S.P. Ong (Churchill College, Cambridge University)

Macartney's Embassy to China and the Universality of the Law of Nations

In 1792, with the reception of Lord Macartney by the Qianlong emperor, modern Anglo-Sino diplomatic relations came into existence. In what has been taken as the embassy’s most symbolic gesture, Macartney declined to comply with the unilateral Chinese ceremonial of the koutou, and attempted to negotiate a “reciprocal compliment… to distinguish between the homage of tributary Princes and the ceremony used on the part of a great and independent sovereign.” Qianlong, on the other hand, exhorted George III to swear “perpetual obedience so as to ensure that your country may share the blessings of peace.” The commonly-told historical lesson of a schismatic confrontation between progressive British advocates of state intercourse and an isolationist, ceremonial-obsessed, Sinocentric foreign policy thus took root very quickly. Qianlong’s presumptions to universal rule based on a moral and cosmo-political hierarchy were ostensibly untranslatable within the milieu of Westphalian sovereignty.

The above represents the canonical version of the origin and development of modern Sino-Western relations. Depending on one’s critical viewpoint, this narrative either defined the central principle at stake in the conflict or provided a very misleading “origin myth” about its evolution. Looking at both British and Qing sources, this paper provides a framework for identifying the substantive similarities between Qing and British conceptions of world order, and discusses how the historiography of Sino-Western relations is impoverished by failing to incorporate a critical and historicized view of “sovereignty” into its analyses. It argues that British assertions of sovereign equality were clearly unusual and problematic when situated in the context of contemporary reformulations of natural law, which sought to assimilate traditional natural law readings of international relations into an overarching empirical method of the “law of nations”. These reformulations contained ambiguities which were not wholly reconcilable with the contingent articulations of sovereignty in actual cases of treaty making or diplomatic activities between European and Asian states. Indeed, traces of this transitional process are palpable in the various accounts of Macartney’s embassy. The paper attempts to establish a sustained dialogue between legal reasoning on international relations and prevailing ideas about the extra-European world. A hitherto unexamined link I want to make is that between Orientalism and international law, in particular, how “Orientalism” might be conceived as a discursive effect borne out of international law’s transition from natural law doctrines to the codifications of legal positivism.

Recent scholarship has done much to uncover the range of conceptual and institutional structures that were locked into the process of forging authority relationships in diplomatic encounters. This study hopes to build on them by examining the implications of convergence in the “contact zones” of cross-cultural dialogue, and to clarify our view of how two competing imperialisms translated—and rejected—their respective conceptual and pragmatic claims about international order.

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