Adaptive Confucian Relationships: Models for Contemporary International Relations

R. James Ferguson

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Chinese thought has a sophisticated concept of human relations, in the Confucian tradition based on core ideas of benevolence (ren), social customs (li), harmony (he) and reciprocity (shu). Five relationships have been identified as the basis of a stable society: between ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, older to younger brothers, and among friends. Likewise, in China’s historical international relations, diverse relational models have been propounded including the ‘tribute system’ (asymmetrical relations supporting China’s primacy), Tianxia as an inclusive empire embracing ‘all-under heaven’, and the idea of Chinese culture as an attractor and stabilizer. These relations imply a degree of prescriptive hierarchy that is at odds with equal respect for sovereign nations (the legal basis of the current interstate system), modern liberalism and socialist egalitarianism. In contrast, contemporary Chinese foreign policy mobilizes principles that emphasize harmony and cooperation: the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, notions of co-governance (guojia gongzhi and quanqiu gongzhi), and building communities of ‘common destiny’. These general formulations do not provide detailed guidelines for positive and nuanced interactions. However, when combined with an active understanding of zhong (contextualized as ‘equilibrium’ or the ‘mean’), creative and positive relations among nations can be postulated as a Confucian political norm. This line of thought provides insights for beneficial and benevolent relations among states, institutions and diverse actors, even when they have unequal power levels and different cultures, e.g., the PRC’s relations with smaller states in Central Asia.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPolitical Economy: Theories, Principles, and Politics
EditorsCaleb M. Clark, Evelyn A. Clark Benavides
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherNova Science Publishers
ISBN (Electronic)9781685071608
ISBN (Print)978-1-68507-106-6
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2021


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