Relating to China

Relating to China

Steve Chan



What merits China as an object of attention as one seeks to address the global security environment at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Sheer physical size–in demographic and spatial terms–does not seem in itself a unique and sufficient criterion, as others such as Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, and India would also qualify in their respective regional contexts. Economic expansion at a rate that would double the GNP roughly every seven years surely is another consideration, although several of Beijing’s neighbors also could lay claim to this rather remarkable feat. Moreover, China will remain a relatively poor country in per capita terms in the foreseeable future. A large military establishment–equipped with a nuclear arsenal and increasing access to advanced technologies for sophisticated weapons systems–would seem to offer yet another relevant factor. But still, force projection is not a current reality for the People’s Liberation Army, which lacks the capability to carry out a sustained campaign away from its home base. Nor has China shown any marked interest for active intervention abroad when its core security values were not at stake (Whiting 1975). In terms of its military reach and political agenda, China has been, and is likely to remain in the early 2000s, a regional actor rather than a global power.

To a significant extent, China’s claim to attention reflects less its current capabilities than the gathering momentum that may eventually carry it to new heights. This possible transformation is, of course, a matter of serious concern in some foreign quarters as it implies an important shift in relative national assets, measured in terms of the standard stocks of hard power assets. Coinciding with the rise–or rather, the reemergence–of other powers such as Germany and Japan, China’s arrival “at the table” perhaps signifies a structural transformation from the bipolarity of the cold war era to a multipolar system as we enter the twenty-first century.

Yet somehow, these rationales do not quite explain the fascination with China–or, to put it more bluntly, preoccupation with the China problem. China is an object of attention not only because of its huge size, ancient legacy, or current or projected relative national power. China is a source of concern in the West, especially the United States, because it is the first non-Western power since Japan that is demanding status recognition, and like Japan prior to World War II, it has shown itself not especially malleable to external efforts to influence its domestic arrangements or political agenda.

The importance of China has to do with perceptions, especially those regarding the potential that Beijing will become an example, source, or model that contradicts Western liberalism as the reigning paradigm. In an era of supposed universalizing cosmopolitanism, China demonstrates the potency and persistence of nationalism, and embodies an alternative to Western and especially U.S. conceptions of democracy and capitalism. China is a reminder that history is not close to an end (Fukuyama 1992), and in that sense it issues a cultural, political, and if one will, ideological challenge to those who entertain especially expansive and dialectic visions of world order.

Compared to its neighbors that practice various forms of “soft authoritarianism” but that are more bashful about offending American sensibilities on human rights, China is less shy about telling Washington to mind its own business. It is also far more resistant to perceived assaults on its sovereignty and attempts to interfere in its domestic affairs. The demise of the Soviet brand of communism in Eastern and Central Europe leaves the Chinese model–one that pursues economic dynamism while maintaining authoritarian control and, indeed, one that insists that the latter is a prerequisite for the former–as one of the more visible departures from the “end of history.” (Articulating a different set of canons, Islamic fundamentalism presents another counterpoint to this claim.) Along with Iran, China is important because it tends to be perceived in the West as a source of heterodoxy. It features and propagates values contrary to those taught by Thomas Jefferson or Adam Smith, and thus undermines those who proclaim an interest in implementing the latter’s principles as universal rules.

Accordingly, that China is big is relevant but does not tell the entire story about its perceived role or influence in the global security system at the start of the twenty-first century. That its economy is reaching, or perhaps past, takeoff stage is important but others such as Japan and Germany have also made recent gains relative to the United States. Prospects of power transition, however, become politically more salient and even alarming, when the newcomer is seen as “not one of us.” The danger of conflict rises when a challenger, real or imagined, differs from the others in its political system and cultural predisposition (Schweller 1992). Developments in East Asia, and especially in China, can be disconcerting not only or even principally because of their implications for differential trajectories of asset accumulation. They are a source of concern because they contest Western ideological canons–professed even though not systematically practiced–regarding the intrinsic as well as extrinsic values of individual freedom, market economics, welfare provision, electoral competition, and the politics of pluralism.


Ongoing and projected shifts in hard power assets, combined with perceived political and cultural incompatibilities, underscore the debate in the United States about whether to engage or contain China (Shambaugh 1996). Arguments advanced in favor of engagement seek to integrate China into the existing international institutions and global conventions. Implicitly or explicitly, they are intended to “reform” China by influencing its values and practices through regular interaction and positive exchange. Advocates of containment hold out less hope for such change and aim instead at curtailing China’s rising capability trajectory. Neither of these positions is calculated to endear its proponents to the Chinese. In either case, Beijing is apt to see foreigners as bent on changing its character by stealth or by coercion, with a declared purpose of challenging its domestic authority and/or blocking its international ascent.

How are the foreigners’ influence attempts likely to fare? The success of efforts aimed at changing another’s behavior, whether China or some other country, would in part depend on the following factors:

* the amount of change sought–that is, the distance between the current and desired behavior of the target

* the type of change sought–that is, the extent to which the desired alteration impinges on the target’s core values, beliefs, and institutions

* the compatibility of change sought with the prevailing elite agenda and interests in the target country–the more the influence attempt resonates with existing political proclivities and is adopted by significant domestic factions, the more the target is self-motivated to comply

* the extent of boomerang effect–that is, the likelihood that foreign pressure will stiffen the target’s resolve or increase its domestic political costs for making concessions because the pressure has the effect of mobilizing countervailing public or elite opinion

* the extent to which the demander (the party seeking to influence the other) is willing and able to offer offsets to the target–obviously, the target must care more about what the demander can grant or deny it than the behavioral alteration being sought for it to comply (the demander must in effect be willing and able to compensate the target for its behavioral change either by offering new gains or by deciding not to exercise existing bargaining advantages over the target [Wagner 1988])

* the extent to which the target values the good (tangible or intangible) being extended or withheld by the demander, an assessment that in turn depends on (a) the importance of the good in question to the target’s core agenda; (b) the availability of alternative suppliers of the good; (c) the substitutability of the good; and (d) the relevant discount rate and rate of obsolescence that affect the current and future value of the good.

* the credibility of the demander to provide or deny the good, which in turn depends in part on (a) its perceived willingness to accept costs that will be entailed by implementing its promise or threat; (b) the effectiveness of policy coordination between its private and public sectors; (c) its domestic distribution of power and interests, especially pertaining to the allocation of the benefits and costs of the status quo compared to change (such as that which can result from the demander’s imposition of sanctions or the target’s subsequent retaliation); (d) the discount rates and time horizons of key actors in the demanding country; and (e) their perceptions of the relevant opportunity costs (such as possible collateral damages to the demander’s other objectives should bilateral relations deteriorate)

* the extent to which international audience costs or benefits are at stake–that is, how third parties are likely to draw lessons from the influence attempt and its effects on the reputation of both the demander and the target, and how these actors are likely to anticipate or react to the others’ perceptions

By their very nature, demands that others change their values require more fundamental adjustments on the part of the target and are, at the same time, more difficult for the demander to monitor and verify. For the target, these demands–unless packaged skillfully for easy swallowing–are more threatening because they touch on basic matters of domestic legitimacy and authority. Overt compliance is especially problematic when the target’s rulers feel insecure in their own legitimacy and authority and are motivated to guard their political flanks against possible domestic challengers in an unfolding struggle for political succession. In these circumstances, assertive nationalism is more likely to be the response to foreign attempts to alter the target’s domestic norms and institutions. The target’s domestic costs for ratifying concessions to foreign demanders rise, while the “win set” for reaching compromise shrinks (Putnam 1988).

What does the demander have to bring to the negotiation table? Does it have unilateral control over whatever matters of value, whether tangibles or intangibles, the target will be interested in? To the extent that the demander does not control exclusive access to these goods, that the good it has to offer can be substituted by alternatives, or that its promises or threats are subject to approval by various veto groups, its bargaining leverage is more limited. Moreover, the demander’s credibility and reliability suffer if it cannot legally or politically commit future administrations to honor the continued provision of the good in question, or to prevent this provision from becoming a hostage of recurrent partisan debates raising constantly the specter of its suspension. Threats of sanction by the demander can have the counterproductive effect of spurring the target to develop autarky and to search for alternative suppliers, who are as a result able to reap scarcity rents. Once undertaken, such adjustment policy by the target (whether retrospective or anticipatory) can have the effect of creating domestic and foreign stakeholders who have a vested interest in perpetuating the new situation–thus contributing to sustaining the poor relationship between the demander and the target. The relative valuations by the two sides for a deal compared to no deal, their respective tolerance for deprivations and ambiguities, their respective negotiation timetables and policy horizons, and the accessibility and coherence of their policy processes also affect the outcome of the influence attempt. These factors concern domestic policy conventions and political cultures, to which we turn our attention next.


How are the Chinese likely to perceive and react to foreign, especially U.S., pressure with the professed aim of changing Chinese domestic politics and institutions? Research on operational codes (for example, George 1969, Leites 1953) has a proven record of illuminating the decision processes of relatively inaccessible policy systems. It seeks to clarify the belief systems and diagnostic routines of national policy elites, with a general applicability across individuals, problems, time, and situational contexts.

China’s current leaders and informed public derived much of their formative experience in international relations from encounters with Western imperialists, resistance against Japanese invaders, and the civil war against the Kuomintang. Most are also survivors of domestic upheavals such as the Cultural Revolution. Although ideological fervor and commitment to the Communist cause have definitely waned in today’s China compared with the 1960s and 1970s, the prevailing mode of policy reasoning continues to be characterized to a significant extent by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist lexicon and analytics. Major components of this belief system and of the lessons derived from its history consist of the following (Bobrow et al. 1979):

1. At any given time, there is a principal contradiction that holds the key to addressing all internal and external relations.

2. Contradictions can be antagonistic or nonantagonistic: the former require militant and resolute struggle, but the latter type can be resolved peacefully.

3. Tangible power assets alone cannot determine the outcomes of struggles; on the contrary, intangible assets are decisive.

4. Endogenous factors are the primary causes of change, and exogenous factors act only as catalysts for change.

5. While temporary setbacks are inevitable, the long-term trend is favorable to the Chinese cause.

What implications follow from these general beliefs? Policy attention tends to focus on one overriding concern at a time, subordinating all other issues to that central issue until the definition of the principal contradiction changes. As long as a contradiction is seen as nonantagonistic, accommodation and compromise are possible. In conjunction, these two views suggest that as long as domestic modernization remains as Beijing’s top priority, foreign relations will be sought to contribute to this goal.(1) Those relations are instrumental for promoting domestic growth–although, as suggested by point 4 above, they are seen to perform only a facilitative and not decisive role. When in conflict, domestic relations take precedence over foreign ties (point 4). Indeed, a hallmark of Maoist thought has always been its emphasis on self-reliance, thus suggesting that foreign attempts at economic inducements or sanctions are likely to have limited effect on China’s domestic priorities.

Conversely, the above views and their historical references (such as China’s past setbacks caused by Western and Japanese imperialism) suggest that internal weaknesses invite foreign interference and domination. Domestic dissent and elite fragmentation increase the ability of foreigners to influence China’s political processes. By implication, foreign influence attempts would induce the Chinese to redouble their efforts to maintain strong authority and to increase political control at home. A cohesive and stable domestic policy system is also seen as a prerequisite for effective foreign policy abroad. These views imply that foreign efforts to alter China’s domestic politics will be interpreted not only as infringing its sovereignty and the authority of its leaders, but also as being intended to undermine the political basis of its society and economy. Such political intangibles, as well as others pertaining to morale, discipline, leadership, proper ideology, and the “human spirit”–or to borrow terms now fashionable in the West, those pertaining to political institutions and norms–hold the key to the creation and accumulation of tangible power stocks. Western and especially U.S. attempts to promote democracy and human rights will be seen less as an expression of sincere concern with these values (the Chinese point to the U.S. treatment of its own minority citizens as an example), and more as a deliberate attempt to assert cultural and political hegemony–in effect to proclaim as universal norms what are in fact distinctly Western and especially U.S. values and interests (Huntington 1993, 40-41). Worse still, they have the perceived intent of abetting internal dissent and disorder with a view toward blocking or hindering China’s development potential.

Believing that they hold an advantage in political intangibles, Chinese leaders are optimistic about their country’s position in the long run. Time and ongoing trends are seen to operate in their favor. While China is improving its international status, the United States is suffering relative decline. Countries experiencing downward mobility are likely to accept more risks and are often inclined to adopt desperate measures to arrest their decline and preserve their status. How a slipping but still formidable giant adjusts to the discrepancy between its old hegemonic ambitions and the new multipolar realities becomes the principal contradiction of international politics. According to some academics (Gilpin 1981, Organski 1958), the Chinese argue that international peace is most susceptible to the danger of a preventive war initiated by a declining power fearful of the prospects of power transition.

Nevertheless, this danger can be limited by appropriate and timely measures. In particular and as implied by point 2 above, important third parties should and can be recruited to join collective efforts in a “united front” to restrain the main source of threat faced by China. Indeed, Washington’s attempts to impose its standards on China’s domestic institutions and norms could, according to the Chinese, create a wedge between the United States and China’s neighbors. The United States tends to underestimate, in the Chinese view, the importance of and the sensitivity to matters of nationalism, sovereignty, and cultural assertiveness in the developing world. Huntington’s views will find greater resonance in Beijing and other Asian capitals than will Fukuyama’s.

Accordingly, the Chinese are inclined to believe that Washington’s elevation of political values and cultural norms to the top of the international relations agenda tends to have the salutary effect of rallying countries from the same Confucian tradition, whereas balance of power considerations would otherwise have caused China’s neighbors to be much more wary of Beijing’s rising stature. And, of course, this rising stature–especially in terms of opportunities for commerce and investment–makes it more difficult for Washington to recruit others, such as the Japanese and the Europeans, to join it in blocking or coercive actions. Chinese optimism in this regard stems from their confidence in the direction of longterm trends (point 5 above) and recent U.S. setbacks in applying economic sanction and boycott (most notably, the Helms-Burton Act directed against Cuba).


Coercive and containment tactics hold little promise of succeeding in the case of China. The application of sanctions has not generally worked as a tool of economic statecraft (Baldwin, 1985). For instance, Morgan and Schwebach (1997, 27) conclude in a recent study that economic sanctions have failed to achieve the demander’s objectives in the great majority of cases, and that they have only a slight effect on the outcomes of disputes, even in those rare cases where “the costs of sanctions are sufficiently high relative to the values at stake.”

Yet a policy of engagement does not necessarily promise any immediate or dramatic breakthrough. For the foreseeable future, Chinese leaders will remain skeptical about and reluctant to be integrated into the current international order, which they see as a product of Western domination and intended to serve Western, especially American, interests and values. China’s participation in the international system “is thus not based on deeply held beliefs about the benefits of liberal trading relationships rooted in a liberal society on the Western model. It is based on the calculation that China will be richer and more powerful if it does participate” (Perkins 1996, 20). Yet as Shambaugh (1996, 209) remarked, although “China will be difficult to engage in the years to come … there is no alternative but to try.”

What are some feasible alternatives to a policy of containment or rhetorical confrontation? One recent study (Long 1996) argues that there are two necessary conditions for a strategy relying on incentives to induce another country to cooperate: the demander refrains from extracting fully its objective advantages in bilateral negotiations so that the target is compensated for its shift in behavior in the direction favored by the former; and there is a “political market” between the two parties, so that social conventions and political trust provide reasonable assurance that commitments will be kept.

The demander’s market power is in itself not able to ensure the first condition, especially when, for example, its state lacks the legal power or political autonomy to compel private actors to eschew maximum commercial gains. As for the second condition, it is difficult to foster confidence in reliable and equitable exchanges when the issues are highly politicized, when recent relations have been fraught with threats and tension, and when the “shadow of the future” plays an indeterminate role (Axelrod 1984).

Several feasible steps, however, are available to promote this confidence. One can especially learn from the experience of reintegrating Germany and Japan, two prior challengers with illiberal ideologies, into the postwar world order.

Multilateralism. Germany, Japan, their neighbors, and the United States actively sought and contributed to the building of multilateral institutions whereby economic well-being, military security, and even political identity become more embedded in a dense network of interdependencies, and norms for consultation and coordination become entrenched (Risse-Kappen 1995). This reasoning would suggest, for example, that notwithstanding other pertinent issues, it is important to include China as a member of the World Trade Organization.

Transnational Coalitions. Intensification and proliferation of exchanges have the effect of creating stakeholders in the other country who acquire a vested interest in the continuation and even expansion of ongoing relations (whereas sanctions and embargoes produce the opposite situation whereby the income and influence of certain groups in the other country are tied to the scarcity rent created by this state of affairs).

Decision Transparency. Democratization in the case of Germany and Japan provides the most effective means for providing transparency and thus reassurance to their neighbors. However, there are other means–such as protocols for information sharing, personnel exchanges, and regular consultation–that help to increase decision transparency and behavioral predictability.

Information Assets. Investments in the hardware of statecraft should be matched by the development and creation of human resources, which can provide prompt, reliable, and valid interpretations of the concerns and conditions of the other.

These feasible emphases call for joint efforts. After several bouts of isolationism and given its relatively small pool of international relations experts, there is much that China should do to open and maintain lines of communication. Other countries, however, can do much to foster the conducive conditions mentioned above. For example, not being burdened with the historical baggage that characterizes other countries’ relations (for example, Japan) with China, and secure in its long-standing relations with the United States, Canada especially can play an important intermediary role–like the one that it is already undertaking in extricating the United States from a politically and legally untenable position of seeking to shape Cuba’s internal affairs via the application of the Helms-Burton Act. Washington’s attempts to bar China’s membership or involvement in multilateral organizations (for example, the World Trade Organization, the Olympics) are similarly myopic. Also, the locus of authority in Washington for determining U.S. policy toward China and the substance of that policy (for example, congressional actions on China’s most-favored-nation trading status and the political status of Taiwan) may appear to Beijing to be deliberately murky, ambiguous, and inconsistent, thus creating the ever-available excuses for retraction or revision. Individual officials rotate in and out of administrations, different policy institutions put their own spin on issues, and the policies themselves tend to have an on-again-off-again character. These policies often reflect domestic politics more than international reality. Accordingly, there is a bilateral need for transparency and predictability.


A recent analysis of multipolar systems in the past led Kegley and Raymond (1994) to conclude that three factors tend to influence their stability.(2) First, fluidity in the identity and relative position of great powers seems to have a negative effect on stability. Rapid changes in the membership and rank order of great powers tend to create uncertainty and anxiety, which in turn increase the prospects of international conflict. Second, multipolar systems characterized by both a high and a low degree of polarization appear to have been associated with frequent conflict. Both very tight and very loose alignment patterns, but especially the former, tend to be conflict-prone historically. Third, whether a multipolar system is characterized by a restrictive or a permissive normative order seems also to matter. When great powers agree to limitations on (a) the use of force in their foreign conduct, (b) their freedom to renege on treaty commitments, and (c) the geographic scope of their competition, a restrictive order tends to promote peace and stability. Conversely, when the great powers refuse to acknowledge constraints in these areas, the consequent permissive order tends to produce war and instability.

The first condition mentioned by Kegley and Raymond seems to augur more tumultuous international relations in general as we enter the twenty-first century. Major changes and ongoing trends are reshuffling the hierarchy of great powers. Moreover, rising status discordance because of the command of different asset classes and real or imagined discrepancy between reputation and accomplishment is likely to be a destabilizing factor in this view. Nevertheless, the passing of the cold war lessens international polarization (the second condition mentioned above) and should therefore present a countervailing influence favoring greater systemic stability.

Whether a restrictive normative order (the third condition) is in ascendance is less clear. While underpinning the relations among the developed democracies, the relevant constraints are clearly much less visible in the relations between these countries and their less developed and less democratic counterparts and among the latter countries. The feasible emphases proposed in this paper are important for promoting normative constraints in those relations where they have been historically weak or absent. As we enter the twenty-first century, it is perhaps too much to ask for a spirit of Camelot. It is, however, not unrealistic to expect feasible steps that can contribute to the prospects of partisan mutual adjustment (Lindblom 1965).


(1.) For documentation of the Chinese operational code, see Bobrow et al (1979). More recent referents that show the application of this operational code are derived from conversations with Chinese officials and academics during several field trips in the early and mid 1990s.

(2.) The following discussion is taken from Chan (forthcoming).


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Steve Chan is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference on “International Order in the Twenty-First Century,” McGill University, Montreal, May 1997.

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