Edward Luttwak, in a very learned essay on “The Cyclesâ€”or Stagesâ€”of Chinese History,” published by the Hoover Institution, describes the Chinese version of “Balance of Power” theory.
Tianxia (whose logographs å¤©ä¸‹…). Literally â€œunder heaven,â€ short for â€œall under heavenâ€ or more meaningfully, â€œthe rule of all humans,â€ it defines an ideal national and international system of ever-expanding concentric circles centered on a globally benevolent emperor, now Xi Jinping or more correctly perhaps, the seven-headed standing committee of the Politburo.
The innermost circle of the Tianxia is formed by the rest of the Politburo and top Beijing officialdom, while its outermost circle comprises the Solomon Islands along with the twenty or so other utterly benighted â€œouter barbarianâ€ countries that still do not recognize Beijing, preferring Taipei. In between, all other Chinese from officials and tycoons to ordinary subjects and overseas Chinese fit in their own circles, further and further from the imperial coreas do foreign states both large and small, both near and far, both already respectful (too few) and those still arrogantly vainglorious. It is the long-range task of Chinaâ€™s external policy to bring each and every state into a proper relationship with the emperorâ€”that is, a tributary relationship, in which they deliver goods and services if only as tokens of fealty, in exchange for security and prosperity, but even more for the privilege of proximity to the globally benevolent emperor1. All this is of course nothing more than an exceptionally elaborate rendition of universal ambitions that are merely grander for the greaterâ€”the Byzantine ranking of foreign potentates by their proximity to the emperor was only slightly less elaborate.
Nor is there anything peculiarly Chinese about the desire to bring other states into a tributary relationshipâ€”often better than a full incorporation, which may be unwanted for any number of reasons, and obviously superior to an alliance however close and secure but between equals, whereby there must be reciprocity, a quid for every quo, usually costly or irksome in some way. Hence from time immemorial, stronger clans, tribes, potentates, and entire nations have done their best to impose tributary relations on weaker clans, tribes, potentates and nations, obtaining goods and services for their forbearance and perhaps protection, or at least tokens of respectful subordination. Chinese emperors wanted no more than that, and unlike most recipients, not infrequently gave gifts more valuable than the tribute they received (as did many Byzantine emperors, by the way).
What is peculiar to Chinaâ€™s political culture, and of very great contemporary relevance is the centrality within it of a very specific doctrine on how to bring powerful foreignersâ€”indeed foreigners initially more powerful than the empireâ€”into a tributary relationship.
Be sure to read on in order to find out how it would be applied to us.