Besides the Realists, who is shaping China’s foreign policy?

Besides the Realists, who is shaping China’s foreign policy?

The Wall Street Journal characterizes China’s recent assertiveness in the region as “a new state of mind,” citing the recent island dispute with Japan, China’s backing of North Korea in the Cheonan incident, and aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea.  The WSJ writes in its Oct. 1 editorial:

Ever since Deng Xiaoping dumped the Marxist half of Marxism-Leninism some 30 years ago, the Chinese regime has depended on the twin pillars of economic growth and nationalism for its legitimacy. Usually the world sees more of the former than the latter. Perhaps not anymore.

As social pressures build within China, some in the leadership may be falling back on one of their core claims to legitimacy—that only the Communist Party can restore China’s dignity after a “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.

Indeed, there are reasons to be concerned about rising Chinese nationalism and its implications for China foreign policy behaviors. However, it is just one of many dimensions of the domestic debates in China that are shaping the country’s view of itself in the world. Professors David Shambaugh and Ren Xiao of the Rising Powers Initiative have identified a range of seven schools of thought within China: Nativists, Realists, Major Powers, Asia First, Global South, Selective Multi-lateralists and Globalists.

China’s international relations debates tend to revolve around the characteristics of the international system and China’s identity within that system. Shambaugh and Xiao argue that, from the 1990’s to today, the consensus within China has been that the global structure is at once uni-polar and multi-polar, although the transition in the United States from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration, coupled with the rise of the BRIC countries and emergence of G20 to replace the G8, has convinced many Chinese scholars that U.S. decline has begun and that the pace of multi-polarization is accelerating.

In this context, Realism is clearly the most dominant school of thought. It is grounded in a belief in developing both economic and military power, and sees the nation-state as the primary unit in the international system. Realists emphasize sovereignty, reject globalism, privilege state power over other types of power, possess a pessimistic view of the international order, and are self-interested although not isolationist.

Other camps are less prevalent, but by no means absent from the myriad of forces at work in the development of China’s foreign policy. These include the Nativists who are populist, nationalist, and Marxists; the Major Power school which stresses that China should focus on relations with other the world’s great powers and blocs; the Asia First school which argues for focusing China’s diplomacy on its immediate neighbors within Asia; the Global South School which argues that China’s primary international responsibility lies with the developing world; Selective Multi-lateralists who advocate that China expand its global involvements gradually, but only where China’s national security interests are directly involved; and the Globalists who believe that China must assume greater responsibility in addressing a wide range of global governance issues.

At the Sept 22 Policy Briefing on “Worldview of China,  India and Russia,” Shambaugh explained that these competing schools of often lead to “contradictory and confusing acts,” revealing an “identity crisis” within China. He cautioned against responding to the predominant realists with an equally realist stance, arguing that the U.S. should instead deal with China’s rise in a much more varied and nuanced manner.

Instead of thinking about what China is not doing, what can China be doing?

In other words, rather than reacting to China’s “new truculence” in a way that fuels more realist and hyper-nationalist reactions from Beijing, how can we bring out behaviors that would be endorsed by other existing schools of thought?

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