Theorising China’s international relations

Mark Chou, University of Melbourne

Yan Xuetong Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, Daniel A. Bell and Sun Zhe (eds), Edmund Ryden (trans), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011 (312 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-826-7 (hard cover) RRP $29.95.

Before its unification under the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China consisted of a number of relatively distinct and autonomous states. With Yan to the north, Qi to the east, Chu to the south, Qin to the west, and Zhao, Wei and Han located near the geographical centre (at one stage there were as many as 100 states of varying sizes and strengths), these lands struggled for survival in a setting of mutual distrust and constant hostility. With threats of warlordism, military incursion and territorial annexation, it is hardly surprising that this era is known as the Period of the Warring States (475–221 BCE). Beginning in the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and culminating unification in 221 BCE, this was a time of interstate competition within a system of states where, not unlike the often fractured relations between contemporary nation-states, sovereignty and territory were both prized possessions and prizes to be won.

Yet, as is often the case during times of political instability and all-out war, the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods were notable not merely for geopolitical skirmishes between the opposing states. During these periods, a raft of cultural and philosophical endeavours emerged which, along with an equally momentous revolution in military technology and political bureaucracy, would go on to have a lasting effect on China’s national heritage. Indeed, it is almost impossible today to sidestep names like Confucius (551–479 BCE), Mencius (372–289 BCE), Laozi (6th century BCE), Sun Tzu (544–496 BCE), and Xunzi (313–238 BCE)—all writing during the pre-Qin era—when we think about China’s immensely rich and diverse cultural legacy.

In Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, leading Chinese scholar of international relations, Yan Xuetong, studies the splintered interstate relations that prevailed before the Qin Dynasty through the teachings of a number of these pre-Qin philosophers, before attempting to offer theoretical lessons relevant to China’s global rise today. Such a reading makes a great deal of sense because these ancient thinkers penned their ideas about statecraft, governance and warfare against a backdrop of ‘ruthless competition for territorial advantage among small states’, as Daniel Bell, the book’s editor, writes in his introduction (p. 3). The relations between the pre-Qin states have more in common with what Morgenthau called ‘politics among nations’ than they do with the contemporary dealings between domestic states or provinces within a nation-state. The writings of the pre-Qin philosophers, then, speak to conditions not entirely dissimilar to those in the international realm today.

Is it time for China to rely less on sources adopted and adapted from the West?

In another sense, it seems right that contemporary Chinese scholars of international relations are now using, in Yan’s words, ancient ‘Chinese thought to enrich contemporary international relations’ in order to ‘present some findings relevant to China’s foreign policy’ (p. 21). Since the first Chinese international relations theory conference was held in Shanghai in 1987, proposals for a Chinese school of international relations, or at the least a theory of international relations with Chinese characteristics, have been continuously mooted (see Geeraerts & Men 2001; Song 2001; Qin 2007; Qin 2009). This push has intensified in the last decade or so, with China’s emergence as a truly global power. And as ‘a rapidly rising major power’, Qiu Yuanping, vice-director of the Foreign Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, makes the point that ‘it is unacceptable that China does not have its own theory’ of international relations (p. 200). With a dearth of ideas and proposals that speak directly to the current Chinese predicament, Qiu and others believe that it is time for China to rely less on sources adopted and adapted from the West and more on its own ideas and proposals for statecraft. Yan has his reservations about the viability of establishing a definitive Chinese school of international relations. But he does believe that, like Western scholars who have drawn insight from Thucydides or St Augustine, Chinese international relations scholars must look more to their own traditional culture and thought to inform their theoretical explanations today (pp. 239–240). In fact, he goes so far as to say, in his essay ‘Why is there no Chinese school of international relations theory?’, that the ‘hope of Chinese IR theoretical study lies in rediscovering traditional Chinese thought’ (p. 256).

The reasons for this claim are, at one level, obvious enough. Like other great civilisations, China has a rich and extensive heritage of its own of which the Chinese are rightfully proud. When it comes to matters of culture, philosophy, politics, and the sciences, there is much to learn from China’s ancient scholars. This is why, for the Chinese, as Gustaaf Geeraerts and Men Jing (2001, p. 260) note, ‘Forgetting the past means betrayal’ of their national heritage; something the older generation of Chinese know only too well, and wish not to repeat, after the Cultural Revolution. History contains lost, or at least forgotten, wisdom for younger generations, as do theories that may be millennia old.

But national pride aside, Yan’s reasons for returning to pre-Qin political philosophy are actually more specific. What most concerns him is not so much China’s economic and military capacity, important as they are. Rather, for Yan, the key political question of the 21st century is whether China has the ability to affect moral leadership in world affairs—a concern that does not sit easily with the ‘neo-comm’ (neo-communist) or ‘hawk’ label some commentators have given him (pp. 2–3). To be sure, as he himself acknowledges, his views on Taiwan are nothing short of ‘hardline’—he believes that this issue impinges like no other on ‘China’s very existence’ (p. 245). And so, even though he is a political realist by definition, thinking that states will pursue their self-interest in an anarchic international environment, he may not be as ‘fixated with the USA and sure that China’s military modernization is the key to world stability’ as those like Mark Leonard, Executive Director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, would choose to believe (p. 2). His reasoning, instead, is that, in the absence of a drastic revolution that rids domination and hierarchy as the fundamental determinants in the ordering of the international system, morally informed leadership may be the greatest hope we have of achieving a peaceful and harmonious world. As an emerging global power, it is incumbent on China to use its influence and resources—and this extends to the economic and military sphere—appropriately, that is to say humanely. This will both help to achieve China’s national interests and ensure that it becomes a true leader among nations.

China has the ability to affect moral leadership in world affairs?

Yan’s concern with moral and humane global leadership leads him to return to the pre-Qin philosophies of Guanzi, Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, and Hanfeizi. In trying tease out moral insights that might be useful for contemporary China, he highlights two vital distinctions in the works of these thinkers.

First, what unites these pre-Qin thinkers—with the possible exception of Hanfeizi—is the belief that the acquisition of conceptual rather than material power is what will ensure the greatest success and peace in interstate relations. Unlike the two mainstream theories of contemporary international relations, realism and liberalism, both of which fall under the category of material determinism, conceptual determinism believes that global power is neither gained nor forfeited because of economic and military might alone. Rather, the durability of international orders depends to a much greater extent on the ideas and morality of the actors involved. Even Hanfeizi, as Yan points out—who was an otherwise committed materialist, famed for saying that ‘In the remote past, conflict was decided by morals; in the recent past, it was decided by clever stratagems; today, conflict is decided by strength’—conceded that moral norms have a role to play when dealing with nonhuman threats, such as those posed by nature. Yan extrapolates this, perhaps somewhat broadly, to include the non-traditional security threats we face today, such as terrorism, climate change and global economic instability.

Of course, these philosophers, excluding Hanfeizi and Laozi, acknowledged that in reality neither conceptual nor material power alone is enough—both are important. Indeed, as Guanzi said:

If virtue does not extend to the weak and small, if authority does not overawe the strong and great, if military expeditions cannot bring all under heaven to submission, then it is unrealistic to seek to be hegemon over the feudal lords. If one’s own authority is matched by like authority in another state, if one’s control of the military is challenged by others, if one’s virtue cannot embrace distant states, if one’s commands cannot unify the feudal lords, then it is unrealistic to seek to reign over all under heaven (p. 30).

To a lesser extent, Confucius and Mencius also believed that even though material power cannot be removed from the equation, leaders should first, in Confucius’ words, ‘cultivate benevolent virtue’ (p. 31). For Mencius, this is what determines whether feudal lords can retain and even extend their material power. And so the broad point Yan stresses through this reading is that even where material power is a major concern, moral leadership should be an even greater concern in the conduct of interstate relations. Ultimately, this is what will best serve the national interest.

Neither conceptual nor material power alone is enough.

The second, more specific, distinction found in Yan’s reading of pre-Qin interstate political philosophy is that between humane authority and hegemonic authority. For Yan, these two concepts hold the greatest lesson for China’s global rise and the role that it can play at the international level today. As with the distinction between conceptual and material determinists, here too there are some crucial differences of opinion. Not surprising given his preference for material power, Hanfeizi espoused the view that there is no real difference between humane authority and hegemonic authority. Or, to put it more accurately, there can be no humane authority without hegemonic authority. ‘A sage king is able to attack others’, he maintained (p. 47). Guanzi, on the other hand, believed there to be a crucial difference: whereas a hegemonic authority ‘enriches his own state’, a humane authority according ‘unifies and corrects other states’ (p. 48). More concretely: ‘One who is conversant with virtue will attain humane authority; one who plots for military victories will attain hegemonic authority’ (pp. 48–49). Referring to the teachings of Mencius, Yan identifies a clear and crucial difference between the two concepts: ‘Hegemonic authority borrows the slogan of benevolence and justice to uphold its power whereas humane authority uses power to implement a policy of benevolence and justice’ (p. 49). Speaking of King Tang of the Shang and King Wu of the Zhou, Xunzi explains just what humane authority is about and why it is preferable to hegemonic authority:

By practicing justice in their states, their fame spread in a day. Such were Tang and Wu. Tang had Bo as a capital, King Wu had Hao as a capital; each states was only ten thousand square kilometres, yet both kinds unified all under heaven and the feudal lords were their ministers; among those who received their summons, there were none who did not obey. There was no other reason for this but that they implemented norms. This is what is called “establishing norms and humane authority” (pp. 49–50).

When Yan says that Xunzi’s view deserves consideration today, he gives us the clearest indication of the kind of power that he believes contemporary China should become. Indeed, as he argues, the study of pre-Qin interstate political philosophy presents China with two broad options: to establish a system of hegemonic authority on the one hand or a system of humane authority on the other.

For many Western powers, the prospect of a hegemonic China is menacing.

The question thus becomes: what would the political ramifications be were China to become be another global hegemon? At present, despite China’s meteoric political and economic ascendancy to the world stage, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower. Yan does not dispute this. In fact, he recognises that America has been indispensable in the creation of a particular type of world order which, since the end of the Cold War, has become the only legitimate global order. There is nothing wrong with countries that pursue hegemony for they are, in his words, ‘reliable international actors, even if they are not always striving for morally admirable goals’ (p. 15). However, Yan adds that neither China nor the rest of the world would be best served by another global hegemon in China. For one thing, this would immediately pit China against the existing global hegemon, something that many already see as an unavertable prospect and corollary of China’s expansion (see, for example, Giroux 2011; Wang 2007; Peerenboom 2007; Gilley 2004). If this were to happen, Yan argues that ‘there would be a return to the Cold War’ and with it the sort of proxy war fighting, arms racing and global apartheid that overshadowed global relations for over half a century (p. 99).

But even in the event that something like this does not happen, and China somehow manages to replace or supersede the United States as the world’s sole superpower, problems would nevertheless arise. Obviously, for many Western powers the prospect of a hegemonic China is a menacing scenario that they would rather not have to contend with. This is not what concerns Yan. Despite being a staunch nationalist, he is more detained by the simple fact that the change in hegemon will not have amounted to a real change in the world order. Material power will still be the key determinant of foreign policy, something which will not serve China’s interests, nor the interests of other nations, in the long run.

Nevertheless, China continues to be driven largely by a materially determinist outlook in both its domestic and foreign affairs. As Yan points out, since the beginning of China’s reform period, the Chinese government has repeatedly premised its strategy for modernisation and progress on the twin pillars of economic growth and, to a lesser extent, military strength. As important a role as they have played in China’s global ascendency, Yan is concerned that, by continuing to emphasise the role of economic and military power, China may find itself inadvertently travelling down a dangerous path. Here, it is easy to discern the presence of the pre-Qin ideas about conceptual determinism and humane authority. Like the pre-Qin masters before him, Yan is warning the leaders of his country. Be mindful, he seems to be saying, that material power in the absence of something else can too often end up producing more enemies than friends; that alliances, even resilient ones made amongst strategic allies, will sooner or later crumble; and that victories, hard fought and won, may be less permanent than they initially seem. Yan is adamant that only if China establishes a system based on humane governance can it hope to win true friends, permanent alliances and lasting victories.

Yan’s is not an entirely benign plan.

Of the two, achieving humane authority is the far greater feat. According to Yan, this is because humane authority ultimately demands the ‘establishment of a new international order’, requiring not only a change in ‘the international power structure but also international norms’ (p. 204). But, of course, that is the longer term goal, which cannot and should not take place over night or even within the course of a decade. Indeed, spurred on by the realisation that those who ‘rely on tyranny to get their way will end up on the bottom of the pile’, Yan concedes that China’s tilt to become a humane authority at the global level will first depend on it becoming a humane authority at home (pp. 12, 99–100). Until that happens, any claim to be a humane authority would not be credible.

And so, from dissecting the pre-Qin philosophies on statecraft and leadership, Yan goes on to a discussion about why China should embrace the idea of democracy in its own domestic affairs. His assessment here bears quoting at length:

To learn from pre-Qin thought certainly does not imply rejecting Western notions of democracy. … I think that in their respect for norms, the modern concept of democracy and the ancient Chinese concept of humane authority are alike. For instance, in the pre-Qin era the practical realities of humane authority were the rites and norms of the Western Zhou period, but the inner core was the universal morality required for political legitimacy. As history constantly changes, the universal moral standard also changes. For instance, inheritance by the eldest son was once the universal norm of political legitimacy, but in modern society it is no longer considered moral and it has been replaced by the norm of elections. The electoral system has become the universal political norm today. … Given that democracy is the universal standard of political morality, in learning from the pre-Qin maxim, “when norms are established, one can attain humane authority,” China must make the moral principle of democracy one of those it promotes (p. 219).

Despite China’s dazzling economic transformation over the last two decades it continues to be globally condemned as a one-party authoritarian state. The image of China is of a country ruled by a repressive government that censures open dissent, freedom of speech and the uncensored flow of information. This is the China that is nationalistic, anti-Western and still, according to Randall Peerenboom (2007, pp. 1–2), trenchantly anti-democratic. Thus, notwithstanding the other image of China—as the world’s greatest construction site, the birthplace of innovation and technology, and the epitome of globalisation’s promise—it still lags behind other nations when it comes to global esteem. Yan seems to understand this only too well. He also understands that unless China begins on the path to serious political reform domestically, it will never be a true global leader in the 21st century.

But as benevolent as this all sounds, Yan’s is not an entirely benign plan. Indeed, for those most wary of what China’s rise will likely mean for the rest of the world politically and culturally, Yan’s plan is likely to trigger some anxiety and hostility. After all, a China seeking to reinvent the international order and the norms which have mediated interstate relations for the past half-century—even if the first step would involve China becoming a democracy—sounds a lot like a China seeking to challenge the existing balance of power. At another level, what begins innocently as the call to deploy ‘power to implement a policy of benevolence and justice’ quickly descends into hubristic overreaching of the type that the United States and imperial powers before it have been condemned for. The pages of history are lined with examples of great powers who, thinking that limits did not apply to them, overstepped those boundaries that brought greatness but with it destruction.

Because of this, both for those who welcome a China that is increasingly active at the global level, as well as for those who do not, it seems the time is right to thoroughly engage with the ideas and proposals of prominent Chinese thinkers today like Yan Xuetong. By putting his grand vision for a Chinese ‘superpower modelled on humane authority’ to the test before it becomes a possible political reality, we will have gained a greater appreciation of China’s cultural heritage and, following that, a glimpse at its possible political future (p. 99).


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Mark Chou is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne. His current research examines the conditions and characteristics underpinning democracies that fail or self-destruct. He has also published broadly in international relations theory, global democratic politics, social theory, and cultural politics in journals including Millennium, New Political Science, Political Studies Review, Critical Horizons, and Journal for Cultural Research.