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China and the 500 Years’ Peace

How do Europe and China compare in the 18th and 19th centuries?

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Takeaways


  • For the rulers of China, control over trade routes and overseas empires were far less important than peaceful relations with neighboring states.
  • Unlike Europe, the East Asian system of national states stood out for the near absence of military competition and geographical expansion.
  • Even during this 100 years' peace, European states were involved in countless wars of conquest in the non-European world.

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 were national states long before any of their European counterparts.

The list includes Japan, Korea and China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Kampuchea.

What is 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 comparisons analytically meaningful.

But once we compare their dynamics, two crucial differences emerge.

Frequency factor

A first difference concerns the frequency of wars. 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, in Karl Polanyi’s words, “a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of Western civilization.”

Moreover, even during this hundred years’ peace, European states were involved in countless wars of conquest in the non-European world — as well as 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 (1914-45) of unprecedented destructiveness.

In sharp contrast to this dynamic, the East Asian system of national states stood out for the near absence of military competition and geographical expansion.

Thus, with the exception of China’s frontier wars — the main purpose of which was the transformation of a hard-to-defend frontier into a buffer against raiders and conquerors from Inner Asia — the national states of the East Asian system were almost uninterruptedly at peace with one another, not for 100, but for 300 years.

Brief wars

This 300 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 1894-95.

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, as well as two wars that did not involve China — the Siamese-Burmese wars of 1607-18 and of 1660-62.

Indeed, insofar as China is concerned, we should speak of a 500 years’ peace since, in the 200 years preceding the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea, China was at war with other East Asian states only during the invasion of Vietnam in 1406-28 to restore the Tran dynasty.

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.

China’s peace-loving rulers

The main reason of these differences was the extroversion of the European path of development and the introversion of the Chinese path.

European rulers fought endless wars to establish an exclusive control over sea lanes linking West to East and built overseas empires, because control over trade with the East was a critical resource in their pursuit of wealth and power.

For the rulers of China, in contrast, control over these trade routes and overseas empires were far less important than peaceful relations with neighboring states and the integration of their populous domains into an agriculturally based national economy.

A result of this difference is that — as Adam Smith knew very well, but Western social science later forgot — through the 18th century the largest national market by far was to be found not in Europe, but in China.

Asian autonomy crumbles

Another result was the remarkable peace, prosperity and demographic growth which induced leading figures of the European Enlightenment to look to China for guidance in institutional development. They also looked for evidence supporting their advocacy of a benevolent absolutism, meritocracy and an agriculturally based national economy.

And yet, neither the Chinese rulers nor their European admirers realized that the extroverted European developmental path was re-making the world through a process of creative destruction that would soon overshadow all these achievements. European ships, as William McNeill put it, had in effect turned Eurasia inside out.

The sea frontier had superseded the steppe frontier as the critical meeting point with strangers — and the autonomy of Asian states and peoples began to crumble.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from Adam Smith in Beijing, by Giovanni Arrighi. Copyright 2007 Giovanni Arrighi. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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