Chinese Thinking about International Relations: From Theory to Practice

Chinese Thinking about International Relations
From Theory to Practice

by Benjamin Ho
July 30, 2019

The essays in the roundtable “Chinese Thinking about International Relations: From Theory to Practice” provide important analytical insights for better understanding China’s foreign policy actions and the extent to which Chinese ideas concerning international affairs are playing out in practice. This introduction previews each essay and provides a brief sketch of Chinese thinking about international relations.

Of late, Chinese scholars have argued for the need to incorporate traditional Chinese ideas into mainstream international relations (IR) theory, which is seen as privileging a Western-centric reading of international affairs. Given the global prominence of China, it behooves scholars and policymakers alike to consider how these ideas are being translated into contemporary Chinese conceptions of international order and influencing China’s foreign policy practices. The four essays in this roundtable attempt to do just that.

First, Feng Zhang adopts a historical perspective on the study of China’s engagement with the international order and examines the implications of the Xi Jinping doctrine for the country’s foreign policy. Second, Xiaoyu Pu discusses China’s policies and actions in the Indo-Pacific, including its strategic calculations, its perceptions of the U.S. role in the region, and the sources of rising tensions between the United States and China. Using a “status dilemma” framework, Pu argues that Sino-U.S. competition is fueled by concerns in the United States and China that the other side seeks domination and regional hegemony, respectively. Third, Beverley Loke analyzes Chinese and U.S. discourses of great-power management. She examines how each country sees itself as a responsible stakeholder and assesses their respective approaches to a “new model of great-power relations.” Finally, Catherine Jones argues that, despite the use of grand political slogans, Beijing’s foreign policy practices reflect more modest objectives, not unlike the behavioral strategies of middle powers.

Taken together, these essays provide important analytical insights for better understanding China’s foreign policy actions and the extent to which Chinese ideas concerning international affairs are playing out in practice. The rest of this introduction provides a brief sketch of Chinese thinking about international relations in light of China’s rise and its importance for our understanding of Chinese political worldviews.

China’s prominence in international relations has emboldened Chinese IR scholars in recent years to advocate a “Chinese way” of thinking about international relations and incorporate traditional Chinese ideas into mainstream IR scholarship. Qin Yaqing, the president of the China Foreign Affairs University, observes that efforts to develop Chinese IR theory have gathered momentum since the start of the 21st century, given China’s growing economic strength and international influence.[1] While these concepts have yet to obtain universal traction and are still largely in an embryonic stage, the ability to theorize, as Qin puts it, “is a sign of intellectual maturity.”[2] Chinese scholars are increasingly using indigenous resources to articulate what they view as a unique Chinese contribution to the wider discipline.

The importance of articulating a Chinese approach to IR theory lies in part in the need to establish and present Chinese national interests to the international community. In a study of the relationship between China’s global ascendancy and its IR theory, Hung-Jen Wang identifies the three main features of Chinese scholarship as “identity, appropriation, and adaptation.”[3] In the first phase of scholarship, the identities of Chinese IR scholars were shaped by China’s political systems, cultural values, and historical experiences. Such work emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s following China’s reintegration into the international system. Chinese scholars next began to appropriate Western IR theories using the Chinese principle of ti-yong (substance-function)—that is, by combining Chinese concerns with the learning of foreign concepts. The third phase saw Chinese scholars adapt these concepts of Western IR scholarship (such as “balance of power” and “nation-state”) to analyze events in China. To this end, Wang observes that “repeated cycles of learning and appropriation may ultimately relativize the universal values of those and other concepts found in Western IR theories so as to transform their original Western meanings.”[4]

Similarly, in his survey of the development of IR theory in China, Qin argues that the development of IR as an academic discipline in China has moved from pre-theory to a theory-learning (or theory-deepening) stage. The theory-innovation phase, whereby scholars “seek to explain reality and understand social phenomena from a distinctly Chinese perspective,” has yet to materialize. Nonetheless, Chinese scholars have increasingly emphasized the need to incorporate traditional Chinese thinking in responding to global issues. One central feature of this theory-deepening stage is a fascination with constructivism (following Alexander Wendt) in Chinese IR. This is partially due to dissatisfaction with the realist and liberal theories that are espoused by American IR scholars. In addition, given the debate on China’s peaceful rise, the issue of Chinese identity has become a central concern among Chinese scholars. Hence, constructivist ideas have dovetailed well with the philosophy of the I Ching, which advocates that identity and behavior are changeable.[5] This constructivist turn in Chinese IR theory reflects a broader debate about Chinese identity and the role of China in the world in the 21st century.

Beyond these scholarly considerations, the emergence of Chinese perspectives on the study of IR can also be understood as a reaction to the 2008–9 global financial crisis, which called into question the ongoing legitimacy of the Western-led international system. As such, the possibility for non-Western alternatives and, in China’s case, for Chinese thinking to take root and permeate the structure of the international order became more pronounced. Indeed, over the past decade, China has embarked on its own high-level initiatives that emphasize its leadership and the spread of Chinese global influence. For instance, the Xiangshan Forum, a security dialogue that has been held every fall in Beijing since 2014 (and was held once every two years from 2006 to 2012), is widely seen as a move by China to rival the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and frame discussions over global security matters. Economic initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative have also been touted as Chinese responses to Western-led economic systems.

The above discussion suggests that the study of Chinese IR theory and practice should be viewed within a larger framework of perceived Chinese self-identity that is in tension, if not in opposition, with Western conceptions of self, society, and statehood. This represents an important starting point to understand the essays in this roundtable. As the authors make clear, part of the challenge in examining China’s thinking about international relations is the lack of common analytical paradigms for comparing and contrasting Chinese political practices with those of the West.

Given China’s global prominence, questions about the relationship between Chinese political worldviews and IR theories will likely gain momentum in the years to come. To this end, understanding how the country’s foreign policy practices are being shaped by ideational forces will be of great importance to both scholars and policymakers.

NOTE: See the Asia Policy 14.3 table of contents for all essays in the roundtable “Chinese Thinking about International Relations: From Theory to Practice.”


[1]     Qin Yaqing, “Development of International Relations Theory in China: Progress through Debates,” International Studies 46, no. 1–2 (2009): 185–201.

[2]     Ibid., 198.

[3]     Hung-Jen Wang, The Rise of China and Chinese International Relations Scholarship (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), 2.

[4]     Ibid., 4.

[5]     See Qin, “Development of International Relations Theory in China.”

Benjamin Tze Ern Ho is an Associate Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University.

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