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It is often asserted that Vietnam is balancing against China, or that it will or should. But does this assertion align with the empirical foreign policy behaviors of Vietnam? Indeed, Vietnam represents a case of a country that should be particularly cautious about China. To be sure it is a fraternal communist brother, but it is also economically entangled—with the down- and upsides of leverage—and geographically close with a history of disputes and outright war. This article argues that existing literature often neglects the ample information that China and Vietnam have about each. Years of engagement have enabled Vietnam and China to reach a modus vivendi that can settle disputes and permit a muted military response to Chinese risks. The lack of existential threat further dissuades Vietnamese leaders from moving closer to extra-regional powers such as the United States. That a key member of the potential balancing coalition against China doesn't engage in balancing behavior, calls into question US Indo-Pacific strategies premised on the assumption that countries will “soft align” or openly join with the US to contain China.
State formation in East Asia developed a thousand years before it did in Europe, and it occurred for reasons of emulation, not competition. China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea emerged as states beginning in the second century BCE, and existed for centuries thereafter with centralized bureaucratic control defined over territory and administrative capacity to tax their populations, field large militaries, and provide extensive public goods. They created these institutions not to wage war. Rather, these countries developed states through emulation of China. State formation in historical East Asia occurred under a hegemonic system in which war was relatively rare, not under a balance of power system with regular existential threats. Rather, domestic elites copied Chinese civilization for reasons of prestige and domestic legitimacy. Our research challenges the universality of the bellicentric thesis of state formation. The willingness to acknowledge the Eurocentric origins of much of IR theory is not new; what is new in this book is the empirical evidence we bring that shows this explicitly, and a positive theoretical contribution about the causes of state formation.
As far back as the rise of unified Qin dynasty in 221 BCE, Asia’s predominant pattern has been concentrated power, not balance of power. Although Chinese power has waxed and waned over the centuries, what is perhaps most enduring was the centrality of China. Every other political actor that emerged in the past two thousand years emerged within the reality or idea of Chinese power. Regarding state formation, although the initial ideas for the subsequent bureaucratic Chinese state emerged at that time, it was neither pervasive, nor did the ideas result from war. Rather, the Qin state (221 to 206 BC) emerged as a result of hegemony, not about conquest or fighting or war. State formation was a result of unification and the need to administer a massive territory and also consolidate political rule beyond the aristocracy in the state and royal court itself. Indeed, what scant proto-bureaucratic innovations that did arise in Phase I were nascent and superficial in scope, and even in China the full Chinese state is usually seen to have emerged in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, not 800 years earlier during the Qin.
Why do some societies emulate a hegemon, while others do not? Why did most societies accept Chinese civilization while some resisted it, and why do some societies in general emulate a hegemon while other societies resist? Conversely, more rare were societies that rejected Chinese civilization. Located mostly on the sparsely-populated northern and central Asian steppe, some semi-nomadic societies did not see as appropriate or desirable almost anything about Chinese civilization: settled agriculture, written language, and territorial states. The contrast with Korea and Japan – and later, Vietnam – is clear. Culture, not geographic or material interests, explains why some societies did not emulate China.
There was an extensive epistemic community in historical East Asia that was central to the creation and dissemination of regional civilization that flowed mainly from China outwards, from core to periphery. This epistemic community was composed of Buddhist monks and Confucian scholars. They studied at Buddhist temples and Confucian academies, wrote in a common Chinese language using common styles, and made up the bulk of government officials in each country. These scholar-officials were also the ones who staffed diplomatic missions to other countries. This chapter will discuss in detail the flows of monks and literati between the various countries, and trace the influence of this transnational scholarly and religious community on the evolution of societies – as well as state formation – throughout the region.
Vietnam’s experience in the tenth and eleventh centuries was remarkably similar to that of Korea and Japan. The adoption of Confucian traditions as preferred modes of governance, in particular, reflected strong state bureaucratic practices that made Vietnam stand out from its neighbors in continental Southeast Asia. By 973 the Vietnamese state had been recognized as a Song tributary, and within a century, the Vietnamese state had created centralized provinces, founded a Royal Confucian Academy, used Chinese in all its writings, implemented a national tax, and created a national military based on universal conscription. By 1075, the Vietnamese court had instituted civil service examinations based on Chinese Confucian classics. The civil service examination would be used for the next nine hundred years, and it was only the arrival of French imperialists that transformed the government. Confucianism penetrated to the level of economic and family organization at the village level, affecting patrilineal inheritance and even dress. Vietnamese retained their indigenous language for unofficial uses, and indigenous social and religious customs, chief among them Buddhism.
Korea and Japan continued to borrow from China throughout their histories. Japan is often mistakenly viewed as "feudal" and not a state; despite the fact that this "warring states" era in Japan was only 150 years of its total existence. The Japanese Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) had far more centralized control over its land than did contemporaneous European states, for example. in Korea, the Choson dynasty intensified its borrowing of Confucinan ideas and Chinese culture.
A massive debate over the origins of the East Asian economic miracles has focused primarily on political and economic decisions taken in the last fifty years. In searching for the origins of strong developmental states, the farthest back in history some have gone is to credit Japanese imperialism of the early 20th century as creating developmental states in Korea and Taiwan. Yet the Japanese colonial experience cannot explain China’s phenomenal economic growth in the past four decades. We move the arguments for organized, institutionalized, orderly East Asian societies back at least one thousand years. In this concluding chapter, we show that many of the “institutionalist” arguments from North, Weingast, and others that purport to explain European economic success over the centuries are totally wrong in the East Asian context. Not only do these East Asian countries have states far earlier than in Europe, they also did not develop central banks or external finance: their massive state operations were financed solely by tax revenues over more than one thousand years. This is a challenge to almost all economic history.
A state is most centrally composed of an administrative bureaucracy. An enormous literature extrapolates the European experience as universal and, with various modifications, asserts that the demands of war drive states to create institutions that can extract resources from society. There is remarkably little scholarship on state formation in East Asia that engages the social science literature. Most state formation occurred centuries after the initial emergence of centralized Chinese rule in the 2nd century BC, but scant scholarship explores it. Furthermore, much of the bellicist literature does not address the question of diffusion, implying diffusion through natural selection or market forces: those units that adapted best survived, those that didn’t were “winnowed.” In contrast to Europe, in East Asia there was clearly diffusion from core to periphery. Emulation, learning, and competition are all potentially present at the same time. The bellicist theory is possibly limited in that it selectively focuses its attention on a single mechanism of diffusion and institutional isomorphism at the expense of non-coercive mechanisms such as emulation.
We show the absence of bellicist pressures during “Phase II.” Between the fourth and eighth centuries specifically, there was only one war involving Korea, Japan, and China: the Korean War of Unification from 660-668. Most importantly, during the fourth to sixth centuries, China was divided and posed no military threat to the peninsula or Japan. Indeed, centuries of initial state formation in both Korea and Japan occurred without any threat from China at all and without any war between these countries. The one war between Korea, Japan, and China during the four centuries under consideration here was the Korean war of unification, 660–668. This evolution of the East Asian world marked the emergence of political units in Korea and Japan that would endure until the modern era. Neither China nor Japan had territorial ambitions on the peninsula. There is almost nothing in the historical record to link state formation with this war. Silla did not expand further than the peninsula, and China and Japan before and after the Korean Unification war had quite clear boundaries that did not include continental expansion.
Describing and explaining state formation in Korea and Japan is fundamentally about understanding the transformative, enduring, and massive impact of Chinese civilization on its neighbors throughout the entire East Asian region and across literally thousands of years. The best way to understand Chinese civilization and its neighbors is as core and periphery – a massive hegemon’s influence. In the 4th century, the Korean peninsula contained three kingdoms: Silla, Paekche, and Koguryo. All three Korean states learned from and emulated China extensively and intensively. In Japan, historians call the new, centralized order built in Japan during the 4th to 8th century theritsuryo state, because it was based on Chinese-style penal (ritsu) and administrative (ryo) codes. The impact of Chinese civilization was comprehensive, including language, education, writing, poetry, art, mathematics, science, religion, philosophy, social and family structure, political and administrative institutions and ideas, and more. The strands of this civilization that had to do with government are almost impossible to understand outside of this larger civilizational context.