Sovereignty and Suzerainty

In a commentary in the Financial Times today, Asia Editor David Pilling argues that the current Sino-Japanese island dispute is difficult to settle historically, because both sides wish to apply current notions of sovereignty to a time before the rise of the modern nation-state.

Pilling writes:

I offer no opinion as to whose legal claim is stronger. But I suspect that something deeper is at stake. Before westerners brought their guns and opium to east Asia, the idea of a nation state was not well established. “Back then, people didn’t really have the concept of sovereignty, rather there was suzerainty,” says Min Gyo Koo, an expert in international affairs in Seoul. China was self-evidently the dominant civilisation, he says. As such, it collected tribute from surrounding kingdoms, such as Ryukyu, which later became known as Okinawa when it was annexed by Japan.

Jonathan Fenby, a historian of China, puts imperial China’s likely relationship with the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands thus: “Things like exercising practical sovereignty
over a rocky island didn’t matter. So long as people recognised the innate superiority of the Chinese system, that was enough.”

It’s an important point because trying to base contemporary claims on the past can be a tricky endeavor. In a 2007 essay, Fudan University professor Ge Jianxiong argued:

Another example is Vietnam, the larger part of which was under the administrative control of the Han and Tang Dynasties. But beginning in the 10th century, Vietnam founded its own independent kingdom, after which, during the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, it was a vassal state. Of course, this is not the same as complete independence, therefore before France made Vietnam a French colony, France had to force the Qing government to relinquish its sovereignty and claims over Vietnam. Nevertheless, we are not able–at least after the 10th century—to regard Vietnam as a part of “China.” Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, Burma are also in a similar category.

Now, what of the countries of South East Asia and Japan that have never officially been the vassals of any dynasty? Chinese history books call them “Tributary States.” Actually, it was either international trade under the “tribute” banner or else it was only temporary visits. Most of what the books call “Tributary States” are like this. What is more, we have only the one-sided views of the Qing court records that were based on past precedents and written for the court’s own aggrandizement. For example, people also called Russia, France, Portugal, and the “Red Hairs” as tribute states. (During the Ming, Dutch people were called “Red Hair Foreigners,” After the mid-Qing they also called the English, “Red Hair Foreigners”) Can we possibly accept that these states were also vassals of the Qing?

Until now, there are those people who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical “China” or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms the more patriotic they are. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. If China really wishes to rise peacefully, we must understand the true facts of history, only then will we be able to know the sum of our history, learn from our experiences, and so be on a solid footing to face the future.

There’s always a danger when history is made to serve the contemporary, and the ahistorical conflation of things like tributary status, territorial control, empire, and state are all part of the trap in which present-day politicians can find themselves enmeshed when trying to do so.