- Afterword: The Chinese World Order as a Language Game—David Kang’s East Asia before the West and Its Commentaries
Chinese imperial tribute, language game, Westphalian-Vatellian, IR, performative politics
David kang’s east asia before the west is an important intervention into how the field of International Relations (IR) might be reshaped by alternative versions of interstate and interpolity relations in non-Western societies, especially before they felt the full impact of the Westphalian-Vatellian system. Although, like the other commentators, I too have some reservations about how the book goes about undertaking that alternative view, I do believe that this collection as a whole provides useful suggestions about how IR might conduct studies from a non-Western historical perspective.
My view of East Asia before the West is that it is a good survey and reasonable account of relations among East Asian states during a historical period. But the significance of the topic is in question. Why is Kang interested in it? If, as he claims, it is not a historical work, then it must have something to do with its relevance to the present or with a conceptual apparatus. Yet he shies away from any claim that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or other present-day East Asian states will behave in the manner he purports that they behaved in the past.
Kang also seems steadfast in his goal to ignore all conflicts other than interstate ones and refers to states within the “Confucian” sphere (and is thus ambivalent about non-Confucian states). He justifies this restriction by arguing that he wants to demonstrate the role of cultural affinity in the production of East Asian interstate peace. I presume then that he wants to create the basis for an alternative normative model of [End Page 123] interstate behavior that might or can influence the present. If so, there is a lot more conceptual and methodological work that will need to be done.
If we assume that Kang’s goal is to reveal a peace-generating system of relations that once existed between states as an alternative to the Westphalian system, we first need to note that it encompasses a very small set of states—basically Korea and Vietnam—that shared and participated in the system as tributary Confucian states. Moreover, the size and power differential between China and these two states is obvious. Thus the “shared culture” factor to which Kang wants to attribute the distinctive developments rests, from the outset, on a very weak foundation. Indeed, as its closest kin, I was immediately reminded of post–World War II relationships between West European nations and the United States.
Continuing the analogy for the moment, we might say that emphasizing this very small shared cultural space is like saying that since the United States does not engage in wars with its European allies, we can ignore its military role in the world. Moreover, as Kang himself seeks to show, these European states conducted war with each other on a regular basis despite the cultural affinity among them. Kang’s notion of shared culture cannot depend on alleged Confucian ideals—reciprocity, righteousness, or (fictive) filiality—for as some of the commentators suggest, these ideals were not always shared among these states. Nor can Kang’s notion even necessarily depend on substantive norms and rules of practice, though no examples have been provided in these cases.
I am in agreement with Hendrik Spruyt that Kang’s notion of culture is both methodologically and conceptually deficient. Methodologically, there seems to be no correlation—even attempted—in the movements between dependent and independent variables. Conceptually, the notion of culture appears reified and insufficiently articulated with institutions, interests, and networks. Cultural affinity probably has little to do with whether or not states go to war. As Saeyoung Park writes, cultural connections may be employed in historical justifications, but that usage is being mistaken for cultural causation.
Both Park and Joshua Van Lieu seem to suggest that tributary practices constitute something both more and less than substantive norms or ideas, both of which have causal effects. Rather, these cultural [End Page 124] practices serve more to facilitate and...