Realism Under Heaven: The Strategic Behavior of Imperial China




Mills, Matthew

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The Chinese state is historically a realist political actor. Realist theory expects states to perceive the international system accurately, think competitively regarding other states, and act rationally according to their self-interest. Chinese statesmen may also have possessed the traditional tianxia (“all under heaven”) worldview, which presupposes China’s centrality and superiority. In this plausibility probe, I use four historical cases from the Western Han and Tang dynasties to determine whether tianxia might have modified China’s realist behavior. I find that tianxia ideas may affect China’s behavior when the state is strong. In these situations, if the adversary is submissive, tianxia may decrease the coerciveness of China’s expected behavior; if the adversary is non-submissive, tianxia may instead increase China’s coerciveness. Despite being a consistent thread throughout China’s historical behavior, tianxia does not affect China’s perception of nor disposition towards the international environment in any of the four cases. Consequently, I conclude that realism reigns under heaven, except, potentially, when the Chinese state has the power to enforce tianxia ideas.