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military, commercial and cultural impact is limited. Following the Communist revolution of
1949, China and the world turned their backs on each other. Even after opening up, China
remains ambivalent about the international order, which it regards as heavily influenced by
Western liberal principles that it distrusts.
China has always been uncomfortable with what it calls “power politics.” Internal academic
and analytical discussions about international relations influence Chinese foreign policy.
These discussions are both open and constrained. Chinese scholars and analysts never
attack government policy or advocate that the government take specific steps. Rather, they
attack ideas, while never specifically naming the people who propagate them. Certain
“cohorts” of thinkers share common beliefs even though they belong to different institutions,
including the following:
• “The nativists” – This ultranationalist school of thought includes Marxists and populists
who tend to “distrust the outside world.”
• “The realists” – This school dominates Chinese international relations. Less extreme than
the nativist school, it believes Chinese interests should determine foreign policy and it is not
concerned with the needs of other countries.
• “Major powers” – This school follows the strategic management of China’s relations with
other powerful countries and is less interested in other nations, including those in the
• “Asia first” – This school had a decisive influence on Chinese foreign policy at the end of
the 20th century. It emphasized the primacy of China’s neighbors and East Asia.
• “Global South” – This school suggests that China’s interests should naturally align with
those of developing countries.
• “Selective multilateralists” – China should expand its international presence gradually in
areas that affect its interests and security. China must interact tactically with multilateral
institutions and issues – if only to assuage international opinion.
• “The globalists” – Proponents are like the West’s “liberal institutionalists.” They say China
has “an ever-greater responsibility for addressing a wide-range of global governance
issues.” They are “also more philosophically disposed to humanitarianism, embrace
globalization analytically” and see the need for “transnational partnerships.” The realist and
nativist schools dictate Chinese foreign policy, the major powers school and global South
school exercise peripheral influence, and the other schools have negligible influence.
Despite the foreign affairs dominance of the realists and nativists, China’s identity is not fixed
and may change. China’s belligerence stems from the realists’ and nativists’ influence.
China has journeyed from isolation to integration with the international community.
Nevertheless, it remains a “partial power” due to its reluctance to get involved with
international issues relating to Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, for
instance. Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese diplomacy
has passed through 10 different phases of alternating engagement and isolation. These
phases demonstrate China’s anxiety about security. Under Mao, China’s domestic
compulsions often shaped its diplomacy. China is still not entirely comfortable as part of the
international community. Its relationships with “neighbors and major powers” undergo
repeating “cycles of estrangement, antagonism, ambivalence and normalcy.” Chinese senior
leaders and its Ministry of Foreign affairs shape its foreign policy, and its complex
relationships with major powers. The factors that shape Chinese diplomacy include its
history, its “territorial” and “cultural integrity,” its belief that diplomacy should serve economic
and national interests, and its commitment to maintaining internal security and the power of
China, the United States and Russia
China and the US have close economic relationships in trade, investment, tourism and
education. Though they try to present an image of friendship, their uneasy relationship is one
of “competitive coexistence.” Their approach to the world order differs. The US promotes
liberal regimes; China leans toward authoritarian governments. The US’s active role in Asia
leads the Chinese to believe that the US wants to “contain” them. China and Russia have a
long association. The Republican (Kuomintang) and Communist parties learned from the
USSR before the Communist Revolution. Afterward, China and the USSR had a troubled
relationship. The CCP saw the Soviet Union’s collapse as a calamity, though it hopes to
learn from it. China – pragmatically – recognized the nations emerging from the USSR’s
breakup. The Russian Federation and China work to resolve their border disputes. Their
trade and energy exports have grown. They share common perspectives on international
issues and oppose US “diplomatic initiatives.” China has no “allies,” though, and the world
As China acquires heft in the global area, it must meet the standards of global governance.
This suggests that people and governments must adopt principles founded on equality.
China’s establishment rejects liberalism, and is uneasy with global governance and
suspicious of the West’s motives for promoting it. China is involved with international
institutions and issues, but it still believes the international system is unjust and discriminates
against developing nations.
China’s internal political structures influence its contribution to global governance. Chinese
thinkers discount altruistic behavior and perceive a world where self-interest rules.
Relationships within China are based on reciprocity; if you do something for others, they
must do something for you. This attitude opposes governance based on ethical norms
without the expectation of payment. Chinese citizens don’t believe they have a responsibility
to contribute to society or to fulfill any obligation not imposed by the state – like paying taxes
voluntarily. Most Chinese believe global governance is the latest ploy to keep China from
attaining its rightful world rank.
China’s remarkable growth in international trade has transformed the world. “But scratch
beneath the surface and its global position is not as strong as it seems. Although it is a
trading superpower, its exports are still dominated by generally low-end consumer products.”
China’s government works to promote Chinese exports and restrict imports. It is trying to
move Chinese industry from low-end goods and to upgrade its technology. The government
encourages innovation. China’s technology lag also shows that it is only a partial power.
China is the world’s largest consumer of energy. Its national oil companies search the world
for energy supplies, including areas of extreme political instability. China’s national oil
companies are small compared to ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell. China’s mining
stands out globally. “In 2010, China accounted for an astonishing 40% of global copper
demand, driving prices to nearly $9,000 per ton.” The world perceives China’s mineral
companies and national oil companies as relentless worldwide predators of production
resources. China sources most of its minerals from international markets or through direct
agreements with suppliers.
Few of China’s firms are truly multinationals; the bulk of their revenues come from domestic
operations. Exceptions are: “In 2012, Huawei overtook Swedish rival Ericsson and became
the world’s largest manufacturer of telecom equipment.” China’s tenth-largest carmaker,
Geely, bought Volvo from Ford and turned a $190 million profit after one year. Haier, a
Chinese household appliances manufacturer, has entered the American market.
China invests in both internal and external propaganda and deploys cultural activities to
insulate itself from Westernization and to make China more appealing to the world. This
effort has met with little success, and China is, at best, “a partial cultural power,” despite
spending $7 to $10 billion per year on its “overseas publicity work.” The government’s effort
to project such soft power suffers from China’s inability to present a singular image of its
culture. China vacillates between projecting elements of its culture prior to the revolution and
portraying its version of modern “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” China has yet to
present or demonstrate an image of itself that the rest of the world envies or aspires to
emulate. Even as Chinese scholars and analysts debate China’s culture, they must be
cautious due to external nervousness about the threat China poses. They also must remain
aware of how their government regards their efforts.
Military might is a marker of a world power. China remains cautious about getting involved
outside what it considers its territorial limits. By 2020, China will have the secondmost
powerful armed forces in the world. China’s involvement with global security is fraught with
contradictions. If China acts “unilaterally” in its own interests, its actions will reinforce the
global idea of a Chinese threat. If it acts with other powers, it gains favorable opinion while
losing freedom of action. China’s internal conflicts about global governance and “internal
security cooperation” prevent it from achieving superpower status. Its main concern has
been maintaining sovereignty and protecting itself from external military threats. But its
concerns are changing; China now pays more attention to “nontraditional security challenges
– ethnic separatism, counterterrorism, energy security, financial stability, cyber security,
nuclear proliferation, environmental security, public health, natural disasters, transnational
crime and regional ‘hot spots’.”
About the Author
Political science and international affairs professor David Shambaugh directs the China
Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.