Imagine you are leading a delegation from the Joseon dynasty, traveling to Beijing to visit the court of the Qing emperor.

On entering China, a border guard inspects your diplomatic passport, while a few hundred meters ahead, a band strikes up the Korean national anthem – a rousing march, heavy on the brass – in honor of the close relations between Korea and China.

Unlikely.

David C. Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California, points out that most of the symbols we associate today with international relations and statehood – passports, national anthems – are intrinsically tied to the Western concept of the nation state, which arose following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and which was based on the concept that all states, regardless of discrepancies in their political, economic or military power, were equal in their sovereignty.

In a recent interview with “Korea and the World,”1 Professor Kang points out that, no matter how much we take this international system for granted, it is a relatively recent transplant to Asia, resulting from the opening of East Asian civilizations to Western commerce and ideas – backed by military force – in the 19th century. This is reinforced, he quips, by the fact that national anthems in this part of the world do not draw on local musical traditions, but instead sound like European marches written in the 1860s.

Unlike the post-Westphalian interaction between sovereign nation states that arose in Europe, Asia historically enjoyed a system of stable political and economic relations based on every participant (many of which bear little resemblance to nations as we think of them today) knowing its place in a hierarchy with China at the apex.

Professor Kang explains that China’s historical role as top dog was earned by virtue of having the most advanced civilization. Although almost all of the participants in the Asian system were, to some degree, tributary vassal states to China, the system was a true hierarchy, with each participant enjoying an implicitly understood status relative to the others based on how closely it emulated Chinese civilization and accomplishments – in many senses, its level of Confucianism.

This system, rather than resulting in China running roughshod over its weaker neighbors as the bully on the block, instead ushered in a Pax Sinica that prevailed through much of the Han, Tang and Ming dynasties – a combined period of almost 1,000 years that ended four years before the Treaty of Westphalia.

 

So with a re-emergent China, is a return to Pax Sinica likely?

 

Not really, argues Professor Kang. China is no longer a “vibrant cultural beacon.” Communism was effective in dismantling the feudal and Confucian belief systems that underpinned its historical cultural supremacy, but no one really believes in communism anymore.

And nothing has emerged to take its place – “anything to get ahead” is not an attractive basis for the emulative hierarchy that dominated pre-Western relations in Asia.