China’s Peaceful Rise: A Theoretical & Substantive Evaluation

What do you see? A cuddly panda or a menacing dragon? Westerners interpreting Chinese foreign policy, like subjects staring at inkblots during a Rorschach test, frequently reveal much more about themselves than they do about China itself.

– Peter Hays Gries

Let’s play a guessing game: Who is the World’s Largest Economy (in PPP terms)? Which country has had the fastest increase in military expenditure over the past decade? Who is the World’s largest exporter? Easy right? The answer is of course China – anyone with even a passing interest in international affairs could tell you that.

Interestingly enough, the exact same descriptors could be applied to the U.S. in the aftermath of World War Two. The ultimate benefactor of that horrific conflict, the U.S. was the undisputed economic power of the 1950s as most of Europe’s industrial capacity had been decimated by both the Allied and Axis powers. Moreover, the U.S. had built up a fantastic military capability, at least when compared to its peers, in response to Japan’s aggressions in the Pacific Theater. Finally, the Marshall Plan and similar initiatives meant that the U.S. provided significant aid – both material and financial – to much of the developed world. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union quickly rose to compete with the United States on the global stage, and a bipolar international system came to characterize much of the second half of the Twentieth Century. However, the Soviet Union could never quite match the United States economically, which, among a host of other facts, ultimately lead to its undoing.

Fast-forward to the turn of the century and the United States was undoubtedly the only Great Power within the international community. Seizing on this unipolar moment, an era of unprecedented international peace – a Pax Americana – was declared by a cornucopia of international relations specialists throughout the nation. However, the post 9-11 environment and the foreign interventions it induced, coupled with the Great Recession, as well as China’s meteoric rise, have lead to frequent debates about “the China question.”

This paper will examine the question of whether or not China’s Rise constitutes a significant threat to the United States and/or the international community writ large. Though an incredibly broad question in scope, I will attempt to tackle this question through two strains of argument. First, I will examine the theoretical debates surrounding China’s rise and the propensity for rising Great Powers to initiate conflict. Second, I will evaluate current events to determine if these academic theories have been borne out in actuality. Ultimately, I will argue that although China has acted bellicosely in recent times, it has only done so in its regional domain and is much more likely to be a responsible stakeholder in the current international system rather than seeking to implement its own global order.

Historical Background

More or less a friend of the United States since the 1970s, as a result of Nixon’s rapprochement with Beijing, China has experienced phenomenal rates of economic growth since it begun opening up its economy at the behest of Deng Xiaoping. In 1978, China had a GDP of roughly (USD) 202.46 billion in real terms. In comparison, U.S. GDP in 1978 was more than ten times that number at $2,357 billion. At the beginning of the millennium, and in the aftermath of Beijing’s ascension to the WTO, China had a GDP of $1,198.5 billion. By 2013, the economy had grown nearly 800% to $9,240.3 billion (World Bank, 2015). By 2014, the IMF determined that China’s economy was in fact larger than the U.S. when calculated with purchasing power parity. Using PPP, the estimated size of the U.S. economy was $17.4 trillion, whilst China’s economy clocked in at $17.6 trillion (Financial Times, 2014).

While China has been the only country to ever experience positive rates of economic growth for over thirty continuous years, its rapid burst onto the international market markedly contrasts with its tempered approach to international political engagement over that same period. When China first opened up to the globe under Deng, the premier urged his compatriots and successors that China should keep a low profile and bide its time. Prioritizing its internal economic development over establishing its political position in the global hierarchy, China more or less shied away from taking on a leadership role in international organizations or in formulating multilateral policy.

To assuage fears that Beijing’s growth would ultimately lead to regional or international conflict, Chinese policymakers adopted the mantra of the nation’s “peaceful rise.” First promulgated in speeches made by Zheng Bijian, the former Vice-President of the Central Party School in Beijing, the theory was codified in Foreign Affairs in 2005 in response to growing Western fears of a “China threat” (whether militarily or economically). In his seminal article, Bijian argues that China will not be a comprehensively developed nation comparable to the Western powers until at least 2050, and in the meantime will focus on three grand strategies, labeled the “three transcendences.” The first is to “transcend the old model of industrialization,” which was “characterized by rivalry for resources in bloody wars and by high investment, high consumption of energy, and high pollution.” The second is to “transcend the traditional ways for great powers to emerge.” Specifically citing the example of Germany prior to WWI, as well as Germany and Japan leading up to WWII, Bijian categorically denies that China will seek hegemony in world affairs, and instead seeks to contribute to a more democratic global political and economic system (Bijian, 2005).

Recently, current Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has tweaked this model even further in his vision of a comprehensive “Chinese Dream.” As translated by Xinhua, Xi Jinping has stated “realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.” Thus, the goals of China and her citizens now include not only bringing further “benefits to the people,” i.e. developing a robust middle class, but also restoring China’s position in the global order. As any student of history can tell you, China’s past century of humiliation at the hands of the Western Imperial powers is seen as an aberration after centuries upon centuries of Chinese regional dominance. This stated shift in China’s foreign policy has produced much consternation among neocons in Washington and has kicked off a new round of debate about the validity of China’s “peaceful rise” and whether or not China constitutes a threat to international peace.

Crew-members of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning - the first of its kind - form six Chinese characters reading "Chinese Dream, Military Dream." Source: Zhang Kai/China Daily.
Crew-members of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning – the first of its kind – form six Chinese characters reading “Chinese Dream, Military Dream.” Source: Zhang Kai/China Daily.

The Academic Debate

Though there are many schools of international relations, the three I will highlight here are realism, liberal-internationalism, and constructivism. Realists view the international system in structural terms and argue that because other state’s true intentions are fundamentally unknowable and we reside in a system of international anarchy, states will seek to ensure their own survival through any means necessary. Liberal-internationalists believe that international institutions and lasting alliances play an important role in tempering nations’ actions, encouraging international actors to pursue a menu of policy options rather than turning to military action as a last resort. Constructivists, on the other hand, argue that the international system has been discursively created by the actors within it. However, where constructivists differ is on the malleability of such a system after its formation.

John Mearsheimer, a Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago known for his theory of Offensive Realism, argues that it is extremely unlikely China will peacefully rise. In a controversial article first published in 2004, bluntly titled “Why China’s Rise Will Not Be Peaceful,” Mearsheimer argues that if “China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.” Citing the historical record, Mearsheimer argues that rising great powers will seek to establish regional hegemony in order to maintain their domestic security. Ultimately, however, these regional hegemons will attempt to establish global hegemony as the U.S. did by defeating other potential regional hegemons in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, and the German Empire. Though Mearsheimer finds such a prospect “categorically depressing,” he concludes that international politics is a nasty business – thus is the “tragedy of great power politics” (Mearsheimer, 2004).

However, Mearsheimer’s article seems unconvincing for both theoretical and historical reasons. First, China has already surpassed the U.S. economy in PPP terms, and is expected to exceed U.S. GDP in real terms by at least 2020. Though China has an extremely large economy, its military force, in terms of quality, is still nowhere near the capability of the United States. Although China’s per capita GDP will take decades to catch up to the U.S., per capita GDP has little relevance to a nation’s ability to invest in its armed forces or to engage in economic competition. Furthermore, Mearsheimer’s argument fundamentally ignores that as the British Empire began to wane more than a century ago, it faced two peer-competitors in Germany and the United States. In 1913, the United States “had the world’s largest GDP, with just more than $500 billion in 1990 prices.” On the other hand, Germany and Great Britain were roughly equal in terms of economic size at around $230 billion. However, the United States had an extremely small military, whereas Germany had a strong naval force specifically developed to compete with the British navy (Bush III, 2015).

Another argument related to the school of realism is “power-transition” theory. This theory states that as a unipolar power begins to decline and it faces the competition of peer competitors, an arms race is likely to ensue so that one power can establish absolute dominance over its rivals. As the material capabilities of nearly equivalent nations are hard to objectively compare, one nation’s policymakers are likely to miscalculate and strike their competitors when they think they have the upper hand. Thus, the transition between a unipolar system to a multilateral (or even bipolar) system is one likely to produce violence (Sun, 2015). However, the validity of such a theory must also come into question given the United States reticence to bolster its military prior to WWI, and China’s long-term prioritization of economic development over military modernization up to the present – even taking Xi’s Chinese dream into account.

Many theorists classified within the Liberal-Internationalist school of international relations, such as Professor John Ikenberry at Princeton, are much more optimistic about China’s rise onto the global stage. These scholars argue that China has in fact been an “ardent supporter” of the existing international order, at least in the economic realm, as China has more or less internalized the norms of “status quo institutions like the WTO in addition to its stewardship of institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which more closely reflect specific Chinese concerns” (Wick, Constructing Threat, p. 19-20). Additionally, “Neoliberal” theorists (as classified by Wick), such as Nye and Keohane, argue that the close economic interdependence of China with the United States, and indeed much of Asia, means that China is unlikely to engage in a military conflict which would ultimately harm its own interests (Wick, p. 7-9). On the other hand, China’s recent creation of the BRICs Development Bank as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, meant to oppose (at least in Washington’s imagination) the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank respectively, cast some doubt over Beijing’s complete acceptance of the current global economic system.

Finally, constructivists, such as Peter Gries, argue that the relationship between states in the international system is not inherently conflictual. Specifically, Gries posits that national policy and actions are not determined at the monolithic, unit-level. Instead, the actions of nations are a product of human agency. Drawing on social identity theory, Gries asserts that there is enough common ground between the Chinese and American people that conflict between the two nations is ultimately unlikely (Gries, 2005). Moreover, in an extremely thought-provoking piece on the threat-construction of the American establishment, Professor Chengxin Pan of Deakin University argues that the perception of China’s inevitable rise as an danger is both epistemically flawed, as it devoids China of all agency and it becomes labeled a knowable other, but also produces a self-fulfilling prophecy that will ensure China becomes a threat (Pan, 2004).

Ultimately, I am more inclined to side with both the Liberal-Internationalists and the Constructivists in their theoretical appraisal of the prospect of China’s peaceful rise over the more-pessimistic predictions of the Realists. However, the crucial determinant of which school of thought has more validity is in examining China’s substantive actions.

China’s Current Policies 

In recent years, China’s aggressive actions in several maritime disputes such as its claim on the Spratlys and other resource-rich territory in the South China Seas, as well as its lightning-fast military modernization, has put many within the international community on edge. Nonetheless, it is important to ask whether or not China’s newfound assertiveness actually poses a threat to the U.S. and her allies.

First, China’s intentions in the South China Sea, epitomized by Beijing’s claim to rich natural resources via the “nine-dash line,” has raised concern among several Southeast Asian nations which also stake a credible claim over this territory. China’s assertiveness within its regional domain closely aligns with the theories of Mearsheimer, who believes that China will eventually seek to implement its version of the Monroe Doctrine and to establish absolute supremacy over the first and second Island chain. Recently, China has begun creating artificial islands in the South China Sea; and government facilities, harbors and airstrips have begun popping up on these reefs at an alarming rate. Erickson and Kennedy, writing for Foreign Affairs, argue that China’s development of bases in the region, as a means of housing a future military presence, is meant to “monitor, bully, and even project force against its neighbors.” As the two conclude, Beijing “has decided that it is more important to be feared than loved” (Erickson & Kennedy, 2015).

However, China has always claimed the South China Sea, as well as Taiwan, as its own territory. Thus, it is arguable that China can both preach a peaceful rise and have a military General – Fang Fenghui – declare that Beijing “cannot afford to lose an inch” of its historical territory. In Beijing’s mind, such a stance is not hypocritical, as it has always preached the importance of maintaining its territorial integrity, even at the risk of inciting military conflict (Tiezzi, 2014). On the other hand, despite China’s stance, it is clear that its neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines don’t buy it. That fact, nonetheless, does not disprove China’s intentions of maintaining a peaceful rise on the global scene to ensure the Chinese dream is achieved.

Chinese dredgers deposit sand on the northern rim of the Mischief Reef. Source: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Reuters.

Second is the question of China’s “intense” military buildup. This year, the growth in China’s defense budget – 10.1 percent – is the first time Beijing’s increase in military expenditure has ever outpaced its rate of economic growth. Now at roughly $145 billion (though debatably more), China is undoubtedly the second largest military spender in the world. China’s new budget is nearly four times bigger than India’s and is three times larger than that of France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Moreover, Chinese expenditure is especially remarkable given that China’s total military outlay was only $10 billion in 1997 – on par with Taiwan. In reporting this trend, Richard Bitzinger argues that though this “trajectory may not necessarily put China on a collision course with the United States…it doesn’t bode well for regional security over the long run.” Bitzinger foresees the potential for China to “become increasingly aggressive in the region,” setting off an arms race, which if escalated would result in “security and stability in the Asia–Pacific” growing “more fragile” (Bitzinger, 2015).

James Jay Carafano, Vice President of Research and National security at the Heritage Foundation (a proudly conservative think tank), sees China’s recent buildup even more ominously. In an article titled “Wake Up, America: China Is a Real Threat.” Carafano argues that China is an international bully that is anti-democratic, “no friend of free markets,” and “more interested in rewriting or ignoring international norms than in respecting them.” Carafano concludes that the “Beijing method of managing international relations is not likely to make the world a better or safer place” (Carafano, 2015).

Nevertheless, it is crucial that China’s military buildup be put into context. Though China is in fact one of only two powers to have triple-figure defense spending, Chinese expenditure is far outstripped by the United States. The budget of the PLA is only 2 percent of China’s GDP, whereas the Pentagon’s budget is 4.4 percent of U.S. GDP (Brady, 2014). While China spends roughly $150 billion on defense, the United States spends 500% that amount. Not to mention the fact that the United States’ major foreign initiative in recent years has been its pivot to Asia, and the subsequent containment of China. Japan, China’s historic rival and close neighbor, has also recently increased its military expenditure and has revised its rules of engagement to aid Taiwan and the U.S. in the event of an attack on either one. Moreover, much of Chinese defense expenditure has been focused on investing in methods of asymmetric warfare, such as cyber and space weapons – which are primarily deterrent in nature – rather than on creating a military force capable of invading and occupying foreign nations (Brady, 2014). Thus, China’s military expenditure seems more or less justified given the actions of its competitors.

In conclusion, China is likely to remain relatively peaceful in the coming years and will not seek to destabilize the international order. China has a strong stake in the current international system as it benefits enormously from the trade regimes and economic institutions that have lead to its status as the World’s largest economy. China is unlikely to jeopardize its future economic growth and the development of a large consumer-based economy, which are considered a crucial component of Xi Xinping’s Chinese Dream, by engaging in any hot dispute that may see it become economically isolated. Though China has sought to exercise its global influence by creating alternatives to the U.S.-formulated Bretton Woods system, these financial institutions do not pose a military threat to any power, while also fulfilling the developing Asian economies’ crucial need for substantial infrastructure investment. Moreover, the theories of offensive realism and neo-conservatism, which preach that China poses a threat to the established order – as it is a revisionist power which does not respect the norms of international human rights and democracy – not only rests on a shaky theoretical foundation, but may also create a self-fulfilling prophecy which forces China to be aggressive. Finally, though China has been more assertive military in recent years, it has primarily done so to maintain the integrity of its claimed historical territories – something that is not going to change anytime soon. Ultimately, the U.S. can help ensure China’s peaceful rise by partnering with Beijing to bilaterally resolve any tensions that may crop up in Beijing’s future management of the Pacific.

Works Cited

Bijian, Zheng. “China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status,” Foreign Affairs, Volume 84, Number 5, p. 18-24, 2005.

Bitzinger, Richard A. “China’s Double-Digit Defense Growth,” Foreign Affairs, March 19th 2015, Online.

Bush III, Richard C. “What does China having the largest GDP mean?,” The Brookings Institution, March 27th 2015, Online.

Brady, Anne-Marie. “Chinese Foreign Policy: A New Era Dawns,” The Diplomat Magazine, March 17th 2014, Online.

Carafano, James Jay. “Wake Up, America: China Is a Real Threat,” The National Interest, February 7th 2015, Online.

Erickson, Andrew S. & Kennedy, Conor M. “China’s Island Builders,” Foreign Affair, April 9th 2015, Online.

Financial Times. “MoneySupply: The new world economy in four charts,” October 7th 2014, Online.

Gries, Peter Hays. “Social Psychology and the Identity-Conflict Debate: Is a ‘China Threat’ Inevitable?,” European Journal of International Relations, Volume 11, Number 2, p. 235-265, 2005.

Mearsheimer, John. “Why China’s Rise Will Not Be Peaceful,” The Australian, November 18th 2005, Online.

Pan, Chengxin. “The “China Threat” in American Self-Imagination: The Discursive Construction of Other as Power Politics,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Volume 29, Number 3, June-July 2004, p. 305-331.

Sun, Jisheng. “The Construction of Uncertainty and Threat: Theoretical Debates on China’s Rise,” Chapter Four in Responding to China’s Rise: US and EU Strategies, The Political Economy of the Asia Pacific, V.K. Aggarwal, S.A. Newland (eds.), Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2015.

Tiezzi, Shannon. “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ and the South China Sea,” The Diplomat Magazine, May 17th 2014, Online.

The World Bank. “2015 Economy – World Development Indicators: Structure of output,” Last Updated April 14th 2015, Online.

Wick, Shelley D. “Constructing Threat: How Americans Identify Economic Competitors,” FIU Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Paper 860, 2013, Online.

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