Theoretical Perspectives on the Rise of China in International Politics

International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.” – Hans Morgenthau

China-chinese-yuan-macro-650x433Having always had a reasonably large military, up there with the UK and France but still a long way behind the US, China’s rise as an economic power has caused more problems than perhaps realist international scholars would like to admit. This is the case both in East Asia, where Japan and the Koreas have been used to a relatively weak China in the modern era, and on the international scene, where the US has grown accustomed to hegemonic status as the most powerful nation-state on the planet. Various theories perceive the rise of China in different ways, but most agree that the mind-set of the US has changed, and will have to change again, as the PRC moulds its own role in international affairs. Despite consistently fast Chinese economic growth since the mid-1990s, the Americans remained distracted firstly, with adapting to unipolarity in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR, and secondly, with the Middle East, where George Bush dictated that the greatest threat to liberty lay. It was only when Hillary Clinton under the Obama administration declared a ‘pivot’ to Asia that American foreign policy seemed to recognise China’s steady growth in influence. Hence, a new form of threat has arisen, not necessarily to liberty, but to American hegemony, which, it could be argued, is liberty with a tinge of white supremacy. How the White House, and indeed the libertarian economy beneath it, will react is under scrutiny from political scientists, as is the future of regional order in East Asia.

Regional Implications

China has, in the modern period, been a bit of a loner in East Asian politics (bar its strained relationship with North Korea). Since the Second World War, primarily because of Cold War alliances, it has had a complicated international experience. The United States, keen to defend the smaller East Asian states from the lure of communism, saw to it that Japan and South Korea were firmly on the developmental path to prosperity, and supported Tokyo and Seoul against any potential antagonism. This was all very well when, especially after 1990, the US was completely dominant in world affairs. Should China continue on its growth path, by which it is expected to surpass the American economy in terms of GDP within the decade, if not sooner, new logic may become apparent in East Asian security alliances. In essence, to think like a realist is to promote one’s own interest above all else, and if allying with China as opposed to the US seems more productive then the international community could witness a change of heart from Japan or South Korea before long; i.e. they could bandwagon with China. It could, however, depending on the nature and character of the rise of China, promote stronger ties between those currently allied to the US, in attempt to balance the new power relationship. The recent attitude of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been complicated in this context; he has been poking at the delicacies of nationalism and Sino-Japanese War rhetoric, perhaps in an attempt to neutralise the effect of a resurgent China.

The liberals perhaps are less concerned. Chinese revival may in fact lead to another attempt at regionalism, similar to the structure of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) further south. There is premise to argue that the interdependent reliance of most East and Southeast Asian states on each other will neutralise any antagonism or turbulence caused by an increasingly powerful Chinese presence. Japan and South Korea in particular have enough legitimacy and credibility not to have to worry about choosing a side if China begins to threaten American global hegemony. Equally, however, if they wish to retain their own sovereignty, they must be aware of the Chinese threat to a multi-state, diplomatic system in East Asia.

There is even talk of a comparison between a future East Asian dynamic with China at the core and the tributary system that dominated the middle and early modern ages of Sinic history. Back in those days, nations around China would buy into a hierarchical system which offered them protection and immunity from intervention in exchange for tribute. Some analysts have suggested that a China strong enough to challenge the American domination of Japan and South Korea (in relative not literal terms) could implement a similar dynamic on any regional cooperative that may emerge. This, arguably, may even be easier to maintain than half a millennium ago, given the indirect power capital and economic relations can have if directed in the right way.

Global Implications

us-chinaThe rise of China on a global scale may be of economic interest to many actors, but politically the US will be the most concerned. This is primarily because American foreign policy is conducted on a rather realist level, given the impact of almost 50 years of Cold War bipolarity with the USSR. Despite the US still dominating global military spending, Chinese forces, combined with nuclear capabilities, are certainly worrying the White House. The Americans may also be concerned as to the impact of China as a global superpower on East Asian strategic alliances, as outlined above. In short, the US has grown used to being the global hegemon in a neo-realist, state-centric structure, and it is probably not keen to go back into a bipolar struggle with a pseudo-communist state.

There are other threats to American hegemony through means that realists perhaps do not appreciate. Primarily, they are economic, not least because China’s commercial power is one of its greatest assets. Growth, however unsustainable it may prove to be, has been monumental over the last 20 years. In 1999, Chinese GDP had barely touched USD1tn, and yet in 2014, it reaches above USD8tn, achieving rates of growth nearing double figures. The resurgence is reminiscent of Japan in the 1960s, although, as economic history tells us, the bubble was to break. How far China can push its economic influence is to be observed, but the Americans will be weary that the Chinese economy is, if current rates remain, set to overtake their own in terms of productivity sooner rather than later. It will be interesting to see how this economic bipolarity manifests itself in both Chinese and American foreign policy both towards each other and on a wide scale.

Beijing is also looking to challenge Washington in currency exchange too. The US Dollar has been the dominant currency of global trade for as long as many can remember, and although the Renminbi (or the Yuan) has a long way to go before it gets close in terms of proportion of global currency use, the Chinese government has begun an assault on American currency hegemony. Deals have been secured across the globe, most prominently with Brazil, the UK, Australia and Singapore, officially to exchange large chunks of currency to secure against trade volatility, although by spreading their currency, the Chinese also spread reliance on the strength of the Renminbi (see earlier publications from this site at and Earlier this year, it surpassed the Swiss Franc, and will continue to gain strength as time goes on, approaching the proportional use of the Australian and Canadian Dollars, the Japanese Yen, British Pound Sterling, European Euro, and finally the American Dollar. Although it may be a long way off, a growing Chinese economy will only support the mission of the Renminbi, and a loss of Dollar-hegemony will only mean detriment to American economic, and potentially political, interests.

Critical Theory

Separately, there are suggestions that all of this is a bit of a red herring. A historical materialist interpretation of global politics sheds some light on why analysis of the rise of China from a security/state-centric perspective may in fact be a distraction from the actual issues at hand. China’s behaviour, especially with regard to market liberalisation and foreign direct investment, has been as capitalist as it possibly could be, and thus it is fair to say that at least at a state-economic level, the communist-Maoist principles of the CCP are withering. Thus, if China is to rise as a global economic superpower, more importantly as a capitalist superpower, what does the US actually have to worry about?

The principles of the American state are important in asking and answering this question. The concept of the American state is based on a libertarian/economically-liberal agenda; many critical theorists have thus analysed US foreign policy as an attempt to spread these principles, and thus keep markets open for American capital. If, thus, the US state is one of the primary global agents of capital, leading on from its Cold War days, then the rise of China as a capitalist superpower is in fact one of America’s greatest achievements. Liberal economics has pulled apart the seams of market intervention in East Asia, and hence the US should not fear the rise of China, but herald it, and, most importantly, invest in it.

This interpretation does, admittedly, ignore the state-centric structures within which the US supposes to act. It does, however, shed a light on why an economically-strong China is not necessarily a bad thing for US hegemony. It just requires US hegemony to be slightly less America-centric than most Yankees would like it to be, and to accept that if global principles of profit accumulation (and liberal politics to defend private property) are upheld, then America has won the historical war (see Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?’ for an outline of why the end of the Cold War was in fact the end of all meaningful narrative).


In the end, however, as much as historical materialists would like governments to step out of the shoes of Nicollo Machiavelli and into those of Immanuel Wallerstein, diplomats write on state-headed paper and corporations register for tax purposes in particular countries. The world remains state – and not capital – centric, however much other actors have diversified state behaviour and attitude towards each other. In this sense, American foreign policy makers should certainly be concerned as to the speed and sincerity of the rise of China as both a political and economic superpower. So, indeed, should other East Asian states; Tokyo and Seoul in particular have gotten used to an international dynamic dominant, in part at least, by the US, but that is set to change whether they like it or not.


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