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Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics

Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics by Yuan-Kang Wang, Columbia University Press, 2011, 328 pp.

Four years after publication, Professor Yuan-Kang Wang’s Harmony and War remains critical to the ongoing debate in international relations about the proper theoretical framework for understanding Chinese security policy. Wang assesses the relative explanatory power of the competing theories of Confucian pacifism, cultural realism, and structural realism. His primary argument is that Confucian pacifism, frequently used to support the Chinese policy of “peaceful development,” does not explain Chinese security policy making across various historical cases. While John Mearsheimer, Yan Xuetong, Warren Cohen, and Victoria Tin-bor Hui have all made arguments against Confucian pacifism, Wang sets himself apart by combining both a theoretical argument based on structural realism and detailed historical research. While he successfully refutes Confucian pacifism, underlying issues with the theory of structural realism prevent him from proving that structural realism offers anything more than the most general of explanation of Chinese security policy.

Wang principally argues that Confucian pacifism poorly explains Chinese security policy throughout history. He looks at several cases across the Song and Ming dynasties, which are widely considered by historians of China to have been most influenced by Confucianism. He shows that considerations of the balance of power drove security policy more than any cultural considerations in both dynasties. Confucianism was used simply as either additional justification or cover for realist policies. Wang shows that, in fact, Confucian ideology pushed a weak Ming regime towards an offensive strategy in spite of the balance of power with the Mongols. The decision to attack the Mongol state in the late 1540s was partially driven by the idea that the Chinese empire was culturally and morally superior to the surrounding states and that “barbarian” control of previously Chinese territory was therefore intolerable (pp. 133–4). Wang denies that culture overrides power in strategic calculations, but he does not deny that culture matters. His argument agrees with recent scholarship on the impact of culture on strategy, such as Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism.

While he succeeds in disproving the Confucian pacifist argument, structural realism does not give a satisfying account of China’s wars. Structural realism claims that war is the fundamental means by which states accrue power, but it poorly illuminates the causes of war. Relative power is an important factor in decisions for war, but the immediate causes of wars are often starkly unrelated to the balance of power. Wang admits that the wars initiated by the Song emperor Taizu were partially due to his military background, making the idea of war more sensible (p. 75). Those of Emperor Taizong were due to a need to consolidate domestic support (p. 75). Emperor Ningzong was “eager to prove himself an able leader” (p. 95). Emperor Yongle invaded Vietnam—after earlier delivering an empty threat—because he was furious at the treachery of the usurper Le Qui-Ly (p. 152). China was stronger than its foes in each of these cases, but the power imbalance did not make these emperors go to war. Structural realism describes how power balances should influence state policy but does not predict when states will resort to war.

More generally, the theory cannot provide guidance on the timing of strategic shifts or accurate predictions of how offensive, defensive, or accomodationist policies will express themselves. Wang argues that from 1450 to 1548, the Ming dynasty followed a defensive grand strategy, but the strategy manifested itself in frequent deliberate attacks on the Mongol state alongside construction of the Great Wall. Additionally, Wang argues that the mid sixteenth century was the nadir of Ming power but shows that it took over 20 years for the state to shift from a defensive strategy to an accomodationist one in the face of Mongol incursions (137–42). Even during these 20 years of supposedly defensive policy, the Ming dynasty embarked on 10 offensive campaigns. Furthermore, those 20 years covered the reigns of three emperors and the careers of many Mandarins. If the balance of power is truly as overarching a consideration as structural realism claims, it should not have taken so long for the rulers of China to shift security strategy. Other factors took primacy over considerations of power in the minds of these three emperors and their advisors. Without being able to offer clues to specific policies or timing, structural realism is a theory that proposes strong states may be aggressive while weak states likely will not. Power imbalances only provide the opportunity for aggression, but that does little to explain why powerful states embark on expansionary endeavors or how they will be manifested.

Wang concludes with an explanation of current Chinese foreign policy using structural realism. He argues that China’s policies currently demonstrate a defensive security strategy. However, while he argues that the Chinese focus on developing economic power over military power highlights a defensive strategy, other academics use this same evidence to highlight the peaceful nature of China’s rise and argue that China does not adhere to the realpolitik practices of other states. It is structural realism’s failure to indicate the nature of offensive or defensive policies that leads to this result. On the other hand, recent events in the South China Sea seem to validate his argument. As China has grown more powerful since the book’s publishing, Chinese policy has become arguably more assertive. But again, this assertiveness is disputed by such notable a China watcher as Alistair Johnston. While Wang ably demonstrates the inadequacy of Confucian pacifism to explain historical Chinese policy, ultimately the fact that structural realism provides no clear guidance on the timing or specifics of policy shifts leaves the nature of current and future Chinese strategy an open question. As Wang notes in his conclusion, “only the future can answer” which theory best explains China’s decisions on the world stage.

Ultimately, this book deserves to be read and thoroughly considered by anyone interested in the future of US–China relations. Chinese leaders frequently turn to Confucian pacifism to alleviate concerns over China’s rising power, but by offering a new perspective on the inadequacy of such arguments to explain Chinese security policy, Wang helps bolster arguments that Chinese strategy is neither more benign nor more virtuous than that practiced in the West. For that reason, despite the failures of structural realism, Wang helps lay the theoretical groundwork for better analysis of present and future Chinese security policy.

Lieutenant (JG) Ian Sundstrom
United States Navy


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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