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date: 25 March 2023

Taking China Seriously: Relationality, Tianxia, and the “Chinese School” of International Relationsfree

Taking China Seriously: Relationality, Tianxia, and the “Chinese School” of International Relationsfree

  • Salvatore BabonesSalvatore BabonesDepartment of Sociology, University of Sydney


China’s economic rise has been accompanied by the maturation and increasing professionalization of academic disciplines in China, including the discipline of international relations. The emergence of an indigenous international relations discipline in China has led to an intense debate about the development of a distinctive “Chinese School” that draws on China’s intellectual traditions and historical record to inspire the development of new international relations theories. While the debate continues, the outlines of a Chinese School are becoming clear. The Chinese School of international relations theory draws on Confucian concepts of relationality and hierarchy to theorize the character of the relations between countries rather than focus on the attributes of countries themselves. It also highlights the historical existence of interstate systems organized in a hub-and-spoke pattern around a single, central state.

The premodern East Asian world-system in which China was embedded and classical Chinese scholars developed their ideas was a central state system. Premodern China was always by far the dominant state in East Asia, with the result that international relations in the East Asian world-system exhibited a hub-and-spoke pattern centered on China, as in the tributary system of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Moreover the Confucian worldview that ultimately came to be China’s state ideology served in effect as the governing moral code of the system as a whole. The combination of a central state structure with a universal moral code created what in Chinese is called a tianxia (“all under heaven”), a world-embracing system of governance centered on a particular state, in this case China.

In a tianxia system international relations tend to be hierarchical because of the clear power differentials between the central state and other states. They can be either expressive (showing social solidarity) or purely instrumental, depending on the stance taken by the central state. Chinese School international relations theorists tend to assume that the “best” (most stable, most peaceful, most prosperous, etc.) world-system configuration would be a tianxia system dominated by expressive rationality and centered on China, but this is no more self-evident than the widely held Western preference for a liberal, rules-based order. What Chinese School international relations theory really offers the discipline is a new set of concepts that can be applied to the theorization and empirical analysis of today’s millennial world-system. This postmodern interstate system appears to be a central state system with a universal moral code, an American tianxia based on individualism. The historical Confucian Chinese tianxia may be the best precedent for modeling this system.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • International Political Economy
  • World Politics


In the 21st century, Chinese international relations theory (as with all things Chinese) is enjoying a renaissance inside China and attracting interest in the rest of the world as well. Once a proscribed discipline in the Maoist era, IR theory used to be hidden away in schools of international politics whose main purpose was to teach Communist Party doctrine on internationalism and imperialism (Song, 2001, p. 63). Today, academic IR theory is widely taught inside China by acknowledged IR scholars, many of whom earned their PhDs at leading Western universities. Chinese scholars and an increasing number of non-Chinese scholars working at Chinese universities now publish articles in mainstream Western IR journals and edited books. There is not yet a strong tradition of English-language scholarly monograph publishing in China, but the discipline is clearly moving in that direction, despite the fact that Chinese universities (like many others around the world) strongly prioritize articles over book publishing. Completing the institutionalization of the discipline in China, the Chinese Journal of International Politics (published since 2006 by Oxford University Press for Tsinghua University) has become a major English-language scholarly journal, though still published under the politically acceptable rubric of “international politics.”

Postreform China, in short, has joined the Western academic mainstream, at least when it comes to IR theory. Old-fashioned ideological restrictions demanding that IR be theorized “with Chinese characteristics” (Song, 2001) are fast giving way to a free (or at least freer) market of ideas. Established Western theories are now routinely applied by Chinese scholars to the empirical study of contemporary Asian IR, the relationship between China and the United States, and China’s historical IR, with a strong affinity toward realist approaches, even perhaps “an unmistakably cynical Realism” (Lynch, 2009, p. 87). Indigenous Chinese theoretical approaches are emerging as well (Zhang, 2012), though these tend not to be as highly professionalized as their longer-standing Western counterparts. A conspicuous shortcoming is the tendency to take legendary stories from Chinese history at face value, treating them as empirical cases rather than as heuristic examples. For example, leading Chinese scholars regularly use “data” from the period of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) to inform and even to test their theories (Qin, 2011; Yan, 2011; Zhao, 2009). The Western equivalent would be to treat Thucydides not just as a source of intellectual inspiration but also as an archive for examining the role of political speeches in foreign policy decision-making.

Recourse to Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, and other classical Chinese philosophers not just for inspiration but also for empirical data can give rise to many obvious problems. As Zhang (2012, p. 85) pointed out, “Understanding ancient thought cannot just rely on the literal meaning of a text but must take into account both its meaning and context.” Using Yan (2011) as a template, Zhang (2012, pp. 85–90) identified methodological problems with the use of ancient texts on three levels: the conflation of domestic politics and IR, the conflation of ideology and science, and decontextualization. The common theme running through all of these criticisms is the natural tendency, when interpreting ancient authors, to put our words into their mouths. Again turning to Thucydides (who was no stranger to this technique), a parallel example from Western IR scholarship would be to read a “Thucydides trap” (Allison, 2017)—a situation in which a rising power challenges a declining hegemon—into Thucydides himself. In fact, Thucydides described no such thing: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” But Athens was not a “rising power” seeking to overthrow Spartan hegemony; if anything, Athens was the hegemon.

In the Western example, Thucydides has been appropriated as a kind of intellectual brand name, but contemporary hegemonic transition theory does not rely on Thucydides for empirical data. Leading Chinese theorists like Yan (2011) and especially Zhao (2006, 2009, 2012) relied on semilegendary accounts of Zhou Dynasty politics to “prove” their points, so to speak, but others, in particular Qin (2011), used classical philosophers like Confucius and Mencius only as inspirations, in much the same way that Western scholars might turn to Plato and Aristotle. Qin and Yan are regularly used to represent diametrically opposed approaches to the development of a “Chinese School” of IR theory: Qin (2007; reprinted as Qin, 2010) advocated the application of Chinese-derived concepts to universal data, while Yan (2011) advocated the application of universal scientific concepts to (often questionable) Chinese data. Thus, while Qin (2012, p. 85) saw the emergence of a recognizable Chinese School of IR as “not only possible, but also desirable for the purpose of knowledge production,” Yan (2011, pp. 252–259) was more skeptical. It must be said that Yan’s reasoning seems quite facile: He argued that schools of thought shouldn’t be named by their creators, that they are rarely named after countries (the “English School” notwithstanding), and that China is too diverse to be associated with a single school.

Nonetheless, Yan (2011, p. 255) conceded that “It is understandable that Chinese scholars are uneasy that no influential IR theories have been developed by Chinese scholars.” That may be about to change. Qin’s (2007, 2010, 2012) formulation of a Chinese School of international relations that draws lessons from Chinese philosophy and history and applies them to historical contexts drawn from around the world seems to be coming to fruition, as reflected in the fact that scholars outside China are beginning to draw on (and argue with) ideas that originate in China (Callahan, 2015; Kavalski, 2014). Two related concepts stand out as distinctively characteristic of the emerging Chinese School: tianxia (literally “sky beneath,” idiomatically translated as “all under heaven”) and relationality (a structuralism reinforced by shared values). The contemporary use of the classical Chinese concept of tianxia is most closely associated with the philosophical writings of Zhao (2006, 2009, 2012), who used the term to represent what he (controversially) saw as a form of nonhierarchical “worldism” to be opposed to Western-born globalism. Chinese conceptualizations of relationality are most closely associated with Qin (2011), who contrasted what he saw as Confucian relational governance with Western rules-based governance.

As Yan (2011, p. 246) argued, Chinese School theorists like Qin (and especially Zhao) tended to construe their theories in normative as well as scientific terms. This may fly in the face of Western scientific epistemology, but it must be admitted that normative policy advocacy is also a prominent feature of Western (and especially American) IR scholarship. The emerging Chinese School of IR theory can be criticized for picking up the bad habits of Western schools, but it can’t be discarded for that. The Chinese School offers fresh insights and a new vocabulary that has the potential to make an important contribution to the study of IR globally. Moreover the Chinese concepts it promotes are much more portable than their own authors seem to realize. As China globalizes, the most important applications of Chinese School IR theory may lie outside China itself.

Relationality As the Cornerstone of the Chinese School

Yan Xuetong is well known as the arch-empiricist of Chinese IR theory, interpreting social science as a universal, positivist science of hypothesis testing and prediction. But he is equally well known for eschewing the development of specifically Chinese concepts, preferring instead to see the Chinese discipline develop by importing well-established Western theories and methods. Nonetheless, even Yan (2011, p. 256) recognized that the “hope of Chinese IR theoretical study lies in rediscovering traditional Chinese IR thought,” an approach that he took in his own research, for example Yan (2011, pp. 21–106), where he attempted to draw parallels between the political lessons taught by classical Chinese philosophy and approaches to IR today. While this is a fascinating and worthwhile intellectual exercise, it is no more likely to yield useful analytical theory than a close reading of Plato or Aristotle. Yan (2011, p. 256) was correct that “Chinese scholars have an advantage in reading Chinese ancient writings and, thus, are able to have a more nuanced and perhaps better understanding than their Western colleagues,” but that deeper understanding will not necessary produce good empirical theory. It may simply result in better research on classical Chinese thought—an important intellectual endeavor in its own right, but not really relevant for advancing IR theory. It is telling that in his own empirical work on contemporary Chinese foreign policy, Yan (2014) made no use of classical Chinese thought. His analysis of Xi Jinping’s departure from Deng Xiaoping’s “keep a low profile” reform era guidance was thoroughly embedded in Western realism.

The most prominent advocate of the development of a distinctive “Chinese School” of IR, Qin Yaqing, also turned to classical Chinese sources for inspiration. But unlike Yan Xuetong, he actively pulls classical concepts out of context to apply them to today’s world. His key source was classical Confucianism and a body of thought derived from Confucius and Mencius that he called “relationalism.” Drawing on Emirbayer (1997), Qin (2011, pp. 134–135) defined relationalism in opposition to the “substantialism” of atomic methodological individualism. For Yan, relationalism implies a focus on continuing relations and processes that unfold in time, rather than on the attributes of cases at a particular point in time. He acknowledged that there is a body of relationalist research in Western IR theory, but he proposedf to push the concept further by bringing morality into the analysis of relations. Qin (2011, p. 135) was certainly correct to assert that morality is “an essential condition” for understanding IR. Though he turned to Confucius and Mencius for inspiration, he might just as well have cited Machiavelli, who argued that a ruler must be feared for the possession of power but not hated for the arbitrary use of it. When Qin (2011, p. 135) said that “Mencius argues that rule based on material and coercive power will be doomed to failure . . . [but] rule based on normative power or moral power, will lead to sustainable order,” he was drawing on Chinese classical thought to derive empirically verifiable propositions.

Qin (2011, pp. 125–137) made this proposition specifically Chinese by arguing that Confucian understandings of morality differ from Western ones. In Qin’s telling, Confucian tradition defines morality in terms of one’s behavior toward others rather than in terms of the perfection of the self. Thus the supposedly Chinese, Confucian morality of relational collegiality is both different from and (in IR) putatively more effective than the Western, Augustinian morality of individual responsibility. This proposition puts Chinese School thinking “in clear juxtaposition to many central Western concepts” of IR theory (Acharya & Buzan, 2010, p. 226). Interestingly—perhaps even “amusingly”—Qin (2011, p. 144) made his point by suggesting that East Asian countries share a Confucian sense of morality and thus have more peaceful relations than European countries. Whether or not this is the case is an empirical question that can be conceptualized, operationalized, and answered using empirical tools.

To develop an applied example (not raised by Qin), relational theory might be applied to the South China Sea dispute. Qin’s reasoning, suggests that in the Confucian tradition, a country is moral when it shows forbearance in enforcing a disputed border claim, and that this Confucian morality of forbearance will be more effective than other strategies for achieving peaceful relations with neighboring countries. The Augustinian alternative would suggest that a country is moral when it respects the ruling of an arbitration tribunal about its claim, and that mutual adherence to the rule of law is the best strategy for peace. In the South China Sea dispute, China has indeed refrained from enforcing its claims, as have all of the other claimants: a clear example of Confucian-relational morality in action. Yet in a clear violation of Augustinian individual morality, China has categorically disavowed the unfavorable ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the issue. From the standpoint of empirical IR theory, the “true” morality of the situation is irrelevant, but Qin maintained that adherence to Confucian concepts of relational morality produces more harmonious IR than adherence to Augustinian concepts of individual morality. The continuing disharmony among South China Sea claimants might suggest otherwise, but of course a systematic analysis involving multiple disputes evincing a mix of approaches would be required to confirm this.

Zhang (2015) has produced the raw materials for a systematic study of the effectiveness of relational policies for the early years of the Ming Dynasty (dynastic years: 1368–644; study period: 1368–1424). He focused on China’s international relations with Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Zhang identified two kinds of relationality in Ming Chinese grand strategy—instrumental hierarchy and expressive hierarchy—while implicitly taking it for granted that the premodern East Asian interstate system would inevitably exhibit a hierarchy centered on China (Zhang, 2015, pp. 26–30). What Zhang called “instrumental hierarchy” might simply be identified as Western realism in Chinese clothing: “the maximization of self-interest by exploiting hierarchical relationships with foreign rulers” (Zhang, 2015, p. 7). In short, it is not relationalism at all. But Zhang’s “expressive hierarchy” is roughly equivalent to Qin’s understanding of relationality, practiced “in accordance with Confucian propriety by establishing ethically endowed relationships” (Zhang, 2015, p. 7). Zhang (2015, p. 177) found that, across his three cases, China employed instrumental strategies in 279 case-years and ethical strategies in just 75 case-years. If we accept Kang’s (2010) finding that “East Asia before the West” was relatively peaceful, it can’t be because of the predominance of Confucian moral or ethical relationalism in the East Asian interstate system. A cursory reading of the facts suggests that the main factor differentiating early Ming East Asia from Renaissance Western Europe was hierarchy, not morality.

Qin (2011) himself focused his theory development on the 21st-century interstate system, for which he argued that relational governance can be “more advantageous” (p. 129) than either rule-based governance or (hierarchical) unilateralism. He developed this argument using reasoning from transactions cost economics. He likened the interstate system to national economies where there is weak rule of law; in environments where rules often go unenforced, relationality (e.g., Chinese “guanxi”) can overcome the deficits of rule-based systems. Distinguishing himself from transactions cost approaches, however, Qin (2011, p. 133) emphasized the importance of “trust as a genuine norm based on social practices, rather than as a rational choice.” In the sphere of international relations, he defined

relational governance as a process of negotiating socio-political arrangements that manage complex relationships in a community to produce order so that members behave in a reciprocal and cooperative fashion with mutual trust evolved over a shared understanding of social norms and human morality. (Qin, 2011, p. 133; italics in original)

The key phrase is “a shared understanding”: Surely it must be easier to practice relationalism when everyone is on the same page. Or is it? Qin did not problematize this, but an empirical approach to the Chinese School would. If relational governance structures are more likely to yield cooperation when state actors have “a shared understanding of social norms and human morality,” then why is the Arab world so violent? Many anecdotal examples could be offered on either side of this question, and the reliance on anecdotes (often legendary anecdotes) is a major shortcoming of the Chinese School as it stands today. But there is now enough of a theoretical skeleton to the Chinese School to start supporting empirical muscle. Relationality may be common or uncommon, effective or ineffective, historical or contemporary. The important thing is that it can be applied. The Chinese School—or at least a Chinese School—has come of age.

The Central State and the Tianxia Concept

The Chinese School “stresses relationality as the basic ontological condition of international actors” (Kavalski, 2014, p. 241; emphasis in original), but not just any kind of relationality. Qin (2012, p. 79) made clear that the “theoretical hard core” of Chinese IR theory is “deeply rooted in traditional Chinese practices and thoughts.” Those roots are deep indeed. The “big three” (Shih & Chen, 2014, p. 206) of Chinese IR thinking—Yan Xuetong, Qin Yaqing, and Zhao Tingyang—all drew inspiration from the Zhou Dynasty of 2,000–3,000 years ago. They sometimes drew on more recent historical episodes, but never on China’s modern history. This could be because the interpretation of China’s modern history is still politically sensitive, or perhaps merely due to a general aversion to drawing lessons from current history (the official history of the 1644–1911 Qing Dynasty is still being finalized). A more likely explanation, though, is that Chinese IR scholars prefer to draw lessons from a time when China was at the center, if not of the world, then at least of its own neighborhood. The Chinese School is nothing if not Sinocentric.

The Chinese word for China, appropriately enough, is Zhongguo, which is often poetically translated as “Middle Kingdom” but literally means either “Central State” or “Central States” (there is no plural inflection in Chinese). Premodern China was always the central area of the East Asian world-system, even when China itself was divided into multiple competing states. Other countries oriented their IR toward China in what we might now call a “hub-and-spokes” pattern, in different historical epochs variously receiving patents of office from Chinese emperors, turning to Chinese emperors to resolve disputes, adopting Chinese diplomatic protocols for use among themselves, and/or engaging in tributary trade with China. When outside powers conquered China, they recentered their domains on China and ruled over their former countries as Chinese emperors (e.g., the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and Manchurian Qing Dynasty). Thus, although Chinese IR theorists (and their Western interpreters) tend to focus on the cultural distinctiveness of China in defining the Chinese School, the structural distinctiveness of China is much more profound—and much more clearly relevant for understanding its IR.

Classical Chinese political philosophy from the likes of Confucius and Mencius took the centrality of China for granted, while the neo-Confucian legal scholarship of the early Ming Dynasty made it explicit (Jiang, 2011, pp. 100–140). China’s late 18th- and early 19th-century leaders found it very difficult to adjust to modernity precisely because their entire intellectual apparatus was built on, and could only accommodate, a China-centered world. Other cultures have suffered from ethnocentrism, but among those with well-established bodies of thought on IR, only premodern China consistently put itself at the center of the world. Ancient Greek IR thought was born out of an awareness of the great Persian Empire looming over it (viz. the Histories of Herodotus). The classical Indian “mandala” tradition of Kautilya theorized an anarchic interstate system much like the modern European one (Modelski, 1964). Classical Islamic tradition similarly assumed and accommodated the existence of multiple competing states, including (especially) multiple non-Islamic states (Tadjbakhsh, 2010, pp. 177–178). Of course, modern European IR theory from Machiavelli onward has focused on analyzing the dynamics of a competitive interstate system with no center, or with a weak center defined only in terms of “hegemony” or “leadership.” The Chinese intellectual tradition is the only one born out of a long-term structural reality of what might be called a “central state system.”

Confucian relationalism, especially its “expressive hierarchy” form identified by Zhang (2015), can thus be situated within the larger context of a central state system organized around China. The Confucian term that describes the combination of a central state structure with an expressive hierarchical morality is tianxia. Initially, tianxia was used simply to mean “the world,” but it came to imply “an enlightened realm that Confucian thinkers and mandarins raised to one of universal values that determined who was civilized and who was not” (Wang, 2013, p. 133). The Chinese tianxia might be likened to a Western term like Christendom or an Islamic term like umma, with the difference that, unlike the Western and Islamic contexts, the Chinese context for tianxia is inextricably linked to a central state system. Also, although tianxia is a broadly Confucian term that implies adherence to (or at least consistency with) Confucian principles of moral political behavior, it lacks an explicitly religious dimension. The civilizational norms of the Chinese tianxia were not God-given; they were the reasoned opinions of (Chinese) state-sponsored scholars. As the universally acknowledged central state of the Chinese tianxia, China was able to some extent to set those norms not just for itself but for others as well.

The philosopher Zhao Tingyang is famous as the chief promoter of the use of the tianxia concept in contemporary international relations. Zhao described tianxia as operating on three levels: “(1) the earth or all lands under the sky . . . (2) a common or public choice made by all peoples in the world, truly representing the general will . . . and (3) a universal political system for the world” (Zhao, 2012, p. 59). Qin (2012, p. 85) explicitly identified Zhao’s use of tianxia as a welcome and more ambitious alternative to his own concept of relationality, but Zhao (2012, pp. 60–64) himself viewed the tianxia concept as a form of relational thought. Zhao (2012, p. 63; italics in original) suggested that relationality should be applied at “three different but related political horizons: national, international, and world.” Seen from this perspective, the relationality of Confucius and Mencius might be placed at the national level, the relationality of Qin Yaqing at the international level, and the relationality of Zhao’s tianxia at the world level. Indeed, Zhao and his followers are ardent advocates of a worldism that involves “the transcendence of Chinese [and other] citizenship toward world citizenship” (Qi & Shen, 2015, p. 281). Zhao’s own writing is suffused with this kind of normative application of the tianxia concept, but it also contains the conceptual kernels of an empirically applicable IR theory.

Zhao (2006, 2009, 2012) explicitly modeled his (normative) arguments for a new world tianxia on semilegendary accounts of the politics of classical China’s Zhou Dynasty. In 2009, he presented an explicit list of six attributes of the Zhou era tianxia concept (Zhao, 2009, pp. 8–9), a list that he later further elaborated (Zhao, 2012, pp. 56–58). Summarizing the points while using a mix of Zhao’s own words from both sources, the six elements are the following:


A mixed political system of monarch and aristocracy.


An open network, consisting of a general world government and substates.


A world government in charge of universal institutions, laws, and world order; it has the authority to examine and recognize the political legitimacy of substates.


Substates that are independent in their domestic economy, culture, social norms, and values: that is, independent in almost all forms of life except their political legitimacy and obligations.


A world government that directly rules a land called King-land, about twice the size of a large substate, and about four times that of a medium-sized substate.


An important policy that people have the freedom to migrate to, and work in, any state they like.

Zhao is a philosopher, not a social scientist, but a contemporary central state model of global governance lurks behind his six principles. For example, nothing in his writing suggests that he seriously espouses principle 1, the appointment of a global king and court, but as Khong (2013, p. 29) argued, the president of the United States plays much the same role in the world today as the Chinese emperors did in premodern East Asia. Today’s interstate system is nothing if not an open network (principle 2). Again as argued by Khong (2013, p. 26), U.S. diplomatic recognition “is the contemporary equivalent of investiture” as practiced in the Chinese tributary system (principle 3). Nonetheless, other states in today’s interstate system do enjoy broad independence in the economic, cultural, and social spheres (principle 4), though they may be subject to sanctions or even regime change if they do not conform to global norms in discharging their political obligations (viz. “responsibility to protect” doctrine). To jump ahead, widespread immigration (principle 6) is clearly an emerging feature of today’s interstate system.

Zhao’s point in principle 5 is perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of empirical IR theory, because it suggests that a central state tianxia system requires a “just right” preponderance of power. A central state that is too overwhelmingly powerful might incorporate the entire system under its direct rule, while one that is not powerful enough presumably could not perform the legitimating function required to stabilize the system as a whole. Broadly speaking, Zhao suggested that the central state should be one order of magnitude larger than second-tier powers, which should themselves be one order of magnitude larger than the next tier. This Goldilocks principle applied to IR sounds a lot like Brooks and Wohlforth’s (2016, pp. 15–16) “1+Y+X” system configuration, with one superpower, Y intermediate powers, and X “great” powers. In Brooks and Wohlforth’s formulation, the United States is the one superpower, China is the only Y power, and all other “great” powers fall into the residual X category, though Brooks and Wohlforth do consider the possibility that the European Union is a potential Y power in formation, and Russia is clearly a former Y power in decline. Brooks and Wohlforth were silent about the empirical implications of the 1+Y+X configuration, but it might be taken as an implicit assertion of Chinese School tianxia theory that it is a more stable and peaceful configuration than multipolarity, bipolarity, or even sheer unipolarity.

Zhao (2006, p. 39) was emphatic that he did not consider the current U.S.-led international order a tianxia on the Confucian moral model, preferring to label it a “hidden, yet totally dominating world control by means of hegemony.” But by Zhao’s own criteria, a tianxia is a form of order that is much more hierarchical than mere hegemony. In his empirical comparison of today’s interstate system with the Ming/Qing tributary system, Khong (2013, p. 42) concluded definitely that “the United States’ place in the world seems to have moved from ‘guojia’ [state] to ‘tianxia.’” But for Zhao, as for other Chinese School authors, a tianxia system is more than just a central state system. It is a central state system based on a moral ideology that emanates from the central state but is widely shared and universal in applicability. In the premodern Chinese tianxia, that ideology was Confucianism. While Confucianism can be understood as a relational moral system, Zhao and the Chinese School were wrong to assume that Confucianism is the only relational system, and for that matter wrong to assume that a tianxia ideology must be relational. Zhao’s six points do not seem to demand relational governance. They merely demand governance. Thus, Babones (2017) asserted that today’s world-system is an American tianxia based on a moral ideology of individualism that undergirds the basic world society principles of human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

The whole idea of an individualistic tianxia turns Chinese School relationalism on its head, but the eminent historian of Chinese foreign relations Wang Gungwu was the first to suggest its possibility:

Today . . . an American tianxia has a strong global presence. It has a missionary drive that is backed by unmatched military power and political influence. Compared to the Chinese concept, it is not passive and defensive; rather, unlike other universal ideals, it is supported by a greater capacity to expand. (Wang, 2013, p. 135)

Wang seemed to emphasize the universality of tianxia civilizational morality over its specifically Confucian content. Zhao (2012, pp. 62–63) tackled this head on when he contrasted Western, individualistic “uniform universalism” with his own Confucian, relational concept of “compatible universalism.” For Zhao, compatible universalism implied the application of a single moral code to all relationships between individual actors in a system, rather than to the individuals themselves. The key element in Zhao’s compatibility formula for IR is mutual tolerance, resulting in a kind of societal “live and let live” in which each dyadic relationship between countries is to be conducted independently from other relationships, and certainly free of pressures from the center. This seems to confuse the Chinese (and, incidentally, Russian) foreign policy doctrine of absolute state sovereignty with something drawn from Confucius. Whether or not it is possible to have a universal morality that is not uniform in its application is a question for philosophers. Shorn of its normative trappings, the Chinese School tianxia concept seems only to require a universal moral code, not necessarily one approved by the Chinese government. If that is the case, individualism will serve just as well as Confucianism, and maybe better.

New Theories for a New World-System

Western IR theory is a creature of European modernity. Although universal in conceptualization, the problems it has sought to address have been the problems of modern Europe. Few if any of the major theoretical concepts of contemporary IR theory have been inspired by the study of (for example) the system of South Asian states before British colonization, the semi-isolated system of Latin American states in the 19th and 20th centuries, or the semi-isolated system of African states today. IR construed as the study of interstate systems has developed its theories overwhelmingly from the study of one system: the Europe-centered modern world-system. Western and other IR scholars have made some effort to apply these theories to other systems, but they have largely declined the opportunity to develop theories based on the experiences of other systems. Some may even deride this as somehow unscientific. But just as astrophysicists can imagine universes in which the gravitational constant is higher or lower than in our own, social scientists should be open to the idea of systems with characteristics that differ from those of the modern world-system. Fortunately for social scientists, such systems do not have to be imagined. They can be observed.

If the premodern East Asian world-system was one such system, today’s postmodern millennial world-system may be another (Babones, 2017). It no longer seems meaningful to analyze the interstate system as a system of competing states jostling for territory and resources. In today’s world, most states have no IR to speak of with most other states; ambassadors are mainly focused on petty trade promotion, not high affairs of state. Most states have one crucial international relationship—that with the United States of America—and several less-crucial relationships with neighboring states. Whatever one thinks of the future of unipolarity, it seems obvious that today’s interstate system is qualitatively very different from the interstate system of 19th-century Europe. For good, for bad, for now, or forever, the postmodern interstate system is currently a central state system that in structure more closely resembles premodern East Asia than it does high modern Europe. Ironically, Chinese IR theorists themselves do not seem to have recognized this. It may be true that “the crux of the conversation on Chinese international relations theory is the notion and practices of ‘Tianxia’” (Kavalski, 2014, p. 233), but it has been left to sympathetic outside interpreters of Chinese IR concepts to draw the parallels between premodern China and the contemporary global world, in particular Khong (2013), Wang (2013), and Babones (2017).

Although Chinese School IR scholarship draws the lesson that the key distinguishing element of interstate governance in the central state system is relationality, it seems more likely that the key element is hierarchy. Relationality is a discretionary policy choice of the central state; America’s 1990s liberal internationalism was a discretionary choice to pursue what Zhang (2015) called the “expressive hierarchy” of social solidarity. But just as Zhang found when studying the early Ming Dynasty, the United States is prone to instrumentalism, and after the September 11, 2001, attacks, it quickly turned to the instrumental hierarchy of George W. Bush’s “either you are with us . . . or with the enemy.” The central state in a central state system may choose to employ either the expressive or instrumental rationality of Zhang (2015) or the relational or individual rationality of Zhao (2012). The salient fact is that it is the central state making the choice.

In assuming that the choice should be expressive and relational—and even more in assuming that this is somehow the natural Chinese choice—Chinese School theorists stray into normative and often jingoistic logic. Indeed, Chang (2011, pp. 37, 39) suggested that Chinese School “concern for a world order is actually for a world order with distinctive Chinese characteristics,” while Callahan (2008, p. 758) went so far as to characterize the tianxia concept as “a proposal for a new [Chinese] hegemony.” But in employing their theoretical constructs in the service of their own country’s foreign policies, the Chinese School is merely following in the footsteps of the various American schools. How many IR panels have witnessed Western, particularly American, scholars using the pronoun “we” when discussing their countries’ policies, as if they were themselves ambassadors or foreign ministers? It is embarrassing but not uncommon for IR theorists to identify themselves with their home countries. Many non-American scholars even slip into using “we” when discussing the policies they want the United States to pursue. Cringeworthy egocentric rhetoric is not unique to the Chinese School.

Like many critics, Pang and Wang (2013, p. 1208) were not enthusiastic about the resurrection of IR concepts from deep in Chinese intellectual history, writing that the “world may have changed too much from the days of the Tianxia system.” Surely it has. The tianxia concept cannot realistically be used to describe China’s place in the world today. Thus, when Dreyer (2015, p. 1027) argued that the tianxia concept “may have served this purpose in an environment where China was the largest and most powerful state with a civilization whose superiority was widely acknowledged,” she is absolutely right—in regard to China. But structurally speaking there exists once again an interstate system in which one country is the largest and most powerful state with a civilization whose superiority is widely acknowledged. That is not a normative claim. It is an empirical claim that has theoretical implications that themselves may be empirically verifiable. We can thank the Chinese School for providing us with a well-documented historical precedent to study alongside today’s central state system. The premodern Chinese historical record has barely been scratched by Western IR scholars. Chinese scholars have a unique opportunity to bring its lessons to bear in improving our understanding of the postmodern American tianxia.


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