Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Changing Definitions of Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century East Asia: Japan and Korea between China and the West

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Changing Definitions of Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century East Asia: Japan and Korea between China and the West

Article excerpt

The arrival of Westphalian sovereignty principles in nineteenth-century East Asia was not a uniformly transformative "shock" as commonly assumed. The Sino-centric order did not suddenly disappear; rather it lingered and evolved in a gradual and contested process of change. I argue that enduring domestic understandings of sovereign autonomy affected how Westphalian sovereignty was interpreted in Japan and Korea. Even as the regional structure shifted from regional hierarchy under China to a Western-led international state system, the lens of hierarchy--the long-standing sense of vulnerability and the need to attain autonomous status in a world of grear powers--remained unchanged. In addition, each ruling regime in East Asia attempted to reconcile Westphalian sovereignty with existing diplomatic practices to protect its own interests within the Sino-centric order, which resulted in a new hybrid system of interstate relations encompassing notions of both equality and civilizational hierarchy. Within each country, contestation on sovereignty occurred in multiple stages, driven by existing security relationships and changing domestic politics debating the competing standards of civilization in the region. KEYWORDS: sovereignty, Sino-centric hierarchy, standards of civilization, unequal treaties, tributary states, Japan, Korea, East Asian order


IN 1861, THE XIANFENG EMPEROR GRUDGINGLY CONCEDED THAT IMPERIAL China had to deal with Europe (and Japan) on the basis of sovereign equality. (1) The Zongli yamen was established that year as the first prototype Foreign Office, followed by China's gradual and managed adoption of a host of basic European institutions and practices in the conduct of diplomacy and international affairs (Gong 1984a; Hsu 1960). In 1873, the kowtow, a long-standing symbol of Chinese dominance and civilization, was officially abolished in China's foreign relations. Some scholars such as Yongjin Zhang have noted that "acknowledging sovereignty and equality as the most fundamental principle in China's international relations amounted to admitting the irrelevance of basic assumptions of the Sino-centric view of the world" (2001, 60-61).

But this was not the end of the story. The legacy of hierarchical interstate relations--based on the assumption of both unequal power and status--retained its significance for China and the rest of East Asia as the region encountered the Western powers and their rules of diplomatic engagement based on Westphalian sovereignty principles. Traditional practices endured in relations among China, Japan, and Korea and coexisted with Western law and institutions. (2) A key feature of this transition period was the ambivalence surrounding Westphalian sovereignty, which was neither completely rejected nor replicated. Its interpretation and application remained an unresolved issue as the region underwent a series of domestic and foreign policy challenges in the late nineteenth century.

The question then is how significant the challenge of Westphalian sovereignty was to the existing state system in the East Asian region. Why was it adopted and contested at different time periods by different actors? To what degree did such multiple understandings and interpretations of the principle of sovereignty impact Japanese and Korean behavior? In other words, how (much) did East Asia transition from its hierarchical structure to a European state system based on putative equality? The extent to and the ways in which the arrival of the West transformed East Asian international relations is often unquestioned and thus far remains underexamined in conventional international relations (IR) theories. (3)

I argue that the arrival of the European state system did alter interstate relations in the region, but with substantial domestic political variation, based on complex and contested understandings of state sovereignty. Significantly, these multiple sovereignty concepts coexisted and were shaped by not only new knowledge and practices but also prior institutions, which had embedded in them long-standing legitimating ideologies and regional security relationships. …

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