Modern international relations are a direct result of a series of Treaties ratified in Westphalia during the 17th century. The “Westphalian Peace” enshrined the rights of states to claim sovereignty over their domestic affairs and territories — and thus promoted the fundamental principle that all states, no matter how weak or powerful, are equal in international law.
The advent of the West has made these Westphalian principles the global norm of international affairs; and Asia is no exception. What is often forgotten, however, is that Asia before the arrival of the Western powers was under a fundamentally different system — in effect a hierarchical order in which China held the highest status. Thanks to its might and advanced Confucian culture China was at the center of a system where there could be no equality among nations; yet where emulation and cooperation were possible, trade thrived and, importantly, stability could be found.
This is the argument of Professor David C. Kang, who kindly agreed to be our guest for this episode. Together, we look back into the ancient regional order of premodern Asia and explore whether the history of Asian international relations can inform us as to the present state of affairs in the region — and maybe even help us make sense of China’s rise.
David C. Kang is Professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California, with appointments in both the School of International Relations and the Marshall School of Business. He is also director of the Korean Studies Institute and the East Asian Studies Center.
Professor Kang’s latest book is East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010). He is also author of China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (Columbia University Press, 2007); Crony Capitalism: Corruption and Development in South Korea and the Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies (Columbia University Press, 2003), co-authored with Victor Cha. Professor Kang has published numerous articles in top academic journals and opinion pieces in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He received an A.B. with honors from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Berkeley.
East Asian countries have their own histories, their own cultures, their own identities that have been deeply influenced by the West — but they’re not Western countries […] Particularly for Americans, we keep expecting these Asian countries to act the way we would. And they don’t. They share some of our concerns, they share some of our beliefs but they don’t share them all and if we want to understand what’s making this region tick, we need to be able to understand where they came from as well as where they are today.
The interview was recorded on August 3rd in Seoul.