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Studying Chinese Global Power
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This major new study examines the nature of Chinese power and its impact on the international order.

Drawing on an extensive range of Chinese-language debates and discussions, the book explains the roles of different actors and interests in Chinese international interactions, and how they influence the nature of Chinese strategies for global change.

It also gives a unique perspective on how assessments of the consequences of China’s rise are formed, and how and why these understandings change. Providing an important challenge to scholars and policy makers who seek to engage with China, the book demonstrates just how far starting assumptions can influence the questions asked, evidence sought and conclusions reached.

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Emphasizing the need to focus on how we study China might sound like an invitation to walk down an already well-trodden path. After all, IR debates on China’s rise (and there are many of them) have devoted considerable time and space to discussions of the relative merits of realist assertions that China simply cannot rise peacefully (Mearscheimer, 2006; Allison, 2017), and liberal expectations that this rise can indeed be accommodated by the existing liberal global order (Ikenberry, 2008). Of course, dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to find exceptions, as a range of different theoretical positions have been deployed to try and analyse and understand China, and predict what China’s rise means for the future of the world. Nevertheless, if you step back and take a panoramic view of the writings on China’s rise as a whole, then the continued dominance of these two major theoretical contenders is rather conspicuous.

There are good reasons for this. These two theoretical positions are not only the most often used in IR scholarship, but have also been the most influential in terms of debating policy options (particularly in the US). Even so, many have found their dominance rather unsatisfying. So unsatisfying, in fact, that some have questioned their efficacy for understanding China at all. Rather than truly being universal international theories, so the argument goes, they are instead culturally and historically specific with realism in particular – but not just realism – built on a study of a European history that has nothing to do with China’s or Asia’s experiences (Hui, 2004).

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The primary aim of Chapter 1 was to understand how different ways of studying China lead to different conclusions and predictions. It would be rather disingenuous, though, to pretend that it was a totally neutral analysis, and this chapter starts from the assumption that a full and sophisticated understanding of China’s rise ‘requires us to capture some of the key complex and simultaneous interactions between the global and domestic levels in the study of China’s external relations’ (Foot, 2013: 1). In short, the argument here is that studying the domestic can tell us things that question a number of the assumptions of those studies that focus more on the international/global level.

This rather simple statement immediately generates two important responses. The first is that it is indeed rather simple. Students of Chinese domestic politics will certainly find it an unremarkable and underwhelming re-statement of the very obvious. However, the reason that it needs to be made is that what is obvious to one scholarly community is frequently absent in scholarship that emerges from other intellectual endeavours. As Hameiri and Lee (2015) have argued, much IR scholarship on China still starts from the assumption of a single Chinese national interest and sees Chinese action as the result of state control to attain state goals. Furthermore, as suggested in Chapter 1, the neglect of domestic diversity in generating transnational activity seems to be more pronounced in the study of China than it is with the study of other states.

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For a number of years, Chinese analysts who studied Chinese strategy found it difficult to find one. The level of fragmentation and the (bounded) plurality of interests discussed in the previous chapter were so great that what they found instead was a rather contradictory set of interests and drivers resulting in a lack of coherence in external action (Wang Jisi, 2011). For example, despite calling his book Inside China’s Grand Strategy, Ye Zicheng (2011) focused on the myriad domestic problems at home that China had to sort out before it could do anything effective overseas. In particular, he highlighted what he portrayed as the almost impossible task of reconciling the views of ‘dogmatic conservatives’ on the one hand, and ‘extreme nationalists’ (of various varieties) on the other. Somewhat earlier, Shi Yinhong (2002: 4) bemoaned an absence of a shared understanding of what it was that China actually wanted to achieve and concluded that

today’s China in her rising is still far from having developed a system of clear and coherent long-term fundamental national objectives, diplomatic philosophy and long term or secular grand strategy … a rising China is and will probably be for a long time an uncertain and somewhat perplexed China.

In the first decade of the millennium, Men Honghua (2004; 2005) was one of the biggest critics of this lack of coordination. By 2015, while acknowledging that the job was still far from complete, he had become more confident.

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In September 2019, China was reported to have signed an agreement with Iran to invest something in the region of US$400 billion in oil related industries and industrial infrastructure. In return, China would be able to buy discounted oil and related resources (using currencies other than the US Dollar), and Chinese firms would be given ‘first refusal’ to run existing or future contracts in all Iranian petrochemical projects without competition. As part of the deal, China was also reported as preparing to send 5,000 security personnel to Iran to protect its citizens and investments (Watkins, 2019).1 Three weeks later the US Department of State imposed sanctions on six Chinese companies and some of their executive officers for breaking US sanctions on transporting oil from Iran (Pompeo, 2019). The timing of the two announcements was probably coincidental. The sanctions applied to transactions that had occurred before the new deal was announced, so may well have been introduced in any case. But whether they were directly linked or not, these two stories combine to provide an example of one of the themes of the time that emerged as Chinese outward investment grew in the new millennium: the idea that China was using its financial power to get hold of strategic resources in places that others would not (or could not) go. In the process, so the argument went, China was propping up authoritarian states and undermining the attempts of others to promote the protection of human rights and to guarantee national, regional and even global security.

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Before 2004, it was extremely rare to hear the words ‘China’ and ‘soft power’ spoken in the same sentence (Gill and Huang, 2006). In the following five years, the study of Chinese soft power generated enough scholarship to put it on the way to becoming part of any mainstream analysis of the Chinese power. Predominantly China’s potential regional power but also influence and attraction in other parts of the world too.1 In a remarkably short period of time, it was a topic that went from being pretty much non-existent to become a ‘theme of the time’ of sorts.

It is no real coincidence that this rather rapid change of focus coincided with the initial boom in COFDI discussed in the previous chapter. In addition to the general growth of financial flows, the establishment of China’s new sovereign wealth fund (the CIC in September 2007) provided a focal point for those already concerned that the Chinese state was now prepared to use its financial resources in strategic ways that could harm the national interests of major Western powers. Not just by buying up strategic assets in the West, but also by trying to buy friendship and support in the developing world. It also provided an example within China of how (mis)perceptions of what the country wanted could result in actions to block Chinese activity (Wu and Seach, 2008: 47). Hence the importance of trying to assuage these potential concerns by ‘cultivating a benign reputation abroad’ (Shirk, 2007: 106).

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Just as the initial driver of the desire to tell positive stories and increase Chinese soft power was a defensive one, so too was the Chinese rejection of the truly universal nature of dominant norms and practices of international politics. Rather than consider China against supposedly universal definitions and concepts, the aim was to ‘Sinify’ them. To establish understandings and definitions that emerged from China’s own history and thinking and reflected China’s specific developmental experiences. This would then generate specific China relevant definitions that should provide the basis for any consideration and/or evaluation of Chinese policy and practice rather than using those developed and deployed by others that had emerged from Western philosophies and histories.

The logical extension of this thinking, continually repeated by Chinese leaders and scholars, is that all countries need to do the same to develop individual bespoke nationalized norms and theories. The same reasoning applies to political systems and economic models as well. So, for example, just as China developed its own developmental path and did not follow any other pre-existing model – even socialist models explored elsewhere – so ‘other countries should not copy the Chinese model’ (Xiao Xinfa, 2018: 26). They should not follow the specifics of what China did, but instead copy the same methodology and ‘embark on a political development path that suits its own national conditions and conforms to its own characteristics’ (Zhou, 2018: 13). The outcome should be a system of normative, theoretical and developmental anarchy.

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One of the themes that runs through this book is that, every now and again, something is said about China that resonates with an audience and gains popularity through repetition. It crystallizes an emerging but often ill-defined viewpoint or sentiment to become the sort of ‘theme of the time’ discussed in Chapter 1. Joshua Ramo’s identification of a ‘Beijing Consensus’ is an excellent example. First proposed in an op ed in the Financial Times in May 2004 (Ramo, 2004a) and subsequently elaborated in an expanded format for the Foreign Policy Centre in London (Ramo, 2004b), it captured a general feeling, refined it, gave it a hook, and fed it back to a largely receptive audience. Those who looked in detail at what Ramo described as the fundamental elements of the Beijing Consensus were largely unconvinced that it was an accurate reflection of how China’s political economy actually worked (Kennedy, 2010). The model as described by Ramo looked more like the aspirations that China’s leaders were espousing for what a future model might look like, rather than an accurate reflection of the nature of the political economy at the time. But in some respects, the actual content of the Beijing Consensus was irrelevant. The Beijing Consensus, and the notion of a ‘China Model’ that succeeded it, both summed up the growing feeling that China might have something that others could learn from to provide an alternative to neoliberal development prescriptions.

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Since at least the early 1990s, China’s rise has been identified as ‘a defining element in post-Cold War international politics’ (Shambaugh, 1996, 180), and questions have been asked about what China’s leaders might do to try to change the world once they had the power to do so. We are a now at a point when we no longer just need to use the future tense. To be sure, we can still speculate about the future. But we now also have real-world examples to analyse and evaluate. Identifying a defining moment when China made some sort of transition to global power status with the ability to push for change is not an exact science. The identification of China as a global power began to become relatively common in the mid-2000s, but really became a well-established ‘common sense’ position in the years following the global financial crisis.1 China might not have been seen as the predominant global power in all issue areas, but by as early as 2012, surveys showed that China was already popularly thought of as the world’s leading economic power among respondents in North America and Europe (Pew Research Center, 2013). And all of this was just as Xi Jinping was taking power, and before he had begun to signal a new direction for China, with both the desire and ability to take a new global role.

While a few have gone to the next step and endowed China with superpower status,2 there is no need to see China in this way or as closely catching the US (though many do) for it to be thought of as a global power.

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