State formation on China’s southern frontier: Vietnam as a shadow empire and hegemon


  • Tuong Vu Department of Political Science, University of Oregon



State formation in Vietnam followed an imperial pattern, namely, a process of conquests and annexations typical of an empire. At its peak in the early nineteenth century, the frontier of the Vietnamese empire encompassed much of today’s Cambodia and Laos. This imperial pattern was the basis on which the French built their Indochinese colony and the Vietnamese communist state built its modern hegemony. By re-examining Vietnamese history as that of an empire and hegemon, this paper challenges the nationalist historiography’s assumption about Vietnam’s need for survival from China as the driving force of Vietnamese history. In contrast, I argue that the threat to Vietnamese survival has come less from China than from other states on China’s southern frontier. Vietnam has in fact benefited from a positive synergy with China in much of its premodern and modern history. By situating Vietnamese state formation in the context of mainland Southeast Asia, I hope to correct the tendency in many studies that focus exclusively on Sino-Vietnamese dyadic interactions and that posit the two as opposites. Treating Vietnam as an empire or hegemon over a large area of mainland Southeast Asia also is essential to understand why Vietnamese sometimes did not automatically accept Chinese superiority despite the obvious “asymmetry” between them.


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Tuong Vu, Department of Political Science, University of Oregon

Professor in Political Science






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