On occasion, I read a book…and forget its title. I usually manage to recall the title at some point. For the past five years or so I’ve been trying to recall a book I read on Asian diplomatic history written by a Korean American scholar. Today I finally recalled that book: East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute.
The reason I’ve been trying to remember this book is that I’ve felt it told a story which is more relevant today than in the late 2000s, when the book was written and published. From the summary:
Focusing on the role of the “tribute system” in maintaining stability in East Asia and in fostering diplomatic and commercial exchange, Kang contrasts this history against the example of Europe and the East Asian states’ skirmishes with nomadic peoples to the north and west. Although China has been the unquestioned hegemon in the region, with other political units always considered secondary, the tributary order entailed military, cultural, and economic dimensions that afforded its participants immense latitude. Europe’s “Westphalian” system, on the other hand, was based on formal equality among states and balance-of-power politics, resulting in incessant interstate conflict.
Here’s my not-so-counterintuitive prediction: as China flexes its geopolitical muscles, it will revert back to form in substance, forging a foreign policy predicated on hierarchical relationships between states, while maintaining an external adherence to the system of European diplomacy which crystallized between the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna, that emphasized the importance of equality between states. “Diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” if you will.