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Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy in Asia
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China’s vision for international order is a matter of great global interest. This book analyses China’s vision for foreign policy and how it is seeking to achieve its goals with its immediate neighbours.

The book provides a historically informed account by examining the legacy of China’s imperial past and traditional political philosophy for insights on the country’s view of its place in today’s world. It argues that China today sees the maintenance of order as its own responsibility and that it believes this order needs to attribute different positions and roles to ‘small’ and ‘big’ states to achieve stability. Furthermore, it explores the different tools which China employs to achieve its vision, including a proactive diplomacy, the control of international discourse, threat of punishment for ‘misbehaviour’ and the promise of economic benefits in return for compliance.

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This chapter examines PRC leaders’ attitudes towards international order and their hierarchical understanding of it. It tells the story of their consistent advocacy for the establishment of a new, more just, and stable order that would guarantee equality with Western great powers for China and ensure its leadership of Asia. It also discusses Chinese statesmen and intellectuals’ focus on the hierarchical aspects of the established, Western-dominated order, one based in their view on raw power competition. The PRC has strived to raise its ‘comprehensive national power’ and its status within this established order, and to obtain support in this task from its neighbours through a proactive engagement policy. The chapter finally shows how, under Xi Jinping, a now powerful China has become much clearer about its expectation that neighbouring states will accept its role as overseer of order in the region and behave with the necessary deference.

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This chapter offers an overview of the techniques and tools used by Chinese statesmen to sustain their vision of a hierarchical Sinocentric order covering all-under-heaven over the course of the imperial era. It emphasizes three points in particular. First, Chinese statesmen remained steadfastly attached to the idea of a hierarchy centred on the Son of Heaven as the only path to order and to the exaltation of his superior moral qualities. They did not falter even when reality sometimes strayed very far from those ideals. Second, the role of ritual in maintaining this order went far beyond the reception of tribute and the granting of imperial titles to forge suzerain–vassal relations with other polities, although these were indeed the most common and favoured ritual institutions. The chapter therefore analyses the broader universe of Chinese techniques of ‘rule through ritual’ (lizhi), and their purpose and function. Third, it was well understood throughout the imperial era that the power to ‘rectify names’, to awe through military might, and to offer economic benefits to visitors were essential tools to make others comply with the Chinese vision of hierarchical order.

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This chapter examines systemic features of Asia that have conditioned and shaped China’s foreign policy choices over the centuries. Specifically, it examines the variation in the degree of asymmetry of power between China and its neighbours in different subregions and over time, the impact of the rapid growth in transport, communication, and social technologies used in Asia over the past two centuries, and the effect of the introduction in the region of the Western norms of nation statehood and sovereign equality. The chapter argues that China’s advantage in terms of power vis-à-vis its neighbours is today approaching the height it enjoyed at the apogee of the greatest dynasties, but also points out that the increase in the volume and intensity of inter-state interactions in the modern world and the existence of a systemic norm of sovereign equality among states that form the ground rules for those interactions today present new challenges for China’s ambitions to shape international order in Asia.

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This chapter turns its attention to the impact China’s forced entrance into the modern society of states at the turn of the 20th century has had on its vision of hierarchical order. It highlights the shift towards a teleological view of history and the birth of a sense of mission for China to transform a corrupt world order into a more just one. It also discusses China’s continuing determination to be recognized as first among Asian states, even as it embraced Western norms of inter-state relations and its renewed sense of moral superiority over Western great powers, seen as malevolent and predatory. In contrast, China was depicted as a worthier leader of Asia based on an idealized vision of its role as a benevolent and admired overlord in imperial times and on the modern role it claimed as the vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. The chapter finally examines China’s obsession with questions of status on the international stage within the new framework of Western-style diplomacy, using its experience at the two Hague peace conferences and in the League of Nations as examples.

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This chapter defines ‘hierarchical order’ as an ideal type based on the Confucian–Legalist fusion that became the official orthodoxy of the Chinese imperial state. It identifies five elements that compose this ideal type, namely, a strong concern with order as a value in itself, the association of order with hierarchy understood as the rationalization of natural human inequalities, the justification in moral terms of the superior position of some social actors over others, the maintenance of the hierarchical order through ritual, and the mobilization of three tools of the state – its mastery of language, the awesomeness derived from military might, and its ability to offer material benefits – to enforce compliance with ritual norms. This chapter details how these elements fit together to form an ideal of hierarchical order that has exerted a strong power of attraction on Chinese statesmen throughout the centuries.

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This chapter discusses the use by PRC leaders of the traditional tools of statecraft that are the mastery over names (or language in general), the awesomeness that comes from superior power, and the provision of material benefits to followers. First, the Chinese belief in the power of names continues to transpire in efforts to establish a sophisticated propaganda apparatus, used internationally to try to shape the international discourse on China’s place in the world. China has also recreated a sort of modern incarnation of the imperial ranks and titles system through its network of partnerships. Second, the use of force is still viewed by Chinese leaders today as it was in imperial times, namely, as a means to awe neighbours into submission and to punish those considered to have violated the rules of good behaviour in their relation with the PRC. Third, the lure of the profits to be gained from access to China’s vast market and sophisticated products is still consciously used to incentivize compliance with the Chinese vision of order and to induce deference from neighbouring states with pledges of economic cooperation and threats of economic retaliation for any ‘offence’.

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This chapter locates this book’s argument within broader debates about China’s attitude towards international order. It explains the book’s focus on China’s vision for order in Asia in particular, on continuity between imperial past and present, and on the concept of hierarchy. It also presents the analytical framework of the book, based on international relations concepts developed by the English School, such as the distinction between international system and international society, and on Max Weber’s method for interpretative sociology grounded on the use of ideal types. The chapter explains how this book aims to build an ideal type of hierarchical order based on the Confucian–Legalist mainstream of traditional Chinese political philosophy, and use it to highlight continuities in certain significant features of Chinese foreign policy from its imperial past to the current period of the People’s Republic dominated by the figure of Xi Jinping.

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This chapter looks at the two most distinctive features of China’s contemporary vision for a hierarchical international order in Asia, namely, its moralizing diplomatic discourse and the role of rituals and ‘codes of proper conduct’ in its diplomatic practice. It shows that PRC leaders have consistently argued they offer a ‘better type’ of international relations than the Western one and that Xi Jinping has supplemented this message with callbacks to an idealized vision of China’s imperial past, meant to highlight its unique benevolence today. The chapter also looks at the way Chinese leaders have sought diplomatic recognition of their special position among Asian states, on whom they still tried to impose standards of ‘correct’ behaviour in a manner reminiscent of imperial times. Xi Jinping has doubled down on those efforts, both in trying to define standards of conduct for China’s neighbours and in seeking to establish a pattern of Asian diplomacy that regularly reaffirms China’s place at the centre of the region.

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This concluding chapter summarizes the argument of the book and emphasizes once again the particular importance China puts on moral principles and, more concretely, on ritualized diplomatic interactions as means to sustain international order in Asia and regularly reaffirm its superior position. This, more than anything, is what makes the order envisioned by China unique. The book closes with reflections on what its findings mean for our understanding of the balance between realism and idealism in Chinese foreign policy, its simultaneous insistence on sticking to abstract principles and on the pragmatic pursuit of national interests, and its designs for order beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

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