Past and Present in China's Foreign Policy

From "Tribute System" to "Peaceful Rise"

Edited by John E. Wills, Jr.

Contributions by Harry Harding, James L. Hevia, Alice Lyman Miller, Peter C. Perdue, Michael D. Swaine, John E. Wills, Jr., and Brantly Womack


2011, 150 pages • index

ISBN 978-0-9836599-8-43 Paper $35.00

Does our understanding of China’s long and complex history of foreign relations help us to understand the rapidly changing involvement of China in the twenty-first century world? The contributors to this volume have written and thought about aspects of this question for many years. This many-sided volume, the result of a recent conference, offers a remarkable variety of approaches to these issues. “Tribute,” “empire,” “asymmetry,” and recent discussions of China’s “peaceful rise” and of the “Chinese model” for developing countries all come into the discussion. This book will be basic reading for policy analysts, concerned citizens, students of history, political science, and international relations, and their teachers.


Introduction. John E. Wills, Jr.
• The Policy Analyst and Historical Perspectives: Notes of a Practicioner Michael D. Swaine
• How Many Asymmetries? Continuities, Transformations, and Puzzles in the Study of Chinese Foreign Relations John E. Wills, Jr.
• Some Things We Used to Know About China’s Past and Present (But Now, Not So Much) Alice Lyman Miller
• Tribute, Asymmetry and Imperial Formations: Rethinking Relations of Power in East Asia James L. Hevia
• China and Other Colonial Empires Peter C. Perdue • Recognition, Deference, and Respect: Generalizing the Lessons of an Asymmetric Asian Order Brantly Womack
• How the Past Shapes the Present: Five Ways in which History Affects China’s Contemporary Foreign Relations Harry Harding.

John E. Wills, Jr., is Professor of History, emeritus, at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Pepper, Guns, and Parleys: The Dutch East Asia Company and China, 1662-1681 (1974), Embassies and Illusions: Dutch and Portuguese Embassies to K’ang-hsi, 1666-1687 (1984), two chapters on Ming-Qing relations with maritime Europe in The Cambridge History of China, and other books and articles.



“. . . the collection makes a timely contribution to the discussion of this topic by scholars and observers of world politics. By bringing together some of the most prominent China hands in the field, Wills’ edited volume not only tracks China’s expanding global agenda, but also addresses some important gaps by providing much needed contextual understanding of how China views and interprets the world. In fact, it is quite rare to encounter analyses as attentive to detail and method, yet as rigorously polemical as the ones included in this collection. By offering sophisticated macro-historical studies of Beijing’s current international interactions, the contributions to this volume raise critical questions about China’s foreign policy . . . the contributors’ elucidations offer refreshing perspectives on the content, scope and implications of China external relations. The      

volume’s thoughtful consideration of China’s global roles provides a wealth of solid knowledge and perceptive insights on the evolution, patterns and practices of China’s Foreign policy. Thus, to the experts on China’s international interactions, this collection . . . offers both a comprehensive overview and a much-needed reconsideration of the conceptual and policy outlines of Beijing’s nascent global agency. To the beginners, it makes available an accessible, yet rigorous, analytical and empirical engagement with the dynamics of Chinese foreign policy”

  —Emilian Kavalski in The China Quarterly

“. . . what has been lacking in the field is a concise, accessible discussion of the pertinence of the past for China today, one that would give those who might all too easily promote historical simplifications some pause. Past and Present in China’s Foreign Policy goes a long way toward accomplishing this goal. While it is rather slim, it is also quite comprehensive and readable, and should quickly become required reading for any seeking to make sense of this point of intersection within China’s foreign relations . . . it provides no easy answers and contains a number of contrasting arguments and points of emphasis. Yet, in both its sum and its parts, it is utterly convincing in presenting the past as complex and demonstrating its relevance to current developments. The volume then stands as a strong rebuke to those who would argue along more simplistic lines.

Moreover, due to its short length and engaging writing style, the book has the potential to convey  such a message to a broad readership. World leaders looking to make better sense of where China has been and is now are unlikely to find a better source in regard to the external facet of this dynamic (and would do well to pay attention to the chapters by Harding and Miller). In addition, and perhaps more likely, undergraduate students struggling to make sense of the same concerns should find the book especially useful.  As someone who has taught such students for over a decade and often failed in illuminating these issues, this reader is convinced that the book will fill a rather gaping hole in his teaching arsenal. It is well deserving of occupying a similar spot in the courses of others who attempt to explain and describe the international relations of Asia.”


—Allen Carlson, Cornell University, in The Journal of Asian Studies

"No consensus arises from this collection of essays, a weakness from the vantage point of policy actors but a strength for students of history and international relations. As several of the authors lament, the fields of history and political science speak to each other all too rarely, and this book attempts to start a dialolog. For students of history, the book succinctly presents several useful theories of political science in ways that may be useful

for their studies, while for students of political science, it presents it summarizes many of the trends of historical writing in a way applical to their own field. The book is to short and concise to build the bridge entirely, but to have succeeded in suggesting an architecture is a notable contribution.”

—Bruce Kositz, The Australian National University in The China Journal