Chinese Perception of Global Order

“Chinese perception of global order and the position of China throughout history”


It is obvious that in the last few decades the People’s Republic of China is on the rise, both in economic and political terms. What remains unclear is how the increase in the Chinese domination will affect the global order. Three important questions arise from this uncertainty: will China be a US competitor? Can it propose a viable alternative to the existing order? How do past experiences shape the current approach of China to global order? The essay will rather focus not on how the world views China, but rather mostly how the Chinese themselves (first of all the elites and the scholars) view the role of their country in the past and present.

At the beginning, just to underline the paramount importance of China to world economy and politics, a certain amount of data will be given. China is the first country in the world in terms of population (1,35 bln), third is GDP (12,61 trln in power purchasing power parity), second in exports (1.971 trln USD), third in import (1,53 trln), first in foreign exchange (3.3 trln USD), first in energy production and consumption, second in oil imports. Its military budget is second biggest (16 bln USD) (CIA World Factbook). China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Despite showing almost incredible economic growth, China is not a part of classical Western civilization and the capitalist core. Becoming in many ways a modern capitalist economy, being at the heart of world industrial production, its political views on the international arena and its place in it may not fully fall in line with the Western vision of China. To try to answer the set above questions, it is necessary to go back in history and see what the Chinese perception was, how and why it was transforming.

Historical perceptions

During the Quing dynasty, that ruled in China since the 17th century until 1912, we can speak of a honor-based system in approach to international (regional) relations. The Emperor and the elites maintained regional order through the formal recognition of superiority of the Chinese nation by the tributary states, thus providing stability and self-respect for the Chinese people. This system was broken by the intervention of the Western states in the 19th century: military defeats and national humiliation through unequal treaties made elites to seek for a way of adapting to the new reality. One approach was to study the international laws through the legal framework to be able to defend the country, exploiting the opportunities the system gave, that is mastering the western knowledge. The second approach lied in the so called Self-Strengthening movement, aimed at using technological modernization to strengthen China, without substantial modernization of the system itself. These developments, however, finished with the downfall of the Quing dynasty. The dynasty itself would later be seen as incapable to defend Chinese interests, responsible for humiliation. The Republican leader Sun Jatsen proposed a new concept instead, that was based on ethnocentric honor. He put a lot of efforts into reversing the unequal treaties to which China was bound. And indeed those treaties were revoked, but rather because of the political situation of the time. China remained politically and militarily frail, it had to rely on other states, and thus it was not fully sovereign, which was clearly shown during conflicts with Japan. Even more, it was perhaps of the fact that Japan – the aggressor was defeated that China would gradually rise to prominence in the region. The beginning of the communist era brought yet another shift in Chinese inner perception and approach towards foreign policy. First, those were the communist ideas on the new society (social justice) in China. From these ideas the foreign policy strongly depended. Later on, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong came with the concept of the three worlds. The concept divided the countries into three categories: First World (superpowers: the USA and USSR), Second World: allies of the superpowers (most of the European countries), and the Third World (non-aligned movement states). Mao’s idea was that China could become the leader of the Third World and thus reassert itself as a great power. Still, China at the time lucked economic instruments and military power to assert its dominance even at the regional level. Ultimately, the idea that non-aligned movement would serve for the shift of the international relations, and China would be at the core of this process, did not prove. With Mao’s death, the Chinese elites took a more firm, cautious stance on the international arena, focusing more on reforming the country and going in line with the great powers. Still, the time of the Cold War influenced Chinese foreign policy, with political elites having to chose with which superpower to ally. First it was the alliance with Moscow and from 1972 – closer relations with the USA. It as well kept a positive image for the developing world. With the end of the Cold War there has been expressed an opinion that the global domination of the USA should be limited and that the international order should be democratized, there appeared a debate among the scholars whether a unipolar or multipolar world is appropriate. Globalisation was seen as a process beneficial for the USA, in which China had to find its place.

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To sum up the past experiences and the way it shapes the current approach of China to global order, it can be said that the past times are seen as a period of humiliation and injustice, especially up until the communist times. Subsequently, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, China perceived itself to be a victim in an unjust world of aggressive, powerful Western states. Contemporary Chinese perceptions of a just international order have been formed by such past experiences and contain a strong element of restitution. Its justice claims start with the Chinese state itself rather than with the needs of a broader global community, focusing on the internal damage. Its activity on the international arena can be explained by the need to return the prestige and honour that was presumably lost in the early 20-ies.

Economic factors determining current perception of global order

Modern Chinese perspectives on the global order and China’s role in it is a matter of debates between the political elites, as well as economic managers and scholars. Increased by the Chinese paramount economic importance and growing military power, as well as participation in the work of a number of regional and international organizations (WTO, UN and Security Council, Shanghai Cooperation Organization) there are several viable strategies present. What must be taken into account is that Chinese view and strategy is strongly intertwined with the country’s foreign economic policy. There can defined five major principles, characterizing Chinese economy and demanding adherence to them. First, is keeping open world markets for its exports, more than half of which are produced by factories that are wholly or partly owned by foreigners. The second principle is about securing access to international supplies of energy resources and natural resources, which serve a determining factor to the Chinese industrial development. The third principle demands China is to insulate its economy and national wealth from potentially destabilizing international risks. The fourth principle demands that new technologies are acquired, together with knowhow and skills. The fifth principle presupposes promotion of global expansion of Chinese own industries through foreign investment (de Jonquieres, 2011). One of the possible dangers to the development of the Chinese national economy is the fact that it strongly relies on the energy imports. Moreover, as most of the markets for extracting resources are occupied. The data proposes that the Chinese export 4.754 million bbl/day (2010 est.), making them second largest importer of crude oil in the world. It is fourth in the world in importing refined petroleum products: 1.571 million bbl/day (2011 est.). As well, China imports natural gas: 42.5 billion cu m (2012 est.), making them 13 largest importer. Chinese often have to focus on those not so favorable, for some reason abandoned by the West. As a big market player, furthermore, China cannot switch out of investments rapidly without risking substantial losses on them – and consequent fierce criticism from nationalistic sections of public opinion and the Communist party that view the reserves as precious patrimony. In search of an escape route and, in particular, of ways of reducing dependence on the US dollar, China is taking steps to promote international use of the renminbi. They include agreements with selected partners to use the currency to finance bilateral trade (chiefly China’s imports), the launch of an offshore ‘dim sum’ bond market in Hong Kong, and authorisation of limited purchases of domestic Chinese bonds by Japanese investors. Yet, estimated two-thirds of the foreign exchange reserves are held in USD-denominated assets while about a quarter of the reserves are in Euro. This amount was partially formed as a reward for economic success first of all export earning and capital inflows, but at the same time because f skewed social policies through the excess of domestic savings over investment. Generally, they do not contribute to national prosperity. And the issue of investing abroad is under question, partially because China wanted to invest in euro, while the eurozone is still getting out of crisis, partially because China is still too much dependent on the US dollar. As well, the measures to make renminbi convertible brought only to partial advancements. This shows how China may be vulnerable as it increases at the margin of those available markets. Chinese financial system remains underdeveloped. Both external economic factors and social domestic, urge Chinese policymakers for precaution when acting on the international arena. In this way, China remains strongly dependent on the international markets and cannot allow itself grave confrontation with the main trading partners and at the same time adhere to the current policy in international relation.

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Political factors determining current perception of global order.

Aside from economic necessity, changes in the Chinese foreign policy there can be traced through bilateral and multilateral acts, as well as inner reforms. Thus, in 1996 there was adopted a new security concept, that surpassed the Cold War thinking and called for a new mentality. Later on, China provided economic assistance to countries affect whose economy was damaged by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1999. On overall, there is a strong incentive for regional integration (ASEAN plus Three cooperation, the signing of the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002, treaty of Amity and Cooperation, signed in 2003). On the regional level, China aims to be on leading positions, which cannot be done without the agreement with the other countries in the region. One direction of cooperation at which China aims is naval: partner relations with the other states would spur Chinese ambitions and capacity of becoming a great naval power. Another strategic Chinese partner in the region is Russia. A large part of Russia-Chinese cooperation is arranged through Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This cooperation is as well ambiguous as Russian leadership is aware of the Chinese economic expansion and the demographic shift in the Russian Far East. Thus, the idea of Chinese to establish a free trade zone among the member states of the SCO has not received further development. Yet, military cooperation of the countries is increasing. Official declarations of the Chinese politicians stress the necessity for promotion of peace and development, the need for multipolarization. Some scholars argue that this approach through the regional cooperation and cooperation with great powers (USA, EU, Russia, Japan) on the one hand, and increasing the role of the international organizations (first of all the UNO) is the actual Chinese strategy on the international arena. Such a strategy presupposes democratization of the international relations, further support of the concept of the sovereignty of the states. Ideally, the strategy of transcending would lead to slow but secure increase in Chinese importance and multipolar world.

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Chinese relations with the world hegemony – the USA, is a separate issue. Ever since the Cold War partner relations with China in political sphere slowly drifted from partnership to competition. Yet, political leaders of the USA varied in their opinion on Chinese-American relations. Those relations are at times worsened by several issue, which prove to retain constant character: Taiwan issue, relation s with Iran, devaluation of renminbi, protectionist measures of the Chinese government, violation of human rights in China with special attention to Tibet. Despite the enormous growth in trade and economic cooperation in the last decades, the USA leadership often shifts attention to military-political cooperation and confrontation. China, remaining the greatest developing country, while the USA is the main developed country, has the USA- Chinese relations as the primary focus, and its external policy in various issues is dependent on these relations. Scholars propose three main possibilities for further development of China-US relations: long-term accommodation, which presupposes gradual shift of balance between the two great states; long-term cooperation, that presupposes further mutually beneficial partnership without significant shift in the roles; and possible conflict, based on the supposition that the USA will never tolerate China as the second world hegemon. So far, whichever strategy is to take place, China accepts the unipolarity in the international relations. But this may not remain a status quo.

Despite the often bright statements announced by the Chinese official, the current approach to global politics is centered around a strategy of bandwagoning and transcending. This means that first China adopts to the US leadership and serves as a partner in various spheres, while the second stage presupposes a peaceful and gradual transition to a more democratic (balanced) world order, with more active participation of the other powers and international organizations. Chinese concept of a new order includes promotion and defense of state sovereignty, support of the role of the UN. On the other hand, constant comparison of the position of China and the USA may not draw a full picture. The Chinese leadership itself emphasized the importance of developing stronger economic and political links with other countries, thus, so as not to remain “trapped” and tied mostly in their relations with the USA.

The ever increasing role of China on the international arena make the other players to study more attentively the Chinese ideas and approach to the global order. And though the Chinese economic policies may go in line with the development of modern economic system, political suggestions may reveal a different picture, that in part center around Chinese history (especially of the last two centuries) and the ideas of retribution for national humiliation, demand for justice and equality, honorable place of China on the international arena, multilateralism; and Chinese internal policy. Although, as this essay suggests, there is no single approach to the global order and the future of the international relations proposed by the Chinese political elites and scholars, certainly whichever this approach be, it will to a large extent shape world politics in the next decades.

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