orders in world history, from Europe to the Middle East. An examination of the constitutional structure of the tributary system, we have also shown, provides important insight into understanding the institutional rationality (in contrast to the strategic rationality as emphasized by Zhou) of the tributary system. In so doing, it casts new light on the enduring puzzle of the longevity and resilience of the tributary system in East Asian history and politics.
Using the analytical lens of the English School of International Relations, we have argued more specifically that the tributary system, as a bundle of shared and common institutional practices, is the articulation of international society in East Asia, as it is constitutive of deep rules of the game in the relations between Imperial China and other constituent states. In this understanding, strategic interaction between Imperial China and its neighbours within the framework of the tributary system, as investigated by Zhou, is but a small, though significant, part of the whole story. Conceptualizing the tributary system as an international social structure opens up our understanding of the concentric circles of the Chinese world order, not just as defined in cultural and civilizational terms, as found in most existing literature, but in terms of how it is configured in structural terms, from power-political and co-existence in the outer circles, to cooperation and, up to a point, convergence in the inner ones. We have examined in some detail the existence of an identifiable core of the tributary system, where convergence clearly prevails in the relationship between Imperial China and a number of Sinic states of close geographical proximity. Our purpose is to highlight the existence of different layers of international society within the tributary system which arguably leads to significant variations in the constitution, construction and practice of fundamental institutions, both temporally and spatially. The malleability of the tributary system is, then, a necessary virtue, which is aimed at accommodating different challenges in institutional practices in Pax Sinica.
For the English School, this classical East Asian case offers a particularly rich and complex model for thinking about historical international social structures in international society terms. Because the tributary system is hegemonic, rather than suzerain, a more specific challenge to English School scholars is to enquire how hegemony, as a primary institution of international society, historically works in the tributary system. Adam Watson was clearly on to something with his enduring and world-historically informed concern about hegemony both in, and as a form of, international society.105 The present concern noted in the English School literature is mainly about hegemony within anarchical international societies. Because of its strong cultural quality, the Chinese case offers a distinctive, if perhaps not unique, type of hegemony, which has a certain Gramscian character. Studying this case, and other non-Western models, should bring greater conceptual refinement and depth to English School concepts. It might also be usefully compared with other approaches to hegemony such as hegemonic stability theory (HST),106 which centres hegemony in the economic rather than in the cultural sphere, or Ikenberry's work, which argues for a kind of hegemony of (liberal) ideas.107
Even on the basis of the preliminary work done in this article, we can point out a small improvement on Reus-Smit's scheme.108 We used it to structure our enquiry, but, in retrospect, it is clear that he mistakenly puts ‘organizing principle of sovereignty’ as the second constitutional structure in his scheme. He does this because his book takes place entirely within that principle. He should, however, have left it open just by saying ‘organizing principle’. As becomes clear in his discussions of Ruggie, and by opening up a distinction between configurative and purposive change, he allows that the organizing principle can be something other than sovereignty.109 Making this change allows a much wider application of his scheme outside the particular context of Western history. Abstracting such conceptual frameworks away from the hegemony of Western history is an ongoing and important task in IR. One of the great attractions of East Asian history is precisely the contribution it can make to that task, as well as more generally developing historically-sensitive IR theorizing and theoretically-informed world history.