The more I read about China’s dynastic tribute system, the more confused I get. Like theologians who doubt the existence of God, I have read scholars who think it’s no more than a historical or diplomatic fiction. Others think it kept the peace and prosperity in Asia like a solar system with China at the centre during the Ming and Qing dynasties, at least until the 19th century. Given the controversy, I am amused by American political leaders and opinion makers today who talk knowingly about the system and keep citing it as a warning against China’s hegemonic ambitions. Among them have been former US defence secretary James Mattis, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and Republican senator and anti-China hawk Marco Rubio. China-US trade war: Biden team to tackle EU differences and ‘then take on Beijing’ A summary of this American view can be found in the September issue of Foreign Affairs , with the essay “The Ideology Delusion: America’s Competition with China Is Not About Doctrine”, by two US foreign policy specialists, Elbridge Colby and Robert D. Kaplan. “China very likely seeks to form a regional trade area favourable to its economy – a modern-day analogue to the tribute system that placed China at the heart of East Asia from the 14th to the 19th century,” they wrote. “In a world now defined by rising barriers to trade, China would gain enormous advantage in shaping a large market area that conforms to its standards and benefits its workers and companies.” Gaining advantages in trade and markets – how is that different from other powerful trading nations, say, the United States? Unfortunately, how such individuals think or misconceive matters because they belong to the political ruling class in the US that may well start a hot war with China. So, it’s not just for historical accuracy that it’s worth considering the different, even contradictory interpretations of the tribute system. If specialists can’t agree on what this system was, how it worked or even if it actually existed, it’s “user beware” if you want to use it as a guide or predictor of China’s international behaviour. The classic formulation of the tribute system in modern sinology came from none other than the famous John King Fairbank; it’s also terribly out of date, according to more recent research. But Fairbank’s is usually the picture many people still have when they refer to the “tribute system”. Cue the likes of Mattis, McMaster and Rubio. “This old Chinese system was just as unequal as the [Western] treaty system that supplanted it,” Fairbank wrote in The United States and China . “The tribute system was an application to foreign affairs of the Confucian doctrines by which Chinese rulers gained an ethical sanction for their exercise of political authority. Just as the virtuous ruler by his moral example had prestige and influence among the people of the Middle Kingdom, so he irresistibly attracted the barbarians who were outside the pale of Chinese culture. “To a Confucian scholar it was inconceivable that the rude tribes of the frontier should not appreciate China’s cultural superiority and therefore seek the benefits of Chinese civilisation. Since the emperor exercised the Mandate of Heaven to rule all mankind, it was his function to be compassionate and generous to all ‘men from afar’. “… As the original Chinese empire spread its influence through the centuries, over the rest of East Asia, the formalities of tribute relations were developed into a mechanism by which barbarous regions outside the empire might be given their place in the all-embracing Sino-centric cosmos.” China-EU trade deal strengthens Beijing’s hand in power game with the US From this outdated if persistent picture, you can understand why Beijing has always avoided mentioning the tribute system while American hawks like to cite it. If the hawks are right, it means China today wants to be the hegemon to which everyone else must work as a supplicant. Today, Chinese diplomats prefer citing the principles of “the equality of states” and reciprocity. Zhang Weiwei, a prominent international relations scholar at Fudan University, Shanghai, has observed that dynastic China had not one but several systems to deal with foreign powers or tribes: the tribute system, the vassal state system, “brute-force” border rule by army generals, rule by allied or friendly tribal chieftains, along with local bureaucratic administrators. David C. Kang, of the University of Southern California, and also some mainland scholars, have argued that the “tribute system” maintained stability and peace in East Asia for several centuries while fostering diplomatic and commercial exchange. In East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute , Kang contrasts this Asian era of peaceful coexistence with Europe’s Westphalian system, one based on either the balance of power or hegemony, causing incessant warfare. However, James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University, thinks this was a misconception, if not a falsehood. He wrote in medium.com: “In the 1960s, when John King Fairbank first proposed his model of ‘traditional Chinese foreign relations’ based on the ‘tributary system,’ he did not have a large body of archive-sourced secondary literature on Qing empire in Inner Asia to draw on. “Today, however, there is no reason to trot out the thoroughly debunked notion of a ‘tribute system.’ ‘Tributary’ status was generally a fiction; it did not require a ‘tributary’ status to trade with the Qing; it was not Sinocentric ‘China’ but the culturally pluralist Manchu ruling elite that occupied the empire’s ideological centre. And most important, the 18th century was a time of war, not of peace, in East Asia.” Millward distinguishes between rhetoric and reality: “Official Qing rhetoric denigrating its neighbours was self-aggrandising propaganda to which those involved in diplomatic exchanges simply paid lip service. Fairbank noted that participants in the charade didn’t actually believe in it. Sources in languages other than Chinese confirm that neighbours knew their ‘tributary’ status was a fiction and Qing didn’t actually dominate them.” He uses such phrases as “the falsehoods of the ‘tribute system’ model”. I must admit to being a humble reader and student before such erudite scholars. But we don’t need to decide who is more or less right than the others to realise we are talking about a highly contested subject on which there is no consensus. I do, however, find it fascinating that such conflicting schools of thought on the tribute system mirror another long-standing debate among historians and political scientists, that is, whether the modern Western Westphalian system of nation states was more conducive to war or peace; and whether it encouraged the balance of power or hegemony. I do know one thing, though. When American politicians talk about the tribute system and China in one breath, it’s usually nothing but hot air.