Discussions on the so-called “rise” of China at some point tend to cycle ’round to the question as to whether these developments are new or instead herald a return to a status quo ante, a consideration which depends in no small part as what that status quo actually was. That China was dominant in East Asia at least until the 19th century is subject to hardly any debate; there is less consensus as to what that dominance consisted of and whence it derived.
Although Ji-Young Lee has a definite point-of-view on these matters, her recent book China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Dominance gives other perspectives a fair outing. It can therefore serve as a good general introduction to the question.
Lee’s arguments are largely framed in the language of International Relations (IR) theory, to which he makes continual reference. IR theory may be obscure to the uninitiated, who may be somewhat surprised that international relations could in practice be other than empirical and anecdotal. Lee himself however argues that IR theory explanations for China’s hegemony during the four centuries in question—those of the early modern period—don’t in fact explain the history terribly well and so the reader can in practice skip over some of the theoretical discussion and references to the academic literature while still grasping Lee’s main points.
Using Korea and Japan as case studies, Lee argues that one cannot explain East Asian history on the basis of Chinese political or cultural dominance alone and that “domestic politics” was key to the degree to which Chinese hegemony was accepted.
East Asian actors were not passive recipients of Chinese influence or domination… Contrary to popular images of an all-powerful Chinese empire, Chinese hegemony was shaped to a significant degree by the extent to which and the manner in which the tribute system was accepted, ignored, and challenged by China’s East Asian neighbors.
Korea, Lee notes and rather convincingly demonstrates,
complied with Chinese hegemony not simply because Korea was too weak and too geographically close to counter the hegemon next door but because Korean contenders for power needed to legitimate their rule through reference to Chinese symbolic authorization.
Japan was in rather the opposite situation: “a Japanese leader could hurt his legitimacy by identifying with Chinese symbolic authority.”
Nor is power alone enough explanation for the nature of the relationships: Korea maintained actual and symbolic relationships with the Ming for a couple of decades longer than pure realpolitik might have indicated it should switch to the Manchus.
Dominance, in conclusion, requires some degree of acquiescence from the dominated whose objectives and priorities may affect the equation.
In his conclusion, Lee endeavors to use his arguments as a lens through which to view the present day. He argues, contrary to some conventional wisdom, that:
American hegemony in East Asia can have staying power beyond its relative decline in material capabilities vis-à-vis China. An understanding of the workings of Chinese hegemony suggests that whether and how long American hegemony will endure is not simply a question of the unequal growth of China’s power vis-à-vis that of the United States. The fate of American hegemony may also depend on the extent to which the symbolic power of the United States is consequential to the domestic politics of other, less powerful actors.
This bears resemblance to a “soft power” argument that has been made elsewhere.
This book was written before the advent of the new American administration, but Lee’s final words seem particularly relevant: