China Through the Looking Glass

February 29, 2008

China Through the Looking Glass

Much has been made of China’s failure to prevent tainted food and dangerous toys from hitting the world market. But there’s more than that to this rising power. In an excerpt from the March/April symposium in The National Interest, “Great P

Understanding the Jabberwock

If the bear's so great, what of the dragon, then? "It seems very pretty . . . but it's rather hard to understand!"

CHINA HAS a conflicted identity as a major power-but few nations have had as extensive, animated and diverse discourse. Official, semiofficial and unofficial circles all actively debate the roles, opportunities, dangers, risks and responsibilities of being a major power. There is still a segment of opinion that denies China is a major power-arguing instead that it remains a developing (socialist) country and is, at best, a regional Asian power. Over the past decade, however, the preponderance of domestic discourse recognizes that China is a major power-or at least is well on its way to becoming one.

While such discussions take place primarily in the semiofficial policy and academic communities, they have also extended to society at large-with the 2006 airing of the twelve-part CCTV (China Central Television) documentary series "Rising Powers." This popular program, which followed a series of lectures on the subject presented by leading academics to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo the previous year, was watched by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Within the national discourse on China as a great power, several contentious subdebates have surfaced.

The first is the debate over whether the international order is still moving toward multipolarity. Hu Jintao's report to the Seventeenth Party Congress in October claimed that it was. But not all analysts agree, arguing that American preeminence will endure. A compromise consensus has emerged that unipolarity is not mutually exclusive with multipolarity, and that the global structure has one superpower and many poles.

A second question concerns China's own status and role. Many policy makers argue that China should follow Deng Xiaoping's dictum to "not seek leadership" and "sustain a modest demeanor whatever one's capabilities." Earlier this decade a leading CCP theorist and advisor, Zheng Bijian, coined the term "peaceful rise," but after a heated debate in academic and leadership circles, it was abandoned in favor of "peaceful development" as the official mantra. "Rise" was thought to be too threatening to some abroad, while others favored "revival" or "restoration."

Chinese leader Hu Jintao put forward his own vision of a "harmonious world" at the United Nations in September 2005,1 which subsequently became the government's current foreign-policy line. It builds on China's regional strategy to "establish good neighborliness, make neighbors prosperous, and make them feel secure." It seeks to reassure those concerned about China's rise by stressing that it will not threaten or disrupt the existing global order. Chinese commentators have concomitantly debated the role of "soft power" in major-power diplomacy-its content, strategy, tactics and instruments-as Beijing has become increasingly sensitive to its image abroad.

The third internal debate was stimulated by Robert Zoellick's 2005 call for China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. This stimulated Chinese think tankers and academics to argue heatedly about what it means to be a "responsible great power." Most stress that China should still keep a low international profile, while others recognize the increased international expectations for China to contribute to global governance and help solve "hot spot" problems. A consensus has emerged that Beijing should be selectively engaged, in concert with other major powers, where its direct interests are affected-like North Korea and Iran. In other places, where its interests are more peripheral-like Sudan-it should at least not be obstructionist.

Finally, the concept of "hegemony" remains central in the major-power discourse in China. There is unanimity of view that major powers should not act coercively. As such, antihegemony remains the sine qua non of the Chinese worldview and foreign policy.

Thus, the discourse inside China about what it means to be a major power has been both intensive and extensive. It is very lively and a good indicator of the freedom of thought and argument permitted in Chinese academic and policy circles today. Most importantly, it also reveals the multiple and sometimes conflicting identities that exist in the Chinese worldview and view of their role in the world. The United States, and other major powers, needs to understand these debates and fashion their own China policies to support the moderate and constructive voices-so as to encourage China to assume its appropriate role as a responsible regional and global power. -David Shambaugh is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.


1According to Hu, a "harmonious world" should have four principal attributes: (1) effective multilateralism with a strong role for the United Nations; (2) development of a collective-security mechanism; (3) prosperity for all through mutually beneficial cooperation; and (4) tolerance and enhancement of dialogue among diverse civilizations. See Hu Jintao, "Build Towards a Harmonious World of Lasting Peace and Common Prosperity," speech at the United Nations, September 15, 2005:


ASEAN'S Adventures

"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" said the Queen.

THE ASSOCIATION of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is not a major power in its own right; instead, the imperative of this collection of relatively small countries is to diversify its dependencies by engaging simultaneously with a range of great powers, not to exacerbate its dependence on only one great power. In particular, ASEAN's push for greater regional integration has been justified as a way to both retain and grant regional legitimacy to U.S. strategic involvement in the region, and to engage and incorporate China as a responsible regional power. The two strands are intrinsically linked: the engagement of China is built upon the reassurance of continued U.S. strategic commitment to the region. For instance, ASEAN's increasingly enthusiastic bilateral and multilateral engagement with China is underpinned both by its members' existing relationships with the United States and their desire to use the "China card" to persuade Washington to deepen these relationships.

Despite this broad agreement, differences in strategic preferences must be expected from a grouping of ten diverse countries. ASEAN does not want to enter exclusively into a Chinese sphere of influence. At the same time, governments with significant Muslim populations, such as those in Indonesia and Malaysia, have faced domestic political pressures against identifying too closely with the U.S. "war on terror"; and most ASEAN leaders have also expressed concern with Washington's apparent obsession with counterterrorism at the expense of other issues such as economic development. The result is occasional tension, such as the row over participation in the East Asia Summit, inaugurated in 2005. Some ASEAN members, such as Malaysia, backed China's wish to limit the summit to strictly East Asian states. Yet, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia eventually prevailed in their insistence on including Australia and New Zealand as representatives of "Western," or American, interests.

ASEAN is an aspiring major power in East Asia. The association continues to face many collective-action problems even as it moves toward formally institutionalizing its collective identity. Yet it does not pose a fundamental challenge to American dominance. Instead, one of its key aims is to ensure the continued deep strategic and economic involvement of the United States in the region as a means of diversifying its member states' dependence on great powers. The question is whether the United States can work more closely with ASEAN on issues of critical interest to the latter, especially in the economic realm, and whether it can accept that ASEAN will not always fall in line with the United States on every issue. -Evelyn Goh is a university lecturer at St. Anne's College, Oxford. She specializes in Asian security and U.S.-China relations.