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A Neighbourless Empire? The Forgotten Diplomatic Tradition of Imperial China

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SummaryIn the diplomatic canon, where the field has been demarcated by a central distinction drawn between suzerain and parity-based state relations, Imperial China has squarely been designated to the former category, and thereby as inherently alien to the diplomatic tradition. However, this image of a monolithic 2000-year-long rigid, hierarchical system betrays a too shallow assessment of Chinese history, and fails to acknowledge a noteworthy strain of parity-based relations running through Imperial Chinese foreign policy. This strain was at its most pronounced during the four centuries of the Song Dynasty, where China’s relations with a set of important neighbouring states were handled on egalitarian terms that were far more reminiscent of a full-fledged diplomatic multi-state system than what is popularly acknowledged. Based on a case study of the diplomatic relations of the Song Dynasty, this article argues that Imperial Chinese foreign policy on a set of occasions showed itself to adhere to principles immanent to classical diplomacy, and that these eras thus should naturally, and beneficially, belong to the historical canon of diplomacy.

Affiliations: 1: Norwegian University of Life Sciences / Norwegian Institute for International Affairs PO Box 5003, Aas, NO-1432 Norway, Email:, URL:


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