September 11, 2014, by Tony Hong

Situating China

By Jessica Brown,

Studying History and Politics at the University of Nottingham, UK.

A Western-centric notion is often applied when considering China’s role on the world stage. As the Asian giant grows internationally through its economic liberalization and consequent development, questions loom over what role it will play in international relations today. Will it develop and rise peacefully within the existing international order or aim to forcibly change it to suit its own needs as many realist scholars predict? This was the main question I had upon visiting China this year.

What struck me about China significantly was the visible disparity on its skyline, a clear vision of the Chinese Communist Party’s economic growth coupled with severe poverty that still defines the daily lives of millions of Chinese people. As the economic powerhouses of Shanghai impress with the glittering lights of the growing middle class citizens apartments’, just down the road people wash their clothes in a river. The question China’s domestic situation poses is will the economic disparities in wealth hamper the CCP’s aims for economic growth? Will the regional divides in disparity both north and south and east and west hinder China’s capacity to grow? It seems that China still has many domestic issues to resolve before it can advance further as a major player in world politics.

However consideration of China’s domestic issues still gives little attention to whether China is friend or foe to the international community, in particular to the Western world. As it stands, the US retains hegemony as the world’s largest economic and military power. Although as China’s economy grows, political scientists predict China will overtake the US’s economy by 2020. If so, will this transition of power be peaceful? In the past, power transitions have been so, such as the transition of power from fading imperial Britain to the rising US at the start of the twentieth century. But as World War Two reminds us, ambitious rising states can cause a major earthquake in the international order. The US must remember that it can reinforce the Western international system to peacefully accommodate China’s rise and strengthen existing liberal institutions in the process. They can maintain hegemony by welcoming China into both its institutions and the international community. China’s development can continue at its extraordinary rate without causing conflict internationally.

China however has to keep its borders peaceful in order to be respected by the international community. The increasing debate surrounding the South China Sea has done little to convince the Western media that its estimated 18% per annum military growth is not a threat. As just this week, tensions increase with the revision of Japan’s constitution to allow for military intervention overseas, further questions arise. Peaceful rhetoric from the CPP over these small but vitally strategically placed and resourceful islands is paramount in continuing China’s image as a peacefully developing nation. Will its ideological clash with Western nations prove to be a deciding factor in whether China is perceived as a friend or foe? Nations have looked past China’s human rights record in favour of investment and trade in the world’s fastest growing economy. One may question the practicality of over one billion people as a democracy and whether without the authoritarian regime would China have ever achieved bringing millions of people out of poverty. For now the CCP is achieving UN targets to bring millions above the poverty line and aiming to create a more egalitarian society. This is what the Western media must note.

China’s participation in the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organisation is a clear indicator of their recognition that ‘the road to the east runs through the west’. The CCP is perceptive of the benefits they have already gained and continue to gain from the Western international system, notably they still continue to receive international financial aid. To risk participation in a system that they rely on for their investment driven growth and subsequent economic prosperity is something I believe China will never do.

Friend or Foe? Maybe one will never know. However what is evident is that China will be highly influential in the future of international affairs. The Western liberal order must adapt and not constrain China’s development and rise as this is vital to maintaining peace in the international system.

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