By Georgia Anagnostaki, researcher of the unit «Politics & International Relations»

Abstract: In the below paper, there is a try  to  be  presented  the status of China in the global order and its potential influence in international politics. China is a state that has been bothering political scientists for decades now, since it’s been an economic and political phenomenon. A communist state with an open market economy that met great development rates since the beginning of 2000 and despite the global crisis it hasn’t lost much of its power. In order to analyse the subject at hand in the best way,  the paper is starting by providing information on the country in general, such as historical facts that have some importance to the state’s contemporary status. In the second part, different views are presented , scenarios and behavioural patterns that explain or describe China’s current and future position in the global order. Lastly, in the third part there is the conclusion of the opinion

1. Country profile.

The People’s Republic of China (hereafter referred to as China) is the most populated country in the world and the second largest economy, after overtaking Japan’s place in 2010. China has a population of 1,4 billion people, approximately 21,5 million living in the capital, Beijing. The major language is Mandarin Chinese and as currency we will find the Renminbi, commonly known as yuan. As it once used to be an empire, it shall not be of surprise how China consists of many ethnicities, Han being the most dominant one (approximately 90% of the national population), but also Zhuang, Mongols, Tibetan etc. The country has brought much attention upon itself, especially after becoming officially a state in its current form in 1949, after the Second World War. Yet before that time, China has had centuries of history and great samples of civilisation to showcase, that have actually assisted to shape the world in the past, as much as the country influences it today. Therefore, before mentioning contemporary facts about the country under discussion, we shall briefly explore the country’s past.

The first Chinese state on record dates back to a period from the 1700 to the 1046 BC, when the Shang Dynasty ruled over the northern part of what we recognise today as China (Shang Era)[1]. China’s ancient times were over by 221 BC, when the Qin Dynasty was the first to unite the Chinese heartland and rule over other warring states. A series of Dynasties would rule over the empire from 221 BC even up to 1912 AD. The most famous ones would be the Han, the Sui, the Ming and the Qing Dynasties. During that period of long imperial rule, a major philosophy grew in China in the 6th and 5th century BCE and followed by the Chinese for almost two millennia, before also spreading to countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam. That was Confucianism, which essentially important in order to comprehend power relations and distribution of authority amongst the empire and the administration later on[2]. The empire was also heavily influenced by Buddhism around the same time[3].

After almost two millennia of imperial rule, the Republican revolution of 1911 (led by Sun Yat-sen) terminated the rule of the Qing Dynasty and establish the Republic of China. After the revolution, civil war lasted for decades at a plethora of regions, hence the Republic was not established throughout the entity of the Chinese land.  The Republic of China lasted from 1912 until 1937, when China got involved in the Second World War[4], as an ally to the United States. China got engaged in armed conflicts against Japan, before joining alliances with the US and the British empire, right after Pearl Harbour in 1941. Despite the country’s evolvement with western powers, after the war, in 1949, the Communists led by Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalist Kuomintang, “forcing” the nationalists to flee to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China was established.

Ever since Mao’s regime, China has been a communist state, passing through various stages of administrative authority and policies regarding its economy. Severely influenced by Confucianism, the regime was based on strict hierarchy, were the people were to blindly follow the “wishes” of their leader. Mao’s period of governance shaped the country’s profile, regarding to how the people perceive their country as much as to how other states do.

The country has had a central-control governance system, with 33 administrative units under central government, divided into provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities etc. China had been introverted as far as both the economy and foreign affairs are concerned. As a country wishing to preserve the status quo, they had no external conflicts or claims to other states, apart from the cases of Tibet and Taiwan. On the other hand, the economy was majorly controlled by the government, based on agriculture and, sometimes, industrial activities, yet growing quite slowly for the demands of the population. However, matters started shifting after Mao was removed from power. Specifically, 1978 was a milestone year for China, since the Chinese government adopted revisional agenda that would promote more openness regarding trade. For the first decade of 2000-2010, China experienced rapid economic growth, with the GDP reaching a rate of approximately 10% annual growth. Though the global financial crisis hit China as well as any other economy, the effect was not so dramatic and the recovery was faster than in other states, due to the country’s ability to centrally control the economy and the currency.

China became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001. That meant a huge step forward to a market economy that favoured foreign direct investments and free trade. Later, in 2016, the WTO included the renminbi in the database for currency reserves, meaning that the yuan would from then on be an international currency[5]. The reasons I presented the economic behaviour of China shall be presented in the next part.

2. China’s influence on International Politics.

“The Dragon rising in the Eagles nest”

Before I start discussing about China’s status and influence on International Politics, it is essential to provide with context, meaning presenting what that system is. The current international system was crafted mainly by the US right after the end of World War II. Having acquired a lot of power through getting involved with war and politics overseas, the US created a global order of relations between states and institutions (global and regional) that ran according to the principles of free trade, open market and liberalism in the political sphere. Getting acquainted with mingling to other state’s affairs, the US spread a thread of influence over most of the West world (and not only), leading international politics, up until very recently.

As to what China’s role in that system is, there are two major schools of thought around it[6]. Primarily, we have Michael Yahuda’s view, supported by other western scholars as well, which refers to an aggressiveness in China’s foreign policy[7] and an estrangement towards the status quo and the US led norms. This view sees China as a state challenging the US and the global order. The second view, as expressed by Ning Liao, envisages that China participates and assists shaping the regional security and multilateralism. According to this second view, China is still a state that abides with Deng’s axiom and wishes for peaceful development and stability within the frames of multilateralism.

Deriving from these two theories, we have three scenarios of potential Chinese influence in the future. The first scenario sees China as the spoiler, referring to a challenging and shifting agenda that aims in reshaping the system according to revisionist policies. The spoiler scenario takes into consideration the country’s divergent interests and the global system’s current security challenges, yet seems to ignore aspects of China’s foreign and economic policy that indicate a tendency of integration and compliance with international norms. On the other hand, the supporter scenario encompasses those tendencies, acknowledging the highly interconnected and interdependent global order and how China has started claiming a place in it as a rising power. Therefore, China is a supporter of the global liberal order. One piece of evidence of this conformity is the state’s economic integration. The paradox here is that the same evidence (economic integration) is used as the base of the third scenario, the shirker. According to this scenario, any policy implemented by China towards its economic integration is derived by the country’s domestic interests. The scenario suggests that China is reluctant to take up a more active role in global governance, suggesting that it uses the system while being absent from it[8].

To clarify some things, it is more than one of the above scenarios that apply best to China’s behaviour. Though China is acting on a revisionist agenda, the spoiler scenario omits many aspects of the state’s tactics and their effects on global order. As this might be more of an opinion of mine, the supporter scenario seems to best describe the present and future role of China to international politics, if a few elements from the other two scenarios (the spoiler and the shirker) are also taken into consideration. So far, China has joined the WTO and has had an active role in the South China Sea as a key player to commerce and financial support. Despite these two aspects referring most to economic policies, it is clear that China has been using its economic integration as a vehicle for foreign policy and creating a political presence. Overall, China’s behaviour shows an acceptance of international norms that abide with its domestic interests while using its potential as a rising power to transform those norms in order to better embody China’s goals.

According to an article on China’s behaviour by Wuthnow, Li and Qi, there are four different ways to describe it. To begin with, China could be a watcher, meaning that the country is keeping a status-quo oriented stance without mingle with international affairs. Secondly, China could be engaging in the system, projecting a more assertive behaviour that still serves the status-quo idea. Another behavioural action is to circumvent, which implies that the country follows a revisionist agenda without it being aggressive and targeted to other states. Lastly, China could be shaping the system, which combines revisionism and assertiveness, without being aggressive.

Taking into consideration the country’s long history and former philosophy, it doesn’t seem that it will “stray” from status-quo oriented agendas, so as to maintain the economic benefits it has gained so far, while being more present and active in regional or international issues that only concern its domestic interests. Since the rising power is contained by the western-oriented institutionalised structure, it poses no threat, no matter its revisionist views. The country’s economic and institutional integration has led to dependency on the international community. For example, its membership to the WTO is key to the future of its economy, aw the organisation provides with legal and political protection over economic discrimination between states.

As far as the state’s presence in a multilateral mechanism is concerned, China can and has taken up a role of representing the divergent interests and distinctiveness of many countries. China is a non-western culture, a “developing” country which opposes to intervention in another state’s affairs. Therefore, it has managed to gain support from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Venezuela, as well as countries which have developed economic ties with China (see countries of the South China Sea, or other neighbours). This support mechanism also appears in the BRICS group, that China is a part of, through which[9] the state enjoys some kind of ratification and takes a role of leading the re-shaping of the western norms so that they become more inclusive.

Despite having made reforms in its economic system, China has not accepted the terms of the Accession Protocol of the WTO to their entity, meaning that the shirker scenario fits some of the country’s actions. China seems once again to comply with aspects that serve its interest and goals and abstain from others.

China’s contemporary role and future influence on international politics was heavily influenced by its former President Hu Jintao, as well as current President Xi Jinping, who in some ways continues Jintao’s legacy. In a speech he gave in 2009, at China’s 11th Ambassadorial Conference, former President Hu confirmed the pattern of peaceful development that shall abide by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence[10]. In the same speech, emphasis was given on three key points of China’s action-plan, one of them being the soft power[11] the country wishes to use as part of their influential policy, followed by active stance on certain areas of foreign affairs by Chinese officials and more adaptation to multilateralism, so as to promote the country’s interests. At this point, it is essential to make an observation: it seems as if the Chinese government comprehends that any sign of growing involvement and presence in foreign affairs is in a context of US hegemony, meaning that disputes with the US government will not favour China’s position globally. In continuance to his predecessor’s statements, current President Xi bases the government’s statements on the ideas of interdependence and interconnection. Therefore, China pursues to use its influence as a rising power, setting as priority long-term development to achieve security objectives and be prepared for domestic challenges. Not surprisingly, China uses economic integration and development as a very powerful tool for its foreign policy aims.

3. Conclusions

Taking into consideration elements and evidence presented in the aforementioned parts, in this last section I shall begin to conclude and express my point of view on the influence China might have on international politics. China’s contemporary history (meaning since it was founded as a state under the name People’s Republic of China) is split into two major periods. The first one started in 1949, when Mao took power and established the state, while the second period starts for me in 1978, with the first major steps towards liberalising the economy. But even before Mao, China as we know has had a great history and philosophical foundations. China’s gradual economic liberalisation, its integration into international institutions and norms, its active stance on foreign affairs -especially when those concern the South China Sea and are closely related to its domestic interests-, the compliance with some norms and rejection of others and the fact that China doesn’t seemingly get involved in armed conflicts “in the name of the greater good”, but rather stays put – all the above are evidence that China still favours a status-quo focused agenda, using its capacity and influence as a rising power with much economic strength only to promote its own development. There are no actual signs that China wishes to overturn rules and patterns that have already been established˙ rather, it only seems that China aims to revise some of the rules, so that they better incorporate the interests of states that don’t necessarily follow or fit into the western model. Chinese officials express an understanding of the dynamic of international politics, which indicates that the cooperative stability of the supporter scenario is likely to persist in the long term. While the United States will retain its global influence, the age of unipolarity is in decline.

[1] (Anon., 2019)

[2] (Weiming, n.d.)

[3] (Lopez & al, n.d.)

[4] (Mitter, 2015)

[5] (WTO, n.d.)

[6] (Farrell, 2015)

[7] We are referring to policies from 2008 and on.

[8] (Farrell, 2015)

[9] Referring to the support mechanism.

[10] mutual respect for territorial integrityand sovereignty, nonaggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

[11] Referring to spreading China’s culture, political ideas and policies. (Farrell, 2015)


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