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Strong China Has Meant Peace in East Asia, Not Conflict

David Kang's new book, East Asia Before the West, upends understanding of East Asian international relations.

USC College’s David Kang is the author of the new book East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute.
USC College’s David Kang is the author of the new book East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute.

As China's economic ascendancy and military expansion has 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 East Asia, not conflict.

In East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010), prominent East Asia scholar David C. Kang contrasts the relative peace in East Asia when China was the unquestioned hegemon of the region with the incessant conflict in Europe borne out of a system based on formal equality and balance-of-power politics.

“[Kang] demolishes the American discourse of ‘realism,’ which assumes all states on the planet behave the same way,” said Bruce Cumings, Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago. “Kang’s study is also essential reading for understanding the formation of the East Asian system, its contemporary functioning, and the arc of its future.”

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 was a formal hierarchy and tribute system in East Asia 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, USC College professor of international relations and deputy director of the USC School of International Relations and professor of business in the USC Marshall School of Business.

With the arrival of the West 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 current, contemporary historiography that is taught in schools and that many Westerners accept at face value is remarkably different than the actual history of the region,” 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.

While China is emerging again as the region’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 East Asia 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.

However, “Though it’s natural for contemporary scholars to focus on yardsticks such as economic size and military spending, 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,” says Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC.

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 on much more than mere size: it depends on whether other states see China as a stable, status quo country. In historical times, China was the unquestioned civilizational center of East Asia, but today that is no longer 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 explains. “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.”

Kang is also the author China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Crony Capitalism: Corruption and Development in South Korea and the Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and co-author of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies (Columbia University Press, 2003).

Professor of International Relations and Business, and Director of the Korean Studies Institute,