China’s International Leadership: Regional Activism vs. Global Reluctance - By CWP Alumni Xiaoyu Pu
Since the late 1990s, China has been actively seeking a leadership role in its region, while taking a more reluctant attitude toward global leadership. Drawing upon recent research on status in international relations, this article seeks to explain the variation in China’s leadership at regional and global levels. A rising power does not always maximize its status on the world stage. China seeks an active role in East Asia due to its strong interests and identity commitment within the region. However, China takes a more reluctant approach toward global leadership, because higher status brings additional responsibilities and risks. Due to various limitations, China cannot become a new hegemonic power. But China can be a co-leader in regional and global affairs, and it can also be a more active leader in the developing world.
The election of Donald Trump as the US president has generated uncertainty in international politics. As America under the Trump presidency has become more inward looking, China has implemented a much more active global diplomacy, developing new international initiatives and hosting many multilateral meetings. Does a more inward-looking America provide golden opportunities for China to play a more prominent role on the global stage? According to strategic thinker and CNN commentator Zakaria (2017), the answer is yes because “Trump could be the best thing that has happened to China in a long time”. According to He (2017), a former vice foreign minister of China, the political development of 2017 has accelerated the arrival of the “post-American era”, which began after the 2008 financial crisis.
Is China ready to become a new global leader? The answer is not that clear, as China is sending contradictory signals. Largely abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile approach in global affairs, Xi Jinping has implemented a much more ambitious foreign policy, proposing new international institutions and hosting high-profile summit meetings. Some Chinese diplomats have started to talk about China’s leadership in global governance more explicitly. In January 2017, senior Chinese diplomat Zhang Jun commented that China would assume world leadership if needed (Reuters 2017). However, in February 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi cautioned about the inflated expectation of China’s global role, saying, “China has no intention to lead anyone, nor does it intend to replace anyone” (Wang 2017). During his speech at the Summit Meeting for the Belt Road Initiative in May 2017, Xi Jinping expressed China’s intention to contribute more to global development, but Xi also reassured his international audience that “In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, China has no intention to form a small group detrimental to stability” (Xi 2017).
What kind of role should China play in regional and global affairs? Why does China sometimes seek active leadership while at other times demonstrate reluctance in international leadership? Drawing upon recent research on status and rising powers, the article seeks to address these questions. The first section will discuss the analytical framework of status and rising powers. The second section explains China’s active leadership role in East Asia. The third section investigates the reasons why China is reluctant to play a global leadership role. The fourth section evaluates the prospects and limitations of China’s international leadership. The conclusion summarizes the findings and implications.
2 Status and Rising Powers
In international relations, status can be defined as the following: “collective beliefs about a given state’s ranking on valued attributes (wealth, coercive capabilities, culture, demographic position, sociopolitical organization, and diplomatic clout)” (Paul et al. 2014, 7). Status competition among emerging powers and established powers is often viewed as a zero-sum game. A rising power’s demand for higher status is a potential threat to the status of the established powers. One former Pentagon official even claims that China has a “secret strategy” to replace the USA as the leading world power (Pillsbury 2015). From the perspective of status competition, the conflict between China and the USA seems to be inevitable. As China is pushing forward its foreign policy agenda, the USA has been pushing back against China. For some strategists, this rivalry between the USA and China is seen as inevitable. Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., the commander of US Pacific Command (PACOM), recently said, “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia” (Gady 2016). In his new book, Destined for War, Graham Allison (2017) argues that China and the USA are heading toward a war neither wants. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, which is a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one.
However, in the contemporary world, the role of status is more nuanced. Status can be a driving factor as well as a mitigating factor in international rivalry. First of all, status drives international rivalry, because status is often viewed as a scarce resource. In particular, if international status is viewed as a positional good, it is a scarce resource that cannot be shared by all nations (Schweller 1999; Hirsch 1976, 27). In international politics, the struggle for status has been recognized as one of the major sources of conflict (Lebow 2008). In some contexts, status competition among great powers is even viewed as a zero-sum game.
Second, status often drives international rivalry because nation-states (especially emerging powers) often want to have higher status. Traditionally, the status concern of emerging powers is the gap between their desired high status and others’ recognition of their status. There are psychological and political motivations to close the gap. Status discrepancy is the core issue of the power transition problem in world politics. According to power transition theory, the onset of war between a dominant and a rising power grows more likely as the gap in relative strength between them narrows and as the latter’s grievances with the existing order move beyond any hope of peaceful resolution (DiCicco and Levy 1999). In international relations, emerging powers are especially sensitive about their status. Lebow (2008) categorizes such countries as “parvenu powers” and describes them as psychologically insecure, with a strong motivation to show off their power and status. For countries like China and India, historical trauma and national humiliation at the hands of Western colonial powers have constructed a post-colonial ideology that pushes them to strive for more power and status (Miller 2013). Historically, an emerging power that sought higher status would act assertively, and this struggle for higher status might lead to conflict during a power transition. Given that emerging powers want to have higher status, the struggle for the change in position can lead to zero-sum competitions and conflicts (Larson and Shevchenko 2009; Deng 2008).
The existing arguments of status scarcity are not necessarily wrong, and they are still valid in some contexts. However, I contend that these two arguments are not always valid. Status competition can be mitigated in a number of ways.
First, status is fundamentally social and cultural, which means that it is not always scarce. Scholars conventionally conflate status with class or power, but status is “more fluid, more easily changed than class or power” (Best 2011, 12). As status is primarily rooted in social interaction and social context, the standards of status are subject to change. In domestic society, there are various social spheres with different status symbols and status criteria. As people in domestic societies achieve status in various ways, the criteria of status change over time and across societies. Instead of seeing status always as a scarce resource, we have seen an emerging phenomenon of status abundance (Best 2011). Prizes proliferate in every corner of our society, from “Academy Award winner!” to “Best Neighborhood Pizza!” In international politics, while some institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) are highly privileged status clubs, we see the proliferation of international clubs from the G20, Davos, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), to the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum. Because there are different criteria to rank countries, states that seek to have a distinct positive national identity might choose different strategies to achieve status, including the strategies of competition, emulation, or creativity (Larson and Shevchenko 2009).
Second, even in a competitive context, status politics is not necessarily a zero-sum game. It is useful to make a distinction between status as a positional good and status as a club good. When status is viewed as a club good, it will not always be scarce. If status is regarded as a positional good in some absolute sense, status competition is a zero-sum game (Hirsch 1976, 27). According to this view, the pursuit of status is inherently competitive because status is relative and scarce. This would imply that great power competition could be positional, in that as one state gains status, another loses it. This zero-sum view of status competition is qualified by the notion of a “club good” (Sandler 1992). A club is “a voluntary collective that derives mutual benefits from sharing one or more of the following: production costs, the members’ characteristics, or an impure public good characterized by excludable benefits” (Sandler 1992, 63). Club goods are often partially rival in their benefits, owing to congestion or crowding. Crowding means that one user’s utilization of the club good decreases the benefits still available to the remaining users. In social life as well as in international politics, members of elite groups typically restrict membership to an organization to preserve its status and privileges. If anyone can become a member of the club, then membership is not worth much (Rivera 2010). In international politics, there are different kinds of power clubs, such as the club of the Western industrialized economies (G8), nuclear powers club, permanent five at the UNSC, and emerging power club (the BRICS countries).
Finally, emerging powers do not always want to have higher status. For instance, while most studies assume a rising India will always struggle for more recognition as a great power, India sometimes seems to complain about the over-recognition of its rise in the international system. China is striving for great power status while trying hard to maintain the image of developing country status (Pu and Schweller 2014).
Based on the above discussions, I have developed the following propositions to explain the variations of a rising power’s international leadership endeavor.
Proposition 1 The stronger a rising power feels it belongs to a certain community, the more is it willing to pay the cost to play a leadership role in this community.
Proposition 2 When joining a high-status club will be too costly, a rising power is likely to be reluctant to take a leadership role in the community.
- Xiaoyu PuEmail author
First Online: 12 September 2017
Chinese Political Science Review
Abstract Since the late 1990s, China has been actively seeking a leadership role in its
region, while taking a more reluctant attitude toward global leadership. Drawing upon recent
research on status in international relations, this article seeks to explain the variation in
China's leadership at regional and global levels. A rising power does not always maximize
its status on the world stage. China seeks an active role in East Asia due to its strong
interests and identity commitment within the region. However, China takes a more reluctant
approach toward global leadership, because higher status brings additional responsibilities
and risks. Due to various limitations, China cannot become a new hegemonic power. But
China can be a co-leader in regional and global affairs, and it can also be a more active
leader in the developing world.
X Pu - Chinese Political Science Review, 2017