Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Diplomatic Ritual as a Power Resource: The Politics of Asymmetry in Early Modern Chinese-Korean Relations

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Diplomatic Ritual as a Power Resource: The Politics of Asymmetry in Early Modern Chinese-Korean Relations

Article excerpt

What explains Korea's success in surviving as an independent state for over 2,000 years, not annexed to China, when it shares a border with this powerful imperial neighbor? I argue that diplomatic ritual can be conducive to managing asymmetric power relations and that the Korean state and the Chinese state prior to the nineteenth century used the diplomatic ritual of investiture in a strategic manner as a signaling mechanism to manage the expectations of each side. Drawing insights from ritual studies, I offer three specific mechanisms: (1) regularity and precision, (2) strategic ambiguity, and (3) the manipulation of symbols, through which the ritualization of power relations reduces the tension arising from the disparity in power. The empirical evidence comes from an investigation of a total of sixteen investiture cases between Choson Korea and Ming China between 1392 and 1644. It shows that the granting and seeking of investiture on both sides was not only a way of signaling their commitment to the status quo, but also a medium of negative soft power through which the stronger side could change the status quo relations to its favor using the symbolic power embedded in the investiture ritual. KEYWORDS: diplomatic ritual, asymmetry, power relations, investiture, tribute system, Confucian rites, Chinese-Korean relations, stability, signaling, symbolic power

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In ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turns out to be the same world.

--Clifford Geertz (1973, 112)

ANYONE WHO IS INTERESTED IN THE LONG HISTORY OF KOREA AND THE equally long history of its relations with China may wonder at one simple fact: How did the Korean state manage and continue to survive as an independent state for over two thousand years, not annexed to the Chinese state? After all, it shared a border with this powerful, much larger, and often expansionist imperial neighbor, and history tells us that many previously independent polities experienced annexation by "China." Despite the asymmetry of power between Korea and China throughout history, however, it is undisputed that the norm in the pre-nineteenth-century Chinese-Korean relationship is that the two countries dealt with each other as independent states and maintained foreign relations on the basis of noninterference. If there is one thing that the longevity of this relationship suggests, it is that some kind of diplomatic mechanism that worked for both sides must have existed.

My purpose in this article is to explore the politics of asymmetry in the pre-nineteenth-century Sino-Korean relationship. In international relations theory, asymmetry in power relations is typically associated with instability, therefore, a short-lived state of disequilibrium. Realists, for example, would be quick to invoke Thucydides's famous axiom, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (Thucydides 1996, 352), and may predict the domination of the weak at the whim of the powerful. As Brantly Womack aptly put it, however, "there exist many long-term asymmetric relationships" (Womack 2006, 2).

Then, the question of this article is, how did the Korean state and the Chinese state mitigate the tension arising from the asymmetry in power when managing their relations prior to the nineteenth century? My answer is that they ritualized their interactions in ways that helped turn the condition of power disparity into the state of taken-for-granted routine. I argue that they used the diplomatic ritual of investiture in a strategic manner to manage expectations of each side by signaling their commitment to the status quo asymmetric relationship. Like many other asymmetric relationships between neighbors in international politics, the fundamental expectations of the Korean state for the Chinese state focused on autonomy and security, while the Chinese expectations had more to do with a show of respect for their greater power and core interests (Womack 2006; Clark 1998). …

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