You are here

China's foreign policy debates

30 September 2010
Download document

This Chaillot Paper extensively analyses internal debates on China’s foreign policy that have taken place over the past decade. It is framed around three core concepts and based on an analysis of articles, books and commentaries published by prominent Chinese scholars in the field of international relations. The three concepts, shi, identity and strategy, respectively refer to the general context wherein China’s foreign policy is formulated and conducted, China’s identity in international society, and China’s national goals and values. The paper is structured into four main chapters. Chapter One offers a structured framework of core concepts to provide readers with a better idea of how domestic debates regarding foreign policy matters are conducted in China. The first core concept is shi, a Chinese term, used quite often to denote the overall configuration of the world order. It is believed in China that a good foreign policy derives from a sound understanding of shi. The second core concept is identity, concerning Chinese scholars’ thinking about China itself. Since China lost its centrality in Asia and became a semi-colonial country in the middle of the nineteenth century, the question of China’s national identity and the direction in which this should evolve have constantly puzzled China. These questions have become even more conspicuous since China has acquired new prominence in the international community and emerged as a fast-growing major economic power. The third core concept is strategy. Based on this, Chinese scholars have debated issues like the objectives, principles and values of China’s foreign policy. Chapters Two, Three and Four are devoted respectively to a systematic analysis of internal debates on the understanding of shi, China’s identity and foreign strategy.  With regard to shi, the paper discusses how the distinctive features of the international system are perceived and major powers are depicted by Chinese International Relations (IR) scholars. It focuses on how concepts of hegemony and multipolarity are defined and expounded, and which major powers are the focus of more attention.  International institutions are not discussed in the paper, except the newly developed G-20: this is not because they are not of importance for the Chinese IR community, but just due to the fact that the author’sframework of analysis mainly emphasises the distribution of power and the topics explored in this paper are those highlighted in the internal debates. The paper finds that the understanding of shi in China has not only become more diversified and pluralised, but has also undergone a fundamental transformation during the last ten years. The international context is generally perceived more positively, even though scholars also believe that China is now facing a more complicated situation on the world political chessboard, which presents more challenges and difficulties for China in conducting its foreign policy. As far as the concept of identity is concerned, the paper examines the questions of how China should position itself in the current international system, how much responsibility China should take on, what kind of role China is going to play and the extent to which China’s understanding of international responsibility coincides with Western concepts and perspectives. New developments with regard to the Chinese perception of sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect are also discussed in the paper. The intensive debate on China’s identity has been precipitated by the increased attention given to China in the international arena since China, especially as an economic power, has begun to have an impact far beyond its borders. And it has also been triggered by the international community asking China to do more as a responsible stakeholder. For many Chinese scholars, China has gradually constructed an identity as an insider rather than an outsider of the international community. Some of them acknowledge that China now possesses multiple international identities, but believe that these are not inevitably contradictory.  In relation to the question of strategy, the debate over the objectives, principles and values of China’s foreign policy has never been as intense as it is today. Scholars claim conflicting goals for foreign policy to pursue, and advocate contrasting paths for it to follow, revealing different values to which they attach importance. The regional order in East Asia has also been a subject of discussion under the concept of strategy, since it is a priority for China’s foreign policy and it is frequently discussed within China’s IR community. Nationalism is another highlighted issue, one that has attracted a lot of attention in China as well as in the wider world. The paper presents the various strands of ideological thought and discourse on international affairs, ranging from extreme nationalism to neo-internationalism, whose proponents argue that there should be more cooperation among nations at both regional and global levels. The concluding chapter attempts to categorise foreign policy debates in China based on the current dominant schools of thought in Chinese international relations. In fact, China’s intellectual worldviews range along a spectrum from ‘offensive realist’ at the one end to globalist views at the other end. It is becoming difficult to find consensus among Chinese IR scholars on the various key aspects of Chinese foreign policy. Realism is quite often perceived as a dominant ideology which has had deep roots in Chinese culture for several centuries, but the paper finds that this is not the case today. The preponderant voice heard in the Chinese IR community nowadays is that which champions the liberalist worldview: this view is represented in at least one third of the international relations publications studied in this volume, while roughly another one third comes under the category of the constructivist view. Both these schools of thought argue for more cooperation with and deeper integration into the international community. The dynamics behind this new development stem from both internal factors (great social change) and external factors (international pressure). As a result of constantly reforming and changing itself in its process of modernisation and transformation, China now makes a major impact on the outside world. Meanwhile China itself cannot escape being influenced and being changed by others in the world. As China embeds itself more deeply into the international community, foreign policy making in China is becoming a more complex business, with more issues to be dealt with, more challenges to be faced on a variety of fronts, and a larger constellation of actors becoming involved. Among the latter ranks the IR community, which is going to become more conspicuous and in the future will play a more significant role in the process. Current debates on China’s foreign policy will have a major impact on China’s interaction with international society in the years to come.