Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Research Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen Blogs and Postcards
Header image CEASG Blogs

A modern day tributary system is far from distinctly Chinese

Date:05 October 2014
Author:Ricardo Berentsen

Having read a glimpse of When China Rules the World, the infamous book by author Martin Jacques, I was most struck by one of the eight tenets he describes, eight characteristics of China’s return to the global field. Jacques predicts that we might very well see the return of the long lost tributary system in East China, and perhaps, across the globe. While we certainly can expect a dominant China in the not too distant future, perhaps within a framework designed in the form of a neo-, or quasi-tributary system, I take issue with Jacques’ conception of this modern incarnation of the ancient tributary system.

The imperial tributary system

Having been oblivious to such concepts as state sovereignty and state equality, the entire East Asia region developed an economic and political system revolving around China. This sinocentric view was natural for China, who believed itself to be far superior to other nations in the region. As such, it expected and demanded tribute from those smaller countries. In return, Korea, for instance, used this system to legitimize their rule at home, and received lavish gifts from the Chinese emperor.

China’s system derived its distinctness from how it and other East Asian nations were organized. They were not nation-states, but civilization-states wherein not set borders demarcated the end and beginnings of states, but spheres of influence. In the current Westphalian system, where the entire world consists of deeply interconnected nation-states, each being sovereign and equal before international law, it would be difficult to conceive of a situation where the invocation of the old civilization-state will return.

China’s historical refusal to see itself as a nation-state, has Jacques convinced that the tributary model might return in a conception that would be adjusted to the complexities of modernity. However, Jacques stresses that this system will maintain its distinct Chinese identity.

The modern day conception of the tributary system, which is not entirely explained, but seems to imply a set of nation-states feeling and acting inferior to China, seems highly problematic as a distinctly Chinese system. Jacques’ realization that the old system cannot be implemented wholesale, has made his modern conception indistinctive from what Western scholars regard as hegemony.

Non-offensive hegemony

Hegemony, understood as subtle non-offensive dominant power, seems identical to Jacques’ notion of a modern Chinese tributary system. In the sense that both are a non-violent way of influencing and dominating less powerful states, the concepts of hegemony and the tributary system look remarkably similar. Let’s take a look at the similarities.

First, hegemony is implicitly acknowledged, like the conception of a modern tributary system would be. As Japan knows it needs to rely on the United States for military protection, so might it one day look towards China for that same protection.

Second, both systems will have dyads with one dominant and one serving state. The comparison between the United States now, and China in the future, remains.

Third, both systems do not ignore the sovereign integrity of other states. Hegemony, as well as the tributary system, are typically achieved without conflict. China and other hegemons use selective incentives to recruit other states into their spheres of influence.

Return to Sino-centric world?

The features of the tributary system that made it distinctly Chinese, will have to be put aside in the modern world. The return of a Sino-centric world seems unlikely; acceptation of China as the cultural center of the world looks to be even more doubtful. With other states such as India and the United States increasing their influence in the region, China will have to compete for the favor of smaller states – unheard of in imperial times.

Placating a state that is stronger than another state, even accepting unequal treaties and trade benefits, is not something new, nor is it a situation specifically tailored to East Asian history. Certainly, China’s historical roots will play a large part in the way it will boost its return on the world stage, but it will have to take into account the dominating nation-state model. In the end China, once again, will have to take a pragmatic attitude: a tributary system centered around it can certainly not be part of such an approach.