I have written an article in the European Journal of International Relations on how pre-modern China’s relations with its nomadic neighbours have yet to be understood, and how they perhaps offer a unique model for how societies can act and interact.
While pre-modern China’s relations with her Sinic neighbours have been described as a distinctive variant of the English School’s international society based on a shared Confucian culture and a China-centred tributary system, her relations with her nomadic neighbours, including the Hsiung-nu, Turks, Uighurs and Mongols, have often been characterized as purely power-political, Hobbesian and lacking any societal foundation. This article argues that China and the nomads formed an international society for much of their history, one based not on a common Confucian heritage or China’s immutable centrality, but on the principle of an adaptable hierarchy based on common diplomatic norms and practices that allowed its members to affirm and contest their status within this hierarchy. The case of China and the nomads extends and enriches the concept of international society in three ways. First, it is a historical example of a non-European international society not composed of sovereign states or based on the principle of sovereign equality, but based on the principle of adaptable hierarchy and the ranking of powers. Second, it shows that international society can exist and develop between units as culturally and politically dissimilar as China and the nomads. Finally, it provides us with a unique model of how pre-modern international society in East Asia was stratified, which markedly differs from how modern international society is stratified. This last point has contemporary relevance in relation to China’s rise as a great power, and its frustration at what it feels is the unfair denial of a status commensurate with its growing power and influence by the US and the West.
You can access the article on the publisher’s website.