Recently David Kang, author of East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, has written about relations between Asian both as it developed from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries and the current situation between China and North Korea.
In a recent piece written for Rorotoko, Kang discusses the aims and arguments of East Asia Before the West. He describes the book as setting out to examine the seemingly simple question of how international relations functioned in East Asia before the arrival of Western imperial powers. He argues that assessments of East Asia are seen through a lens of European relations which distorts the distinct nature of relations between China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, etc. While there was violence in the region it was mostly between nations and nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes and not among each other. Kang writes:
Emphasizing formal hierarchy and yet allowing considerable informal autonomy, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and China had considerable peace and stability in their relations with each other. By contrast, the European “balance of power” system emphasized formal equality of nation-states, but entailed endemic conflict among states.
While obviously much has changed in East Asian relations—the dissolution of the tribute system, China’s loss as the dominant cultural power— and Western institutions and ideas have been integrated, Kang suggests that it “might be worth exploring how much and how deeply East Asian states have internalized these Western notions—and whether and to what extent any of East Asia’s past history may affect their beliefs and goals in the future.”
China’s influence in the region has of course returned nowhere as much as in North Korea, who relies on China. Indeed, the United States and South Korea have both urged China to be more proactive in controlling North Korea while also harboring fears that China might subsume it. In a recent article for Cogitasia, Kang argues that China has little desire to increase there already prominent role in North Korean affairs nor would it necessarily be that effective.
It is not at all clear that direct Chinese intervention would improve the situation for themselves or the North Koreans, nor is it clear that China could actually force the North Korean government to do its bidding. However, it is a relatively safe prediction that if China attempted to influence North Korean actions or policies too directly or obviously that the North Korean regime itself would react quite negatively. Indeed, many of those observers already suspicious of a “rising China” would see this as further evidence that China is not to be trusted to respect other countries’ sovereignty or that China harbors secret ambitions to once again become an imperial power.