02 Aug 2018

Discussions on how the United States (US) and China became pre-eminent powers have always centred on the different routes adopted by the two countries. Their forms of government, economic and foreign policies, and cultural differences have accentuated this diversity. However, The American Tributary System,* a paper published by Khong Yuen Foong, Li Ka Shing Professor of Political Science at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, suggests otherwise. In his paper, Prof Khong examines contemporary US foreign policy and international relations using the tributary model a framework associated with how China used to manage its external relations from antiquity to show that there are actually surprising similarities between the two systems. The tributary system was a network that Imperial China used to manage its foreign and trade relations in East Asia. It symbolised China as the undisputed hegemon in the network with the rest of the states assuming a secondary status. The system derives its name from the word tribute' referring to the gifts that the secondary states or tributaries gave periodically, in order to get recognition and trade concessions from China.


Drawing parallels

Prof Khong highlights six key characteristics of the Chinese tributary system for which similar guiding principles in the US foreign policy can also found, dating back to 1898. Sinocentrism vs American Exceptionalism Sinocentrism was the fulcrum on which the tributary system was built: China saw itself as a source of good governance, proper conduct and intellectual wisdom. Prof Khong argues that the American analogue of Sinocentrism was the feeling of being an exceptional nation; the belief that the country was special and distinct from the rest of the world especially on the moral and political-ideological fronts. While the ideological plank for China's moral position was Confucianism, for the US it was liberal democracy, with a focus on individual freedom or liberty. The Chinese considered themselves as the ruler of all under heaven, and felt the need to proclaim their civilisation and cultural greatness to the outer world. Likewise, the Americans, considered themselves as blessed by God. The need to be the guardians of freedom was also taken as a God-given mandate. Hierarchy, Inequality vs Hegemony, Leadership Sovereign equality was absent in theory as well as practice in the Chinese tributary system. China's position at the top was a given. Those interested in maintaining trade relations with China had to accept their secondary status. To the same extent, America's position as the hub of its vast network of formal and informal alliances is hardly contested. The combination of military, economy, technology and ideology make the US a unipolar power. Despite the US being a signatory to the Charter of the United Nations, few countries would presume to deal with the US as an equal, says Prof Khong. Affinity Based on Cultural Emulation vs Affinity Based on Political Ideological Emulation There was a further evidence of hierarchy among China's tributaries. Countries that displayed the closest proximity to China's culture enjoyed preferential treatment. They were awarded more opportunities for trade. The order of the Chinese world had three main zones. The closest one being the Inner Sinic Zone, followed by an Inner Asian Zone and finally the Outer Zone. Prof Khong used 15 indicators to measure the closeness of tributary states to the US the inner circles are shown to be overwhelmingly liberal democracies. Both Chinese and American tributary systems are very similar in possessing a ranking system, says Prof Khong. While in the former, it was based on cultural proximity, the latter was based on adherence to liberal democratic norms and practices. Diplomatic Rituals Rituals play a key role in establishing and legitimating authority. In the Chinese tributary system, these included the sending of missions by secondary states to China, the kowtow ceremony, presentation of the tribute and investiture rite. Similar to the scene in Washington, foreign embassies lobby to get their leaders invited. Whether it is a state visit, an official visit or just a working visit, this is decided based on the status conferred by the US on its tributaries. The countries that have been given the most opportunities to address a Joint Session of Congress, for instance, are clearly America's favourite tributaries, says Prof Khong. Benevolent, Non-Coercive Ways He also highlights that both the Chinese and American tributary systems are based on benevolence and non-coercion. Though China was the richest and strongest power in the region, it didn't use force to get the secondary states to adopt its form of Confucianism and thinking. Prestige and moral recognition is what drove the Chinese to extend its beneficence. Likewise, the American system is based on voluntarism, though there have been occasions where it has gone to war to safeguard its hegemonic status against non-tributaries. Domestic-International Nexus Foreign policy has almost always had an impact on domestic affairs. Both the Chinese and the American tributary systems have thrived on this nexus. The Chinese emperors saw themselves as the governor of all under heaven, despite the fact that their jurisdiction didn't extend beyond Northeast and Southeast Asia. The US, on the other hand, sees itself as the leader of the free world. The arrival of visitors, diplomats and traders from the tributary states as supplicants enhances the stock of the ruler in the eyes of the domestic constituencies in both systems.

U.S. and China: differences exist

Despite the similarities between the Chinese and American tributary systems, there are important differences, according to Prof Khong. Even at its prime, China didn't show much enthusiasm to spread its dominance beyond Asia. Although China was the largest economic and military power, more focus was given to trade and civilisation. The US, however, has used economic expansion, military bases, as well as coercive diplomacy (usually against non-tributaries) to mark its superiority across the world. The US has been instrumental in helping set up an extensive array of institutions such as the WTO (World Trade Organization), World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) to propagate and defend its ideas, something China never did, says Prof Khong. Another significant difference is the sheer military power of the US and the manner it has employed it. With over 700 military bases around the world, America has clearly indicated its global reach, according to Prof Khong. Finally, the Chinese tributary system lasted over 1,800 years and was successful in maintaining general peace in the region. In contrast, the American system is much younger and has seen both peace and conflict. The US tributary system has just been in existence for the past 118 years and hence will have to wait for judgement on the longevity front. While general peace has been largely maintained, America has gone to war with non-tributaries, says Prof Khong. These differences, according to Prof Khong, do not invalidate the applicability of the tributary frame to understanding US diplomacy. For him, they actually suggest how the US tributary system has been far more successful than China's.

Self-perception and behaviour of tributaries

If the US sees itself as the hegemon of the world, does it mean that its allies see themselves as secondary states or tributaries? No, they don't. For them, friends' or partners' is the preferred taxonomy Interestingly though, the hub-and-spokes metaphor used by policy makers to describe America's strategic links to its allies seems to be well received by most of its East Asian military allies, for instance. This metaphor is far from devoid of the hierarchy and inequality presented in the tributary system. A hub with spokes implies resources and directives being sent from the epicentre to the periphery. Calls for US leadership can also be seen in other ways. Secondary states routinely reaching out to the US for protection and balancing of power reflects their need for US leadership, says Prof Khong, referring to the recent developments in the South China Sea. The willingness to follow the rules of the game laid down by the US instead of challenging it is perhaps the most striking evidence of the secondary states' acknowledgement of US hegemony. Compared to the empire and other interpretations of US diplomacy, the tributary model provides a more accurate and coherent portrayal of America's global role, according to Prof Khong. . Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his work is its focus on what the US expects from the rest of the world in return for all its exertions in providing public goods and leading the free world. By claiming that the US expects tribute-- firstly, to be recognised as the hegemon and secondly, for the rest of the world to emulate its political forms and ideashe seems to be probing the deep psychology underlying US diplomacy. The tributary lens, he also claims, helps us understand why the US, like ancient China, is extremely protective of its prestige and credibilityit is what helps it stay number one. Despite the contemporary ideological, political and cultural differences between the US and China, Prof Khong has travelled back to a different era of Chinese history to unearth a conspicuous resemblance to the US's approach to managing its external relations. Prof Khong acknowledges that his take on US diplomacy is controversial and perhaps even at odds with the self-perceptions of Americans and others. For him, that is the purpose of scholarshipto shake existing understandings and provide new insights that he hopes to elaborate in a book-length treatment of the subject.
* The Chinese Journal of International Politics, v.6, 2013, 1-47.The article is derived from Prof Khong's paper on The American Tributary System in The Chinese Journal of International Politics, and excerpts of an interview with him. For more information on Prof Khong Yuen Foong, you can check out his profile page or watch him talk about his latest works.