China’s ‘tributary system’ an ignorant catchphrase

By Su Tan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/6/27 23:17:58

US Defense Secretary James Mattis is visiting China from Tuesday to Thursday amid Sino-US tensions over trade and the South China Sea, which indicates smooth communication between bilateral militaries. But early signs indicate that this visit will be unable to change his long-held harsh views and bias of China.

Ahead of his China trip, the Pentagon chief accused China of pressuring other nations to become tributary states and kowtow to Beijing, which he said was like a more muscular version of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). An academic whose home boasts a library of about 7,000 books, he had similarly and on several occasions likened diplomacy of today's China to the way it handled ties with its neighbors several centuries ago. And he is not alone among US politicians. US Senator Marco Rubio made a similar comparison in early June. 

But they seem to have misunderstood China's tributary system and condescendingly overrated the advantages of the US' foreign relations.

China's tributary system reached its apex in the Ming Dynasty, covering over a dozen smaller neighbors. According to Khong Yuen Foong, a professor of international relations at the National University of Singapore, what took center stage in China's attracting regional countries to the system was not economic and military prowess, but trade and civilizational pull. In addition to Confucianism, Ming emperors adopted a principle of giving more and getting less. For participating countries that sent missions to pay tribute to China regularly, they were correspondingly rewarded by Chinese authorities and allowed to trade freely in Beijing. This was so beneficial for these countries that later they would send tributary missions more frequently than they were supposed to. In this sense, the system is a peaceful engagement. David Kang, a professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California, believes that China's tributary system in the Ming and Qing dynasties brought five centuries of peace and stability to the region.

Mattis' words show that he may take the tributary system as one full of suppression and force, with pain for tributary states. He is wrong and he clearly doesn't know as much about China as he thinks. In fact, Professor Khong believes that the US is no wiser than China in handling its foreign relations and is conducting a similar system to what China did in the Ming Dynasty. Isn't the Pax Americana a euphemism for the US version of tributary system?

Moreover, as the international landscape has changed enormously today, it would be childish and simplistic if the US thinks China wants to re-create the tributary system of the Ming Dynasty. China has well demonstrated that it treats every other country as an equal and seeks friendly and cooperative relations with them. Perhaps the US needs to stop judging others through its narrow-minded lens.

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