Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History

Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History

by Feng Zhang


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804793896
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/03/2015
Pages: 279
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Feng Zhang is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations in the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

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Chinese Hegemony

Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History

By Feng Zhang


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9504-3



China's rise is one of the most significant developments in contemporary international relations. As the result of more than three decades of phenomenal economic growth, since the initiation of economic reform in 1978, a strong China now stands before the world for the first time in over a century. As China may rival the United States in material capabilities, recent discussions on China's role in world politics have been gradually shifting from a focus on the material characteristics of China's rise to a growing concern with the impact of Chinese power on regional and international order. The central question is no longer "Can China rise?" or "How great will its capabilities be?" but "What will China do with its new power?" and "What will China want?" As Paul Evans puts it, "The great strategic issue of our times is not just China's rising power but whether its worldview and applied theory will reproduce, converge with, or take a separate path from the world order and ideas produced in the era of trans-Atlantic dominance."

Indeed, such an analytical shift is apparent in an emerging academic and policy discourse, inside and outside China, on possible Chinese hegemony in East Asia. Inside China, an important group of scholars, albeit still a minority in the Chinese intellectual community, has begun to promote China's world leadership on the basis of a distinctive type of Chinese hegemony, "humane authority." Outside China, discussions of Chinese hegemony either reflect a general concern with the ramifications of greater Chinese power or derive from a traditional, realist preoccupation with hegemonic competition in international politics. Thus, the writer Martin Jacques asks, "What will a globally hegemonic China look like?" And Aaron Friedberg, a realist scholar worried about China's challenge to US hegemony, avers that "Beijing may not seek conquest or direct physical control over its surroundings, but despite repeated claims to the contrary, it does seek a form of regional hegemony." These discussions are taking place despite the Chinese government's persistent renunciation of any hegemonic ambition throughout the reform era (1978 to the present).

But how can we think about a future Chinese hegemony if it is possible? Pure theoretical deductions will not offer great help, because most theories in the social sciences, including international relations (IR) theories, are poor at useful predictions of any sort. And when general predictions are possible, such as the offensive realist one that a strong China will be bent on regional hegemony, they are too general to illuminate the characteristics of a putative Chinese hegemony. As John Ruggie has observed, "All hegemonies are not alike." Nor will policy speculations about possible Chinese strategies based on recent trends help us understand future strategies, since current trends are not necessarily reliable guides for the future. Nor will historical analogies offer great insights. Many Chinese analysts frequently assert that a strong China will be as peaceful and benign as its imperial predecessor supposedly was. Many Western observers take for granted the disruption of the rise to power and the hegemonic struggle—in this case, China as the rising power in competition with the United States as the existing hegemon. Yet such analogies are extremely facile on close scrutiny, and the historicist notion of invariant historical laws has long been discredited.

Although we cannot claim to know too much about the consequences of a possible future Chinese hegemony, scholarly research can achieve a modest aim of providing theoretical clues and establishing historical foundations from which to view those clues. This book explores the strategic and institutional dynamics of international relations in East Asian history when imperial China was the undisputed regional hegemon. The theoretical and historical orientation serves three purposes. First, it examines China's historical hegemony in the East Asian region as a distinct mode of international hegemony in world history. Second, it provides the essential historical background for us to consider China's new, and possibly hegemonic, role in contemporary East Asia. Third, it offers an important historical East Asian case to qualify, challenge, and revise some existing IR theories and perspectives that have developed out of the modern Western experience. Although this study is motivated by a current policy concern, it is not a contemporary policy analysis. Its aim is to provide a new explanation of traditional East Asian international relations under the condition of Chinese hegemony and to make a theoretical argument about the value of a relational approach for IR research.

Contemporary policy implications follow from theory and history, but they are not derived from theoretical deduction or historical analogy. Instead, employing ethical relationalism as a critical and normative IR theory for evaluating contemporary Chinese foreign policy grounds those implications in a rich historical background. I understand the policy significance of history to be an indispensable background for making sense of contemporary developments. Theory, in contrast, is an essential instrument for gaining deep understanding of enduring problems, which can shed light on contemporary issues. Of course, China may not become a hegemon, given the inherent limits and constraints of its power, and the question of a future Chinese hegemony would thus be a moot one. Even so, the value of this study as a historical and theoretical inquiry into international relations in East Asian history will stand. An exploration of the dynamics of historical Chinese hegemony and the intellectual challenges it poses to existing Eurocentric IR theory will in itself make a contribution to IR as a global field of study.

Specifically, the book examines two major dimensions of international relations in East Asian history: the grand strategies of imperial China and its neighbors in their strategic interactions and the fundamental institutional practices of regional politics. Addressing the strategic patterns and institutional maintenance of hegemony, these are central questions for understanding any hegemonic order. What were the grand strategic choices that imperial China and its neighbors adopted toward one another under the condition of Chinese hegemony? What were the fundamental institutional practices that sustained their interactions as part of an international society of Chinese hegemony? And how can we explain these strategic and institutional choices? I develop and evaluate a relational theory of grand strategy and institutional formation to answer these questions.

For policy implications, my question is not what the grand strategies and international institutions in East Asian history might suggest for strategic and institutional developments of a new East Asian order with a reemerging China. Such a question can certainly be asked, and it is indeed a customary one, but it risks historicism. Instead, I ask how the theoretical approach taken in this book and the historical foundation laid by it help us critique contemporary Chinese strategy and evaluate the future possibilities of that strategy. Policy issues are engaged by outlining ethical relationalism—a critical and normative theory with empirical foundations—to assess the strategic impact of China's rise. The book is thus simultaneously empirical, critical, and normative. This is a fully defensible and even desirable position since, as Christian Reus-Smit has argued, the IR mainstream needs to reclaim ethics as a central field of inquiry alongside the currently dominant explanatory mode. Indeed, prominent recent works are already moving in this direction.

Still, one may ask, what is the value of this historically and theoretically oriented work for someone interested only in contemporary policy? Anyone attempting to understand China's new role in East Asia will, however, need an appreciation of its historical role in the region and some guidance of theory for interpreting its past and present roles. Anyone trying to identify the strategic possibilities of contemporary Chinese foreign policy may want to understand such possibilities in China's long history. Anyone hoping for a more peaceful and cooperative China as a great power may want to assess the potential of a more ethical Chinese strategy in the future. And anyone seeking to understand regional responses to rising Chinese power today may want to know about regional responses to Chinese hegemony in the past.

This book offers a detailed historical explanation of the strategic and institutional dimensions of the region's hegemonic experience and China's role in that experience. It explains Chinese grand strategies in the past and considers the possibility of a normatively desirable relational strategy in the present. It explains the essential role of Confucian ethics in imperial Chinese foreign policy and discusses the potential of ethical relationalism in contemporary Chinese foreign policy. It clarifies the multifaceted nature of past regional responses to Chinese hegemony and suggests the need to go beyond simplistic categories for understanding contemporary responses. Moreover, the critical theory of ethical relationalism sketched in the final chapter identifies the ways in which Chinese foreign policy, and the foreign policies of other countries, might be made more ethical, relational, and cooperative. The theory proposes reestablishing the Confucian value of humaneness as the central moral purpose of international relations and suggests why this is possible.

The Argument

I make an interrelated set of arguments about the grand strategic interactions and fundamental institutional practices of historical East Asian politics under the condition of Chinese hegemony. First, however, I develop a concept of relationality in international relations and construct a relational theory for explanation. By relationality I mean the dynamic processes of connections and transactions among actors in structured social relationships, as opposed to their substances and attributes. Relationalism is the theoretical perspective that we need to understand international relations—and indeed any social behavior—in terms of the relational processes of interactions among actors in a network of social relationships. It is a structural approach in taking mutual relations, not actor attributes, as the primary unit of analysis.

A relational perspective requires looking beyond actor attributes to their patterned relationships in social explanation. For example, one may explain a state's grand strategy by theorizing how its relative capability or ideology may suggest certain strategic propensities. Such an explanation ignores how the relationships the state forms with other actors may affect strategic choices during their interactions independent of the attributes of capability or ideology. A relational explanation, however, would focus on the structural effects of patterned relationships on actor strategy. This book shows how the relational structure of historical East Asia and the changing interaction dynamics among China and its neighbors affected the strategic choices of all actors. Chapter 2 develops a three-part conception of the relational international structure in the traditional East Asian context and theorizes its implications for grand strategy. Chapter 7 constructs a relational framework of the constitutional structure of the international society of Chinese hegemony and discusses its fundamental institutions. Relationalism is, of course, not new in IR research. The theoretical synthesis of Chinese and Western relationalisms and empirical application to historical East Asia, however, produce a novel approach for studying a historically significant and currently policy-relevant topic in a vastly understudied area of international relations in world history.

My first substantive argument deals with hierarchy in regional politics. I differentiate between hierarchy as a relational structure of international authority and hierarchy as a Chinese international strategy. According to David Lake, "A political relationship is anarchic if the units—in this case, states—possess no authority over one another. It is hierarchic when one unit, the dominant state, possesses authority over a second, subordinate state." This is the view of hierarchy as an international relationship of legitimate authority. But hierarchy may also become a state strategy to create such a relational structure in foreign relations. Indeed, imperial China adopted two distinct strategies of hierarchy depending on the relational interaction dynamics. David Kang is the pioneering scholar in advancing the East Asian hierarchy argument. He does not, however, distinguish these two conceptions of hierarchy or establish degrees of relational hierarchy in regional politics. His analysis is insightful but sometimes too general. My argument builds on Kang's work, but it is theoretically more specific on the hierarchy concept and empirically grounded in in-depth historical case studies. I show that the East Asian order during China's early Ming dynasty (1368–1424), the methodological choice of which is justified in the next section, was not a complete hierarchy of Chinese authority over its neighbors. Its degree varied with different foreign relationships.

This argument is crucial for establishing the degree of Chinese hegemony in regional politics. I define hegemony as the conjunction of material primacy and social legitimacy. Hegemony, as Ian Clark emphasizes, should not be conflated with primacy. It entails the additional implication of primacy underpinned by social legitimacy rather than the condition of material preponderance alone. Michael Mastanduno explains that hegemony "requires a preponderance of material resources, a sense of social purpose, the ability to control international outcomes of importance to the dominant state, and some degree of consent and acceptance from other states in the system." Thus, although hegemony usually requires material primacy, a system of primacy is not necessarily one of hegemony. Hegemony entails a social recognition by other states that the leading state's material dominance and its consequent international rules and behaviors are broadly legitimate.

This understanding of hegemony as based on international legitimacy runs parallel to the understanding of relational hierarchy as a relationship of legitimate authority. International hegemony and hierarchy are thus intrinsically cognate concepts: hegemony entails a high degree of hierarchical authority, and such authority, possessed by one state over other states, implies a hegemonic structure in their relationships. Because China's hierarchical authority over its neighbors was incomplete, its regional hegemony was consequently also incomplete.

Hierarchy could also be seen as the preeminent grand strategy of early Ming China, and it was executed in two very distinct ways. Most of the time, early Ming emperors adopted a strategy of instrumental hierarchy for the maximization of self-interest by exploiting hierarchical relationships with foreign rulers. Less frequently, but still significantly, they practiced a strategy of expressive hierarchy in accordance with Confucian propriety by establishing ethically endowed relationships for the sake of having such relationships. This conception of imperial Chinese grand strategy is considerably broader than those of Alastair Iain Johnston and Yuan-kang Wang, which focus narrowly on military power and security.

Second, I argue that expressive rationality embodying Confucian relational affection and obligation, as opposed to instrumental rationality of consequentialist means-end calculation, was an essential feature of regional relations in Ming China. Expressive rationality was the Confucian paradigm of psychologically natural and ethically appropriate social action. The empirical analysis shows that this paradigm accounted for more than one-fifth of total regional strategic outcomes, measured by the number of years in which the various strategies were adopted during the early Ming period. Although not as prominent as instrumental rationality overall, expressive rationality was clearly a constituent—and at times significant—feature of regional politics.


Excerpted from Chinese Hegemony by Feng Zhang. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Notes on Transliterations,
List of Abbreviations,
1. Introduction,
2. A Relational Theory of Grand Strategy,
3. Sino-Korean Relations,
4. Sino-Japanese Relations,
5. Sino-Mongol Relations,
6. Fundamental Institutions of Chinese Hegemony,
7. The Value of Relationalism,
Appendix I. Major Periods in Ancient and Imperial China,
Appendix II. Translation of Key Chinese Terms and Expressions,

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