China's Rising Powers. Constructivist Reimagining

Essay, 2013

10 Pages

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China’s economic success over the last several decades has unarguably attracted the attention of leaders and governments in every corner of the globe. McDougall points out that the, “…US–China economic relationship is clear. The US is China’s biggest customer (18.4% of China’s exports in 2009); China is the single most important source of imports for the US (19.0% of US imports in 2009)” (McDougall, 6). The ramifications of a fully modernized China that actively participates in shaping and leading the global economy are widespread, as China possesses the capital and manpower necessary to influence the course of history. Specifically, the United States has made numerous declarations that place China among the top threats to a realist version of international order that anticipates balancing of power and ultimately violent confrontation between rising powers and the established hegemon. Although the dominant realist perspective in the elite decision making circles of US foreign policy paints a dark picture for the future of China’s further development, an alternate vision exists that relies on historical precedent, constructivism, and economic mercantilism to explain China’s previous actions, future intent and direction of development. In this paper, I will draw upon China’s long history, recent collaborations with its East Asian neighbors, and economic policies, to argue that economic mercantilism and constructivism better explain China’s development than the dominant realist theoretical framework. Furthermore, I will argue that constructivism will demonstrate that China’s continued development is peaceful in nature and instead of destabilizing international and regional order holds the capacity for benefitting all of the involved actors.

First, I will begin with a short recap of the dominant realist view of China’s ‘rise.’ Realist theorists in the United States at best view China’s growing power as manageable, and at worst anticipate a violent clash. For example, Ross argues that for the immediate future, “…China will lack the advanced technologies and the funds to develop the power projection capability necessary to challenge U.S. military dominance in maritime East Asia.” Ross continues by claiming that, “If the United States remains committed to maintaining its forward presence in East Asia, it can be assured of maritime supremacy, the ability to handle the rise of China at manageable costs, and a stable East Asian balance-of-power.” (Ross, 395) Within these general claims, several assumptions about U.S.-Chinese foreign relations emerge. Specifically, the terminology used emphasizes conflict, with emotive words such as ‘power,’ ‘balancing,’ ‘rising,’ ‘challenge,’ and ‘handle ‘dominating the conversation. Since the foundation of realist thought is in the anarchical nature of the international political order, which necessitates that states strive to maximize power by acting in their self-interest, the tone is automatically confrontational. The fundamental problem with realist assumptions is the generalization of relations, which pays no attention to the societal, cultural, and historical factors that necessarily preclude conflicts. In this case, China can be replaced with any growing state whose developmental history does not fit comfortably into the Western/U.S. conceptualization of ideal liberal developmental strategies.

In order to tackle the broad assumptions of realist thought we must draw attention to the details that the particular theoretical framework chooses to ignore. To begin with I will address China’s extensive history and past role as a regional hegemon. Although Western history books like to forget, China is the world's oldest major uninterrupted civilization and has records that date back over 3,500 years. Chinese development far surpassed European standards for centuries and has only relatively recently been classified as ‘emerging.’ Turner points out, that “China by around 1100 was producing steel so effectively and voluminously that it would be matched only by Great Britain as late as 1800; Chinese iron production dates back to the sixth century BC, textile to the fourteenth century BC; key elements of the European agricultural revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were in evidence in China over a millennia before” (Turner 112). China’s East Asian Empire that flourished under an intricate tribute system for thousands of years only collapsed recently after being forced to open their market to foreign trade. Mathematically speaking, this recent shift to a Western dominant worldview is merely a blimp on the vast horizon of China’s lengthy history. In light of this reminder of China’s lengthy history, the realist term ‘rise’ no longer seems to fit what is taking place in China today. What we tend to forget in Western education and culture is that before the ‘modern’ age, sophisticated societies with advanced technologies that rival European development not only existed but flourished in the East. Turner clarifies, that, “Unfortunately, a traditional tendency in the West to limit our examinations of history to the modern world has led to a gross distortion of China's true identity. China has always been a great world power; we simply chose to forget” (Turner, 116).

In response to this gross underestimation of China’s capacity for development, Beijing publicly amended its official intended course, from that of a `peaceful rise' to `peaceful development'. (Turner, 112).Although this small detail might seem unimportant; it is an explicit attempt to subvert the conceptualization of China as a recent addition to the category of global superpowers and therefore a threat to the perceived US hegemony. Beijing understands the importance of actively working to construct its own identity, which if left up to the Western powers would be defined as aggressive, destabilizing, and threatening. Washington needs to expand the scope of its analysis to include historical considerations that would create foreign policy decisions that reflect actualities of Chinese culture and history or risk forcing the development of adversarial relations with the largest economy on earth. The former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Joseph Nye points out the possibility of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by suggesting that,”… based on the crude hypothetical assumption that there exists a 50 per cent chance of China becoming aggressive and a 50 per cent chance of it not; to treat China as an enemy now would effectively discount 50 per cent of the future.” Nye concludes with the recommendation, that constructive engagement with China is the preferable approach and, “…the best way to maintain healthy and amicable Sino-American relations” (Turner 115).

Central to the realist animosity toward China’s reemergence is the mercantilist nature of its economic development. Specifically, China’s developmental model can be viewed in terms of an Asian developmental state model, which is a modern derivative of mercantilism. Although China’s development differs greatly from other Asian states, notable similarities exist specifically with East Asian states. Holslag points out that this Asian mercantilism includes two prominent characteristics that contradict the policies of the established Western Consensus. Although Asian mercantilism, “…promotes openness and compliance to international liberalist standards in order to lure in foreign capital and to gain access to overseas consumer markets,” the state still maintains “… a vital role in mooring the accumulated wealth and creating a well-off society through guidance and redistribution” (Holslag, 136). This framework for economic development attempts to reconcile the benefits of the two extremes of full integration in the globalized market economy and economic independence. Asian mercantilism reflects the similar Confucian values of many Asian nations, which emphasizes the importance of maximizing collective gain through strong state supervision over individual profits. This ‘homegrown’ model also combats the dependency trap that has recently kept development stagnant in some Latin American and African countries. Beeson states that, “The economic development of much of Southeast Asia in particular was ‘distorted’ by the needs of the imperial economies” (Beeson 452). With the refusal to allow the market to completely control the economy, Asian mercantilist states can insulate themselves from exploitation with the development of domestic industries that protect their young economies from wild market fluctuations and crashes. Holslag summarizes with the claim that, “The final goal of the new Asian mercantilism is to thrive on globalization without seizing the capacity to steer and without falling for the dependency trap” (Holslag 136).

Chinese mercantilism, or state capitalism, stands in stark contrast to the neoliberal tradition that first assumes the presence of the market, and then contends that the market economy will function optimally with minimal governmental interference. State capitalism contends the government of the developing economy should take an active role in steering the development of industries and only allow liberalization after the successful creation of proper infrastructures. (Hayashi, 47). Today, what makes China particularly mercantilist is the large variety of tools the state has at its disposal, and its “…capacity to make use of these in a coherent well-defined strategy that serves the national interest, rather than the aspirations of individual corporate actors” (Holslag, 165). The importance cannot be overstated of strategic state sponsored investment in emerging economies, which not only helps growth but ensures local ownership of the marketization process. If states have to personally direct their “…international integration process: they have to make their own decision about what they put into their countries, when and how they do it, how foreign powers…should be integrated into indigenous society, and how this society should adjust” (Hayashi, 64). This model is similar to the route followed by the United States, Great Britain and other advanced states in the formative years of their free market economies. Hayashi points out that fully advanced states, “did not get where they are now through the policies and institutions that they recommend to developing countries” (Hayashi, 48). This hypocrisy should embarrass Western critics of East Asian development; however, instead the facts are ignored and Washington continues to behave as if the actions of these emerging economies are antithetical to ‘correct’ models of development.

Now that we have a working foundation of relevant historical precedent, and have reimagined the ramifications of China’s economic policies we can see that instead of being an anti-capitalist power-hungry emerging global power, China is merely following the economic policies of previously emerging global superpowers in order to return to the ranks of an economic powerhouse. Beijing has no historical precedent for grand expansionist schemes and has indicated their explicit desire to remain peaceful. An overview of several recent cooperative agreements between China and its East Asian neighbors makes the PRC’s intent even clearer and provides the last crucial brick for the foundation of a constructivist reset of US-Chinese relations. In November 2002, At the China–ASEAN summit, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The declaration acknowledged the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, and applied to freedom of navigation, the resolution of disputes by peaceful means, and self-restraint in the conduct of activities. Even though the agreement was an informal, non-binding document, China has showed restraint in claiming the disputed islands since the agreement was reached (Yoshimastu, 750). More importantly, however, is the fact that this agreement like others could slowly transform norms and establish an East Asian community without the confines of strict legality, where violence and anarchy are not allowed to monopolize the concerns of states during negotiations and cooperation. Beeson similarly notices that, “While skeptics are quick to point out that new organizational initiatives like the ASEAN Plus Three grouping or the East Asian Summit have not actually achieved anything tangible, it is perhaps the very fact of their existence at all that is of greatest significance” ( Beeson 453). At the ASEAN–China summit in 2003, China set a new precedent by being the first major power outside Southeast Asia to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia. In this treaty, China formally moved to follow the principles of non-aggression and non-interference, in addition to several other mechanisms for conflict resolution. (Yoshimastu, 750). In summary, the implications of these treaties and agreements are that members have, “…not behaved according to power-balancing dictates but, as a nascent imagined security community, have relied upon norms for collective action and identity-building initiatives to ensure regional security” (Tan, 247).

China’s cooperation with neighbors, and declarations of peaceful intent, illustrate the PRC’S active attempt to maintain a favorable position within the global economy and minimize the threat of a destabilizing conflict with any other state. In this globalized international market the only way to ensure continued economic growth and advancement is by maintaining peace with trade partners. In light of these realizations, the realist framework fails to explain why un-coerced mutual cooperation is occurring between smaller states and the powerful Chinese state. The problem with realist theories is that they do not allow for a comprehensive understanding of change, they rely on predictions of behavior without incorporating identity, interest, and intent. On the other hand, constructivists “…assume that the actors’ identities and interests are constructed by intersubjective social structures rather than given exogenously to the system by human nature or domestic politics; through transformative or generative processes such as socialization or internalization through which actors perceive, construct, and reproduce material structures they inhibit” ( Yoshimatsu, 747). Utilizing the constructivist framework we see that China’s proactive engagement in regional affairs has created a network of partners, that allows for the possibility, “…that the rise of China will create a benign and stable regional order, which is akin to the economic exchange and geopolitical norms seen in the old tributary system” ( Yoshimatsu, 747).

This historically sensitive prescription for the future of Chinese development ties in closely with official Chinese claims, their mercantilist policies, current attempts at the imagining of a security community, and a newly emerging common regional identity. Yoshimatsu notes the presence of a ‘common cultural zone’ that has emerged out of the newly created middle class and increased interaction between different popular cultures. This phenomenon is the final piece to the reimagining of identities that is necessary to eliminate notions of realist conflict in the region. Specifically, China has been gradually embedded into the common cultural zone in East Asia where, “The urban consumers in Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, and Jakarta hold a common feature as enjoying common popular cultural products. They covet the latest fashions from Tokyo, listen to the same genre of American pop music, watch Chinese dramas on television, read Japanese comic books, and go to watch the latest Korean movie” (Yoshimatsu, 762). The future of Chinese-U.S. relations is in the hands of the United States as China and East Asia have moved to dismantle the realist assumptions about international order, in favor of a more constructivist version that facilitates peaceful growth and mutual gains.


Beeson, Mark. "Asian Antinomies: East Asia's Continuing Engagement With The Global Political Economy."Globalizations 7.4 (2010): 451-454. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Hayashi, Shigeko. "The Developmental State In The Era Of Globalization: Beyond The Northeast Asian Model Of Political Economy."Pacific Review 23.1 (2010): 45-69. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Holslag, Jonathan. "China's New Mercantilism In Central Africa."African & Asian Studies 5.2 (2006): 133-169. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

McDougall, Derek. "Responses To ‘Rising China’ In The East Asian Region: Soft Balancing With Accommodation."Journal Of Contemporary China 21.73 (2012): 1-17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Ross, Robert S. "Balance Of Power Politics And The Rise Of China: Accommodation And Balancing In East Asia."Security Studies 15.3 (2006): 355-395. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

See Seng, Tan. "Rescuing Constructivism From The Constructivists: A Critical Reading Of Constructivist Interventions In Southeast Asian Security."Pacific Review 19.2 (2006): 239-260. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

TURNER, OLIVER. "China's Recovery: Why The Writing Was Always On The Wall."Political Quarterly 80.1 (2009): 111-118. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Yoshimatsu, Hidetaka. "The Rise Of China And The Vision For An East Asian Community."Journal Of Contemporary China 18.62 (2009): 745-765. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

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China's Rising Powers. Constructivist Reimagining
Seattle Pacific University
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Political Science, Chinese relations, ASEAN, East Asia, International Relations
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Zach von Naumann (Author), 2013, China's Rising Powers. Constructivist Reimagining, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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