Rethinking the IR Theory of Empire in Late Imperial China

International Relations of the Asia-Pacific

Author/s (editor/s):

Joseph MacKay

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

Find this publication at:
Oxford University Press

Joseph MacKay, ‘Rethinking the IR Theory of Empire in Late Imperial China’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 15(1) 2015: 53-69.

International relations (IR) scholars have recently taken increased interest in empire. However, research has often focused on European colonial empires. This article aims to evaluate imperialism in a non-Western historical setting: Late Imperial China. The article first compares extant IR accounts of empire (one broad and one narrow) to theories of the East Asian hierarchical international system. Second, to further specify analysis, I evaluate IR theories of empire against the historical record of the Ming and Qing dynasties, addressing Chinese relations with surrounding ‘tributary’ states, conquered imperial possessions, and other neighbouring polities. I argue that while IR theories of empire capture much of the region’s historical politics, they nonetheless underspecify it. Theories of East Asian hierarchy suggest additional mechanisms at work. The historical cases suggest extensive variation in how empires expand and consolidate. I conclude that there is room for further theory building about empire in IR and suggest possible areas of emphasis.

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