Recently, I asked Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong, “In your view, how could our world shift away from politics that’s dominated by power? Can China’s rise change that?” Previously, I wrote about Professor Yan’s paper, “Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”,” where he said that the current international relations culture established by the West is dominated by power – where might is right. So I was hoping he’s got an answer to that question.
In response, he said:
No one can gurantee China’s rise will lead the world toward a one based on morality. It only creates a opportunity for the world to change. Morality will become the base for world politics if China provides a leadership of humane authority and power will still be the base if China replace the US with the same hegemonic leadership.
He then pointed me to a paper he published few years ago, “Xun Zi’s Thoguhts on International Politics and Their Implications” in The Chinese Journal of International Politics (where he is also Editor in Chief).
In that paper, Professor Yan analyzed international relations theory through the thoughts of ancient Chinese philosopher Xun Zi (荀子, 312-230BC). It’s a fascinating read. My favorite quote from the paper is:
This author believes that Xun Zi’s ideas on statecraft can be summed up in one of his main statements: ‘One who uses the state to establish justice will be king; one who establishes trust will be a lord-protector; and one who establishes a record of expediency and opportunism will perish.’
(The paper will explain Xun Zi’s definition for “king” and “lord-protector.”)
In the passage below, he articulates Xun Zi’s view of “normative hierarchical order” as a better value for creating fairness and stability in the international system:
After the signing in 1648 of the Westphalia Treaty, equality of state sovereignty became a universal international norm. It is one in direct opposition to Xun Zi’s belief that a differentiated, hierarchical norm helps prevent conflict between states. Certain countries worry that a rising China might revive the old East-Asian tributary system. But any such renewal would inevitably lessen China international political mobilization. Objectively, however, big and small states are not equal as regards power. Establishing a hierarchical norm, therefore, could help maintain a balance of power and responsibility, thereby reducing international conflict and strengthening cooperative relationships.
‘Hierarchy’ is a negative term in modern political language, synonymous with inequality. Because, however, the power status between states objectively differs, only a normative hierarchical order maintains fairness. The principle of absolute equality actually promotes unfairness. In a boxing match, for example, boxers are classed according to weight—a kind of normative hierarchical order intended to uphold fair play. Without differentiated weight ranking a fair match is obviously impossible. As regards international norms, differentiation depends on the concerned state’s position in international society, according to Xun Zi’s explanation of the Five Ordinance System. The closer a state’s power status to the world centre, the more closely it should follow strictly designed international norms. International norms applied to peripheral states, on the other hand, should be more relaxed and flexible. This is an unequal but fair international norm. In the 10+1 (China and ASEAN) free-trade area, for example, China will be the first to levy zero tariffs on the agricultural products it imports from ASEAN countries. This unequal regulation enhances 10+1 development. Japan, in its pursuit of economic cooperation with ASEAN countries, however, demands parallel tariff levels, which impedes ASEAN development.