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Universalism and Equal Sovereignty as Contested Myths of International Law in the Sino-Western Encounter

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image of Journal of the History of International Law / Revue d'histoire du droit international

Contrary to the relevant traditional historiography, this article argues that early modern Sino-Western conflicts are to a great extent attributable to the sustained contestation between China and the Western empires (particularly Britain) over their competing claims to sovereignty in China. The article shows that the Western empires' demand for extraterritoriality and natural rights to freely trade, travel, and proselytize in China originated in their assumption of universal sovereignty in the non-Christian world. The early Sino-Western encounter illustrates how the discourses of sovereign equality and universal justice, as two origin myths of modern international law and diplomacy, were constructed, deployed, challenged, and adapted in the course of Western expansion in the age of empire.

Affiliations: 1: Assistant Professor of Chinese History, University of Toronto, Canada


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