Printer Friendly

Empires old and new.

Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Ji Young Lee, China's Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Cecilia Lindqvist, China: Empire of Living Symbols (Cambridge, MA: DeCappo, 2008 [1989]).

Kurt M. Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (New York: Hachette, 2016).

Eswar S. Prasad, Gaining Currency: The Rise of the Renminbi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

IMPERIALISM CAN BE DEFINED AS A POLICY TO TAKE AWAY SOVEREIGNTY and territory from another actor. But it can also be understood as influence--direct or indirect--over other actors, achieved by economic, cultural, political, or military leverage. Not every empire is the same. Depending on definitions, not every "empire" is an empire. What Joseph Nye calls soft power--the capacity to persuade and co-opt--can rival hard power--command and coercion--in creating and maintaining an empire.

Empires in World History shows that imperial power--and contests over and within it--have for thousands of years configured societies and states, opening and closing political and economic possibilities. This book offers students of Asian affairs (and international relations generally) a broad historical and comparative perspective for viewing the actions and interactions of imperial hegemons and their potential or actual subjects. How could anyone understand "China" or "India" without knowing how they influenced and were influenced by Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, Europeans, and Americans?

Burbank and Cooper outline similarities and differences among many great empires beginning with those of Rome and China in the third century BCE. Each lasted for centuries, but China relied on a class of loyal, trained officials, while Rome--at least in theory--depended on empowerment of its citizens. The authors next consider empires that tried to move into Rome's place--resilient Byzantium, the fissionable Islamic caliphates, and the short-lived Carolingians. These rivals built their empires on religious foundations. Both Christians and Muslims fought to spread their versions of the one true faith, but religious militancy also provoked splits inside empires over competing claims to god-given power.

Empires in World History relates how, in the thirteenth century, Mongols put together the largest land empire of all time. Pragmatists, they combined intimidating violence with protection of religions and cultures along with the politics of personal loyalty. They controlled China for much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and influenced also the emerging Russian, Mughal, and Ottoman empires. They protected trade routes from the Black Sea to the Pacific.

Burbank and Cooper explain how European maritime extensions were stimulated by the high-value goods exchanged in the Chinese imperial sphere; the Ottoman empire's dominance of the eastern Mediterranean and land routes east; and the inability of European polities to rebuild Roman-style unity. All this spurred European navigators to reach Asia and the Americas. In the twentieth century, as Burbank and Cooper demonstrate, imperial rivalries intensified. Japan joined the imperial game while China, for many decades, withdrew. Two world wars led to the collapse of European empires and greater weight for the United States, Russia, and China in the global arena.

Which comes first--a strong state or an imperial domain? Which is cause and which effect? And how do they interact? Burbank and Cooper argue that a tale of European state development and other people's "responses" would misrepresent the long-term dynamics of state power. The authors argue that Britain and France became strong nation-states as the consequence of their imperial expansion rather than the other way around (pp. 7-8).

Imperial influence depends not only on the expanding imperial power but also on its targets. Focusing on China's tribute system, Ji Young Lee also looks at both sides of imperial relationships. Many scholars have portrayed the tribute system as China's tool for projecting its power and influence in East Asia. They treat Korea, Japan, and other actors as passive recipients of Chinese domination. China's Hegemony shows that Asia's international order was not so Sinocentric as conventional wisdom suggests. Instead, Chinese hegemony was accepted, defied, and challenged by its East Asian neighbors at different times--often depending on these leaders' strategies for legitimacy among their own populations. Chinese hegemony and hierarchy were not just an outcome of China's military power or Confucian culture but were constructed while interacting with other, less powerful actors' domestic political needs, especially in conjunction with internal power struggles.

To understand China-Korea-Japan relations during the Ming and High Qing periods, Lee analyzes the records written by Chinese and Korean tributary envoys. She seeks to explain why Japan invaded Korea and fought a major war against the Sino-Korean coalition in the late sixteenth century; why Korea attempted to strike at the Ming Empire militarily in the late fourteenth century; and how Japan created a miniature tributary order posing as the center of Asia in the seventeenth century. This rich history sets the stage for understanding what is old and what is new in contemporary world affairs.

While Korean kings and other potentates on China's borders had their own, domestic reasons to acquiesce in the tribute system, China's soft power also played a role. The influence of Chinese culture cannot be gainsaid. It shows up in respect for learning, for Confucian authority, and use of Chinese characters in Korean and Japanese writing. Even the Korean and Japanese terms for money derived from Chinese. The old versions of the Japanese yen and Korean won were cognates of the Chinese yuan. All three words mean "round" (or circle) and originally shared the same Chinese character (Prasad 2017, 22).

Lindqvist's China: Empire of Living Symbols illustrates the beauty and almost magical attraction of Chinese calligraphy. The author shows the evolution of these characters from scratches on bones and bronzes thousands of years ago to their contemporary use in billboards and the published word. She describes how, even during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese students filled their exercise books with forceful slogans such as "serve the people!" The content was political but the calligraphy was based on the best classical models from the first millennium (p. 398).

Chinese calligraphy played a unifying force at home and abroad. It abetted China's imperial influence at the same time it created bonds among the Hans with their diverse dialects and the minority peoples of China with their distinct languages. Given the difficulty of mastering the signs, one may wonder whether Chinese calligraphy will continue to unite Hans and other inhabitants of the People's Republic of China. If pupils can learn the language and communicate with pinyin, will they continue to fill their exercise books with ancient symbols? Mao Zedong in the 1950s considered adopting a Latinized version of Chinese writing but finally opted for a simplified calligraphy (DeFrancis 2006). (1) Since the 1950s communist China has developed a simplified calligraphy (adopted also in Singapore and Malaysia) and dropped the more complex traditional style (still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan). Meanwhile, the use of Chinese calligraphy outside of China has declined. Vietnam replaced the Chinese-based Chu Nom with Latin-based chu Quoc ngu introduced by missionaries and French colonizers. North Korea stopped using Chinese characters (hanja) to supplement the Korean alphabet (han 'gul) in 1949, only to see Kim Il-sung reintroduce hanja in schools and colleges in the 1960s. Japan continues to use Chinese characters in printed work and so do South Koreans, though their practice has varied with the ruling party and its cultural orientation.

Soft power often helped the United States expand its influence abroad. US imperialism has benefited not only from economic penetration but also from cultural influences ranging from religious proselytizing to education to Hollywood. In the background, as when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1853, there often loomed a threat of coercion. Kurt Campbell's Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia offers a systematic and broad-based update of the imperial policies, direct and indirect, pursued by the United States for most of the past 180 years--modified in recent decades to cope with a rising China and the growing technological sophistication of most Asian countries. His prescriptions and predictions extrapolate from what he sees as the most effective strategies and tactics from the past. A participant in the planning and implementation of the pivot in the Obama administration, Campbell's anecdotes about individual personalities on the global stage are no less interesting than his depictions of continuity and change.

Plus ca change? A jaded historian might infer that US policy seems to change every few years but remains little changed in its basics. This has not been the case with China. In the fifteenth century, seven heavily armed Chinese flotillas sailed to Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the East Indies to advertise China's power, bring foreign entities into the tribute system, and carry home a giraffe and other exotica for the emperor. Although the Ming drew back from maritime expansion after these treasure voyages, 1404 to 1433, many Chinese merchants remained active in Southeast Asia. "Some settled in places like Manila or Melaka precisely because China's government was wary of their becoming an autonomous, affluent group close to home (Burbank and Cooper 2010, 153). Thus, China influenced its neighbors even without government support.

Communist China's access to modern technology and an expanding worldview fueled much wider imperial ambitions than were thinkable or feasible in the past. Starting with multiple tours of Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s by then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Beijing has surveyed the entire globe as a source of raw materials and military-political power. Beijing's pivot is from China to the entire planet--indeed, to the cosmos! In the twenty-first century, a Chinese tycoon hoped to build a $50 billion canal across Nicaragua, but announced in 2015 that the project was postponed. Other Chinese, with government support, aspired to build a railroad across Latin America. Chinese are building a large port in Sri Lanka and a naval base in Djibouti--just miles from the only US military base in Africa. Beijing claims nearly the entire South China Sea as its legacy. Beijing is building a blue water navy. China's military outlays are about one-fourth to one-third those of the United States (Bitzinger 2015; Jacobs and Perlez 2017). Growing by at least 5 percent each year, Chinese defense outlays could easily double between 2010 and 2020.

China's President Xi Jinping has sought to further expand China's trade ties with its neighbors and has begun an ambitious infrastructure building program that would reinvigorate ancient trading routes to the Middle East and Europe. Just days after Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election, Chinese President Xi Jinping set off for Latin America--his third trip to the region since taking office in early 2013. President Trump, ostensibly dedicated to "America First," has scuttled the Obama administration's proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) arguing the pact would hurt American jobs. As BloombergPolitics (2017) points out, the impact of Trump's action is likely to go beyond trade, giving more leeway to Beijing to position China as an economic and military anchor within the western Pacific. The failure of the US-led TPP, which would have covered twelve nations and about 40 percent of global gross domestic product, may well see China step up its advocacy for an alternative pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as first conceived by Southeast Asian countries. (2) As of early 2017, that project did not include the United States and contained fewer measures to tackle nontariff barriers to trade than the TPP.

Imperialism, for Vladimir Lenin, was the "highest stage of capitalism." His book with this title was published in 1916--at the height of the Great War, a struggle he attributed to imperialist competition in less developed countries. Neither Moscow nor Beijing would like to see its policies described as imperialist--still less as the highest stage of capitalism!3 Still, Beijing was glad to join the World Trade Organization and happy to promote the renminbi as an international currency. How the Chinese currency, the renminbi, will stand up next to the US dollar is debatable. Eswar Prasad's Gaining Currency argues that while China has successfully promoted the RMB, many pitfalls lie ahead and that for all its promise, the RMB does not pose a serious challenge to the US dollar's dominance in international finance. Prasad argues (p. 252) that there remains a huge gulf between China and the United States in the availability of safe and liquid assets (such as government bonds). For the present, the depth and breadth of US financial markets buffers and protects the dollar.

Each of the books reviewed here is first-rate in its domain. To see where each fits into the big picture, however, one needs to consult Empires in World History.


Walter Clemens is associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and professor emeritus of Political Science at Boston University. His most recent book is North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016). He may be reached at

(1.) Some Chinese speakers in Russia used an alphabet with Cyrillic letters (DeFrancis 2006).

(2.) RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the six states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand).

(3.) President Trump, for his part, has ascribed the US trade imbalance with China to dirty tricks by Chinese business and political elites--in effect, greedy capitalists.


Bitzinger, Richard A. 2015. "China's Double-Digit Defense Growth: What It Means for a Peaceful Rise." Foreign Affairs, March 19, www -defense-growth (accessed April 11, 2017).

DeFrancis, John. 2006. "The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform." SinoPlatonic Papers 171 (June), _chinese_writing_reform.pdf (accessed February 27, 2017).

Jacobs, Andrew, and Jane Perlez. 2017. "U.S. Wary of a Chinese Base Rising as Its Neighbor in Africa." New York Times, February 26, pp. 1, 7.

Sink, Justin, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Enda Curran. 2017. "China Eager to Fill Political Vacuum Created by Trump's TTP Withdrawal." BloombergPolitics, January 23, /2017-01 -23/trump-s-withdrawal-from-asia-trade-deal-viewed-as-boon -for-china (accessed February 27, 2017).
COPYRIGHT 2017 Lynne Rienner Publishers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Clemens, Walter C., Jr.
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Previous Article:An Asian way to safeguard food security: transnational farmland investment.
Next Article:A Strange but Familiar Foe: North Korea's Media Image and Public Imagination.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters