6+1 Questions

12 September 2022, 0900 EDT

What’s the article, and where can we find it?

Colin Chia. 2022. “Social Positioning and International Order Contestation in Early Modern Southeast Asia,” International Organization, 76(2): 306-336.

The argument?

East Asian diplomacy during the so-called Chinese “tribute system” demonstrates that international orders are about dominant ideas, not dominant states. Siam tried to make China treat it as a peer by adopting European forms of diplomacy—ones premised upon the equality of sovereign states. Vietnam sought to gain recognition as a “civilized” Confucian realm. Rather than simply accept social inferiority, they contested China’s preferred international order and their place in it.

Why should we care?

According to influential accounts, international order in early modern East Asia was little more than a reflection of Chinese hegemony; prominent scholars argue that many states bought into “Confucian culture” and thus willingly accepted Chinese social and political dominance. But in Southeast Asia international order did not entail deference to China. Even within the “Confucian zone,” governments rejected subordination; shared culture repertoires provided them with a power-political resource to challenge Chinese assertions of social dominance.

These findings matter for a number of contemporary concerns, such as 1) what a future China-centric order in East Asia might look like and 2) whether international politics can remainordered” in the face of eroding U.S. hegemony and increasing contestation over rules, norms, and institutions.

Why should we believe you?

Most debates about international hierarchy in East Asia focus on the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1636–1912). Thus, I take a close look at the history of interactions between Siam, Vietnam, and imperial China during those periods. The evidence shows that leaders prioritized asserting their own identities (as “dhammaraja” or “Son of Heaven,” for example) in political interactions with each other, especially in the context of diplomacy and trade.

Why did you decide to write it in the first place?

It started as a response to David Kang’s argument that international relations in premodern East Asia were based on Confucian cultural affinity and consensual hierarchy. Many such accounts treat Southeast Asia as part of the “Chinese tributary system,” but most regimes in the region neither shared China’s “Confucian culture” nor accepted subordination to the Ming and Qing; international order in Southeast Asia reflected distinctive concepts of power, sovereignty, and territory. As I delved deeper into the relevant history, what started as a set of criticisms evolved into an argument in its own right.

What would you most like to change about the piece, and why?

If I were to write it again — and if I could sidestep the “live controversy” in the field about the period — I would decenter China and focus on Southeast Asia itself. That would allow for more discussion of the interactions among Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea.

I also think that I might have put more stress on the argument that “order” and “hegemony” are really specific ways of describing patterns of interaction. This underscores the point that a hegemonic power is neither necessary nor sufficient for the existence of international order, as would tracing how weaker states interact with one another when a hegemonic power isn’t involved.

How much difficulty did you have getting the piece accepted?

It was rejected by the first journal, after which I revised it significantly. I feel lucky that this article was accepted at the second journal that I submitted it to, after a lengthy peer-review process that involved multiple rounds of revision. It was finally accepted around 18-19 months after I started submitting it. Thankfully, the editors gave me clear guidance and ample time to make revisions. Throughout the process, I received invaluable advice from a number of mentors about how to handle the process.