Chinese and Western International Relations Theories

Chinese ancient school of thoughts[1] and Western International Relations theories: A comparative study


Background of the study

The study of international relations has classically focused on the cause of war and the conditions of peace. With China’s overwhelming economic growth and active diplomacy engaging in international affairs, numerous concerns of China’s emerging power have become priorities on international political agendas, which also lead to many academic researches on the manner in which China rises. The increasing attentions are drawn to Chinese perspectives of inter-states relations, because there are remarkable different perspectives and actions between China and western countries, for example, China’s outspoken opposition to international action against Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Iran. China’s no-string attached foreign aid policy on African countries has been frequently accused as support to corrupt and brutal dictators and a barricade of democratic progress, while most of western countries impose reform conditions when providing aid. As such, the rise of China has not simply challenged the international status quo, but also challenged the conventional wisdom on international relations.[2] (Deng, 2008)

As a consequence, debates are centered around questions on whether China’s rise will be a threat to the regional peace and world security. Over the past three decades, many western scholars have speculated that China will overthrow the current western-oriented international order and reshape the rules of the world in order to service its interests; can China peacefully replace U.S as a superpower; will China’s rise result in military conflict with its neighbor countries?

Statement of the problem

There has been no shortage of research on China’s potential to become a superpower. However, the western experience and thoughts usually conclude that China’s emerging power will be highly problematic and dangerous to the rest of world. It is hard to obtain a holistic explanation of the aforementioned differences from the obvious economic and geopolitical point of view alone. One needs an understanding of the Chinese core values and worldview which stems from Chinese philosophy.

Although contemporary China has incorporated foreign thoughts including Marxism and Capitalism into its political and social system, ancient philosophy still plays a considerable role in its policy-making and in the international relations. As Rosita Dellios pointed out, for western politicians and scholars, any country whose actions have enormous impact on the “high politics” on the international stage, is worth studying at a deeper theoretical level, in particular its philosophy and perspective on the world order. The importance of the Chinese schools’ teachings on inter-state relations cannot be overestimated. It shapes policy-makers’ ideas, which in turn influence China’s foreign policy and behavior. A proper understanding of China’s philosophy concerning International relations and the view of the world affairs will help to increase the understanding, the causes of conflict and the condition for peace with regard to the rise of China. Moreover, the importance of culture and philosophical thoughts in IR theory has recently been highlighted by the publication of a book titled “The return of culture and identity in IR theory”, which pointed out that the question of culture, philosophical thought and identity have always been part of our analysis of the social world, even if often times underestimated. The return of culture and philosophical thoughts has been brought about partly by the failure of the traditional, positivist, neo-realist school to predict events associated with the ending of the Cold War. IR scholars are now reclaiming culture and identity in response to their mounting difficulties with exponential increase in global heterogeneity and diversity. (Chan,1999)

Aims and objective

The objectives of this study are two-fold. Firstly, it seeks analogies and dis-analogies between major Western International Relations theories and the philosophical traditions of China’s Spring & Autumn and Warring states period. This is performed with the question of commensurability in mind. Secondly, it will examine the influence of ancient Chinese philosophical thoughts on contemporary Chinese policy-maker’s conception of international relations in approaching global affairs. These two objectives are closely related. As Dr. Henry Kissinger was cited in Yan Xue Tong’s book: If China became a strong world power, the Chinese government would adopt ancient Chinese philosophy rather than Marxism or Liberalism to guide its foreign policy and the people outside China would be eager to learn about these ancient Chinese philosophical thoughts. (Yan, 2013) This research aims to bridge the gap between Western studies of the Chinese interstate relations and China’s own perception of its rise in world politics. My concern is not only to explore the commonality but also to induce the recurrence of a wide variety of philosophical practice in contemporary world politics.

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Limits of the Study

There is sufficient research on various ancient Chinese schools of philosophy on moral notions and domestic governance. This study will only discuss classical Chinese thought on inter-state relations, interstate order, transfer of hegemonic power and world leadership. The aim of this research is to lay a foundation for genuine dialogue of civilizations between East and West in terms of perspectives of international relations. This is expected to be conductive to a mutual learning process and has potential to enrich modern IR theory by casting Chinese thoughts.

Research Questions

Is there any commonality between Western IR theories and ancient Chinese schools of thought, where does it arise and what form does it take?

Does ancient Chinese school of thought of interstate relations still have implications on contemporary Chinese foreign policy?


This research will horizontally juxtapose Western IR theories and major ancient Chinese schools of philosophy (Legalism, Confucianism, Daoism and Guan Zi’s thoughts) by comparing their analytic methodology, main arguments, views on hegemony, and their empirical implications for China’s rise. Analogies and dis-analogies in those philosophical practices will be traced out between Chinese and Western thinking. Vertically, comparison among thoughts of Chinese philosophers will also be employed. According to Waltz’s three levels of analysis of international relations (Individual, State, and System), Confucius analyzed interstate relations based on individual moral values. Guan Zi and Han Fei Zi’s analyses however, emphasize the level of the state. Lao Zi (Daoism) conducts his analyses at the system level, from the perspective of the abrstract world.

Comparisons between Chinese classical schools of philosophy and western IR theory will be employed as follows:

  • Legalism (Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi) VS. Realism

Briefly speaking, Xun Zi (313-238 BC) and his students, such as Han Fei Zi, have a dark notion of the human-nature just as realism. This is not unlike Machiavelli’s and Hobbes’s state of nature, which they described as a condition where men are engaged in a war of all against all, constantly struggling for survival. According to Classic realism scholar Morgenthau, the human nature is rational, egoistic and constantly seeking to maximize power. These anthropologic premises can be transferred to the behavior of a state in an international system. Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi also described human nature are vicious, constantly pursuing self-interest and benefit. Xun Zi believed that the ideas of a state’s leader have a determining role on its nature. The stability of the international system depends on the nature of the state. Xun Zi listed basic moral principals, such as credibility and trust among allies as necessary for a leader to gain world leadership. If an issued decree turns out to incur loss for the government but benefit the people, the leadership should uphold it rather than lose the trust of his people by abandoning it; if a ratified treaty between allies is in conflict with a state’s self-interests, the state should not withdraw from it as to not lose the trust of his allies. A recent example for this is the protocol of Kyoto; the US, typically assuming the role of the world leader, shirked its responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emission and has been blamed for this by other nations. Xun Zi emphasizes the importance of credibility among allies to gain hegemonial power, rather than employing tricks to cheat its allies. In addition, the comparison not only reveals parallels between Machiavelli’s and Han Fei Zi’s thoughts about the politic reality and morality, but also display subtle differences between them.

  • Guanzi’s thoughts VS. Neoliberalism

Guan Zhong (d. 645 B.C.) was a prime minister of the State of Qi in the Spring and Autumn period, the Guan Zi is one of the collections of Guan Zhong’s thoughts concerning statesmanship. Guan Zhong’s domestic policies and diplomatic strategy helped the Qi state to become the leading state and hegemon in the Spring and Autumn Period.

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Guan Zhong believed that the economic well-being was the foundation of a state. “When the granaries are full, the people will know propriety and moderation. When their food and clothing is adequate, they will know the honor and shame”[3]. This reflects the underlying notion of the rational individual. People with sufficient wealth would be easily cultivated with decency and etiquette, and be more like to obey the regulation. Then, a rational individual can enjoy their freedom and pursue their interest. Guan Zhong’s reform motivates farmers, handcraft men, and businesses by lowering tax and reducing government interference in order to promote production and free economy mechanism. Meanwhile, due to beneficial trade policies, the Qi state became the busiest trade center in ancient China. Guan Zi’s perspective has commonality with contemporary liberal assumptions associated with John Locke and Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, the rational quality of the individual, despite their self-interest, will lead individuals to cooperate and construct a peaceful world.

Moreover, Guan Zhong also recognized the anarchical world order is a reason for world’s instability. He called for all states to honor the king of Zhou and to set up international norms, to avoid anarchy and restore the hierarchy of the Zhou dynasty, which would reduce the likelihood of war. In addition, he proposed a confederation. Its member remained sovereign, linked only by partially federal institutions and by collective security alliances against barbarian in the northern China as in Europe today.

In contrast to most liberals’ perspectives of the equality of state sovereignty, Guan Zi believed that there was hierarchical structure between members of a confederation. States are not equal, powerful states should take greater responsibility. Perhaps, the account of Guan Zhong may better explain reality of the international system. We can notice that the features of hierarchical structure and power relationships among members of the main international organizations today: Permanent members of United Nations, voting structure of World Bank and International Monetary Fund[4].

The aim of Guan Zhong’s reforms were to build a justified hegemony status for Qi, similar to Charles P. Kindleberger[5] and Robert Keohane’s hegemonic stability theory, which argues that to maintain the stability of the international system, a single dominant world power is needed to enforce and develop the rules of the system.

  • Confucianism VS. Idealism

Confucianism has been an essential element in Chinese society, politics and international relations. Confucianism highlights the role of virtue for harmony and peace (å’Œ). Moral standards of “ren” (benevolence) and “li” (rituals, moral standards) will be able to maintain harmony in family, stability in a nation, and peace in the whole world. Confucius emphasized that good government and internal peace and prosperity of a nation would play a significant role in the world and serve as a universal paradigm for other nations. Confucius’s scholar, Kang You Wei, advocates moral reforms to extend Chinese benevolence to the Westerners to avoid direct conflict (Feng, 2007). To some extent, Confucianism perspectives parallel classical liberalism, which rests upon the normative premise: although liberals accept that different societies have different values and norms, they believe in peace as the one common interest of all societies.

  • Daoism

Daoism is brought about by Lao Zi and developed by Zhuang Zi and Sun Zi. Dao means the universal objective laws. Lao Zi summarized the law of universe by observing regular patterns of nature and human beings. This can best be understood by observing the parallel to the modern notion of the laws of nature. According to modern understanding, the universe and all beings and objects within it, rely on a small set of universal objective laws. Everything that evolves within the universe can be derived from these laws, even if enormous complexity can obscure this fact. Indeed, it is widely believed that a final, single law (GUT) can be found from which everything else can be derived. In this spirit, one should understand Lao Zi’s sentence “The dao bears one, one bears…” (“道生一¼Œä¸€ç”ŸäºŒ¼ŒäºŒç”Ÿä¸‰¼Œä¸‰ç”Ÿä¸‡ç‰©”). This principle is reflected in the principle of the scientific method. The outset is the scientific mind observing its environment and recognizing a pattern (道生一), by continued research, the pattern can be refined into a law (一生二), which itself is the starting point for further refinement (二生三). This chain bears the potential to create a whole universe (三生万物). There is an incisive exposition in regard to international relations in Chapter 61 of “Dao De Jing”, which reads as follows: “The great country may be compared to a low-lying lake where many rivers converge;
it is the mixing place of the world, the reservoir of all under heaven, t is said that by practice of quiescence and humility the great can absorb and conquer the small without effort,
and the small and insignificant can gain riches and treasure by submitting to the great.
The great state wishes to keep and nourish its people, and help others.
The small state wishes to help its people by joining with the peace and strength of the larger state.
Both states get what they wish by submitting.
Greatness lies in placing oneself below.” (Translated by John Dicus, 2002). Lao Zi emphasized stillness and humbleness in inter-states relations. The legacy of Daoism has influenced contemporary Chinese foreign policies and has been well laid out in the five principles of Deng Xiao Ping’s foreign policy guidelines. The essence of Deng’s foreign policy is to keep a low key in international affairs and strengthen domestic affairs. According to Daoism, staying in neutral (中庸) is safest and yields the most sustainable profit. “Don’t stick your head out” entirely discourage a state to pursue hegemony. This can be understood in terms of the western IR concept Balance of Power, which states that the power of a hegemon will always be counterbalanced by a strategic alliance of rivals in order to secure their interests.

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In the course of this work we will compare major ancient Chinese philosophies to western theories and concepts in International Relations. We will pick a subset of each group and draw direct one-to-one comparisons in horizontal pairs. The choice of pairs is guided by the rough degree of similarity in the general framework. In particular we will compare Confucianism to Idealism, Guan Zi to Neoliberalism and Legalism to Realism, with the Chinese and the western part respectively. Complementarily, we will draw vertical comparisons among the ideas of the Chinese schools of philosophy.

Preliminary Bibliography

Acharya, A. (2011). Dialogue and discovery: in search of international relations theories beyond the West. Millennium-Journal of International Studies, 39(3), 619-637.

Chad Hansen, (1992), A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, Oxford University Press

Gerald Chan,(1999), Chinese Perspectives on International relations: A Framework for Analysis, London, Macmillan Press LTD.

Feng Huiyun (2007)Chinese Strategic Culture and Foreign Policy Decision-making: Confucianism, leadership and war, London, Routedge

Yan Xuetong,(2011) Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,Edited by Daniel A. Bell & Sun Zhe. Translated by Edmund Ryden. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press

Zhang, C. (2013). Understanding China’s attitude toward international order: from general delegitimization to selective embeddedness.

Jeffrey W. Legro, (2007) What China Will Want: The Future Intentions of a Rising Power, Perspectives on Politics, American Political Science Association

Jack Snyder, ‘Some Good and Bad Reasons for a Distinctively Chinese Approach to International Relations Theory’, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA, Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts, 28 August 2008, 9, 10.

[1] The tradition Chinese philosophy on inter-state relations originated from the Spring and Autumn Period ( 770bc-476bc) and the Warring States era (475bc-221bc). During these periods, the competition for territory and hegemony status among princely states forced states seek to balance of power and develop relationship among them.

[2] Yong Deng, 2008, China’s Struggle for Status: the Realignment of International Relations, Cambridge University Press

[3] 管子 ç‰æ°‘

[4] Daniel A. Belll, p11 Introduction,

[5] Charles Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-39, Chapter 14, “An Explanation of the 1929 Depression,” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 291-308

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