Giovanni Arrighi: The Five-Hundred Years’ Peace

Roundup: Talking About History

[Giovanni Arrighi is Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, his books include The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times.]

One of the great myths of Western social science is that national states and their organization in an interstate system are European inventions. In reality, except for a few states that were the creation of European colonial powers (most notably, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines), the most important states of East Asia–from Japan, Korea, and China to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Kampuchea–were national states long before any of their European counterparts. What’s more, they had all been linked to one another, directly or through the Chinese center, by trade and diplomatic relations and held together by a shared understanding of the principles, norms, and rules that regulated their mutual interactions as a world among other worlds. As Japanese scholars specializing in the China-centered tribute trade system have shown, this system presented sufficient similarities with the European interstate system to make their comparison analytically meaningful. [1]

Both systems consisted of a multiplicity of political jurisdictions that appealed to a common cultural heritage and traded extensively within their region. Although cross-border trade was more publicly regulated in East Asia than in Europe, since Song times (960-1276) private overseas trade had flourished and transformed the nature of tribute trade, the main purpose of which, in Takeshi Hamashita’s words, “came to be the pursuit of profits through the unofficial trade that was ancillary to the official system.” Analogies can also be detected in the interstate competition that characterized the two systems. The separate domains that were held together by the tribute trade system centered on China were “close enough to influence one another, but... too far apart to assimilate and be assimilated”. The tribute trade system provided them with a symbolic framework of mutual political-economic interaction that nonetheless was loose enough to endow its peripheral components with considerable autonomy vis-a-vis the Chinese center. Thus, Japan and Vietnam were peripheral members of the system but also competitors with China in the exercise of the imperial title awarding function, Japan establishing a tributary type relationship with the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Vietnam with Laos. [2] Sugihara explicitly maintains that the diffusion of the best technology and organizational know-how within East Asia makes it “possible to think of the presence of an East Asian multi-centered political system... with many features analogous to the interstate system in Europe.” [3]

These similarities make a comparison of the two systems analytically meaningful. But once we compare their dynamics, two fundamental differences become immediately evident. First, as argued elsewhere, the dynamic of the European system was characterized by an incessant military competition among its national components and by a tendency toward the geographical expansion both of the system and of its shifting center. [4] Long periods of peace among European powers were the exception rather than the rule. Thus, the “hundred years’ peace” (1815-1914) that followed the Napoleonic Wars was “a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of Western civilization.” [5] Moreover, even during this hundred years’ peace European states were involved in countless wars of conquest in the non-European world and in the escalating armament race that culminated in the industrialization of war. While the initial result of these involvements was a new wave of geographical expansion which dampened conflicts within the European system, their eventual result was a new round of wars among European powers (1914-1945) of unprecedented destructiveness. [6]

In sharp contrast to this dynamic, the East Asian system of national states stood out for the near absence of intra-systemic military competition and extra-systemic geographical expansion. Thus, with the exception of China’s frontier wars to be discussed presently, prior to their subordinate incorporation in the European system the national states of the East Asian system were almost uninterruptedly at peace with one another, not for one-hundred, but for three-hundred years. This three-hundred years’ peace was bracketed by two Japanese invasions of Korea, both of which precipitated a war with China–the Sino-Japanese wars of 1592-98 and 1894-5. Between 1598 and 1894 there were only three brief wars that involved China–the 1659-60 and the 1767-71 wars with Burma, and the 1788-89 war with Vietnam, and two wars that did not involve China–the Siamese-Burmese Wars of 1607-18 and of 1660-2. Indeed, in so far as China is concerned, we should speak of a five-hundred years’ peace, since in the two-hundred years preceding the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea China was at war against other East Asian states only during the invasion of Vietnam in 1406-28 to restore the Tran dynasty. [7]

The infrequency of wars among East Asian states was associated with a second crucial difference between the East Asian and European systems: the absence of any tendency among East Asian states to build overseas empires in competition with one another and to engage in an armament race in any way comparable to the European. East Asian states did compete with one another. Sugihara, for example, detects a competitive relation in two complementary tendencies typical of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868): its attempt to create a tribute trade system centered on Japan instead of China, and its absorption of technological and organizational know-how in agriculture, mining and manufacturing from Korea and China. Through these tendencies, as Heita Kawakatsu put it, “Japan was trying to become a mini-China both ideologically and materially.” [8] This kind of competition, however, drove the East Asian developmental path toward state-and-national-economy-making rather than war-making and territorial expansion–that is in the opposite direction of the European path.

This contention may seem to be at odds with the long series of wars that China fought on its frontiers during the closing years of Ming rule and in the first 150 years of Qing rule. As Peter Perdue has noted, the history of the China-centered system appears in a different light when seen from a “frontier perspective.” The presence of nomadic horsemen who raided the borders and sometimes conquered the Chinese capital made military activity particularly prominent in the history of China’s north and northwest frontier. Military activity became more prominent when northern conquerors in 1644 established the Qing dynasty and set out to ensure that other northern invaders would not do to them what they had done to the Ming....

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