International Political Harmony:
A Chinese Creation
This essay attempts to argue that China’s international political economy (IPE) reflects a new understanding of international relations theory (IRT) that can be partly defined by Western ideologies but constitutes an independent approach. China’s approach to global trade in the 21st century does possess numerous threads of thinking that resemble the Western IRT of Realism, Liberalism, and Marxism. None of those ideas can stand alone and adequately define how China assesses or acts about the phenomenon of globalization. Viewing China as a constructivist would, through identity and perspective, you can begin to see how Chinese thinkers are developing IRT through a uniquely Chinese narrative. Using resources about a perceived trade war with the United States will highlight the possible development of a new IRT built upon harmony and not solely based on the spectrum between self-interest and cooperation.
Definitions & History
Constructivist IRT: If the premise is to define China’s IPE regarding Realism, Liberalism or Marxism, why then would we examine China through a constructivist lens? A constructivist being one who holds identity and perspective above many other factors in IRT (Dunne et al., 2010, p. 190). To honestly answer questions about China’s IPE and views towards globalization, we must try and understand the Chinese perspective. However, to fully understand the Chinese perspective we must use a lens that allows for history and identity to be viewable. Using mainstream theories of Western international relations, any analysis of China feels compartmentalized and does not fully respect the Chinese perspective.
China is arguably one of the oldest civilizations on our planet. China might also make it a matter of national interest in the present to expand the historical teaching of Confucius and Chinese culture with international Confucius Institutes (Paradise, 2009 p. 648). The institutes are an obvious indicator that history, as well as cooperation, is essential to the identity that China reflects in the world. It would also be worth noting that China would likely not forget the historical lessons of its heightened warmongering history that led to Chinese unity, the Opium wars inflicted upon it in the late 19th century by the United Kingdom, and the World Wars that affected all of us in the early 20th century.
When looking at identity and perspective and not just power and market forces, a communist China that is rapidly yet incrementally developing is not out of the question. For this essay, we will define the communist state as a stateless society without property fighting to free the proletariat from the perceived chains of capitalism (Dunne et al., 2010, pp.156-159). Nor is it hard to see a China that is developing and adhering to its unique theory of international relations. The Chinese perspective is one where forced cooperation is not fruitful but that a harmonious yet cautiously independent interaction is bountiful. To leap much further, it is also not hard to see how a communist China would desire to cooperate in a noncommunist world. In explaining why identity and perspective are important to China, we had taken a quick jaunt through Chinese history up to the point when it did open up to cooperation in the late 1970’s.
Western IRT: The economic opening of China since the late 1970’s onward has resembled Realism and Liberalism in an almost chronological order. Yaqing Qin (2011) states, “out of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CCP that China stopped taking class struggle as the most important task and replaced it with the development of the national economy” (p. 235). For the sake of reference, this session occurred in 1978. At this moment, China effectively stopped being a genuinely communist state fighting to free the proletariat. China began to create unique theories of IRT at this point as well because unlike other communist nations; China was remaining a communist society but tepidly opening up to international trade.
Qin argues that up to the early 2000’s China’s economic development was for pointedly realist reasons (Qin, 2011 p. 240). A realist in this sense is a state who believes a strong economy and military will maximize power in an anarchic structure of a dog-eat-dog world (Dunne et al., 2010, pp 77-91). He explains his point in telling of the national debates from the late 1970’s up to the mid-1990’s between Chinese thinkers on the issue of national interest as well as war or peace as the dominant thread in IRT. To quote Qin (2011) further, “this debate crowned Realism in China’s IR community. In fact, ‘national interest’ has since appeared again and again in the declared policy and official documents of China” (2011, p.239). Up to this point in time in the mid-1990’s China has opened its doors in a realist fashion based on national interest. At this time, they have yet to open up regarding liberalization by partaking in international institutions. For a point of perspective, it was not until 2002 that China joined or was granted permission to enter, the World Trade Organization (Hughes, 2005, p. 99).
As most things are with China, the situation is neither wholly realist nor is it entirely liberal and always comes with a dash of communism. In the early 2000’s, however, China starts to resemble more signs of liberalization and an ideological shift toward Liberalism. The definition of Liberalism in this sense is a state seeking out cooperation in the international system not for power, but for peace and development (Dunne et al., 2010, p. 114). To summarize Qin, between 1998 and 2005 the leading Chinese IRT journal produced a wealth of publications on the ideas of Liberalism. During this same time and of consequence, China joined international organizations at a higher rate than witnessed before (Qin, 2011, p. 243). To maintain our theoretical reference, China throughout this time is still communist with the majority of production coming from state-owned entities. From a decidedly constructivist point of view, China, in the thirty years of integration, has not only materially benefited as the realist dictates but also accepted international norms and institutions as a liberal would dictate (Qin, 2011, p. 247).
Chinese IRT: China has integrated in a most Chinese manner, still resembling parts of Marxism, Liberalism, and Realism. To better define China’s identity and perspective towards globalization, looking at a uniquely Chinese theory is just. For the sake of this essay, the theory shall be a theory of international political harmony. Using China’s rich history regarding Confucius teachings and their almost humble observer like position throughout modernity has afforded Chinese thinkers to develop IRT around harmony. It is worth stating that harmony or explicitly a ‘harmonious world’ is not precisely cooperation but rather independent actions that combine to form a harmonious system (Qin, 2011, p. 251). The use of the word ‘independent’ is quite telling when grappling with China’s national interest and cooperation with the international system. A guitar chord can be utilized as an excellent example: three or more strings of a guitar can be independently strummed together to create a sound independent of the three strings alone.
With harmony among independent actors as a base or end-result, Chinese IRT uses another uniquely Asian idea of relationalism in IRT. We can model the ideas of relationalism to that of rationality found in Liberalism (Qin, 2011, p. 251). Relationalism differs significantly from Liberalism in the sense that ‘becoming’ is more important than ‘being’. Admittedly, this is highly contextual and abstract. Yaqing Qin (2011) better explains relationalism in saying it stresses ‘becoming’ in contrast to ‘being’ and argues for a processual construction in which processes, defined as on-going social relations, can be of and by itself, nurture collective emotion and identity, and help build a fiduciary community and moral order.” (p. 252)
The Chinese narratives found in harmony and relationalism have more similarities with Constructivism than Liberalism, Realism, or Marxism. However, the act of ‘becoming’ illustrates movement and fluidity and an almost endless state. Because of this fluidity, an informal and flexible relationship based on nonbinding processes is much more accurate in assessing the Chinese view of integration. This was proven when looking at the framework of ASEAN Way, which Western theorist describe as a framework of ‘soft institutionalism’ (Qin, 2011, p. 250). However, without disregarding Chinese history and desire for harmony while maintaining independence, a Chinese method if IRT does not seem ‘soft’ or without serious agency. On the contrary, a theory of harmony appears to carry a weight that Western thinkers do not understand fully.
China’s accused of undervaluing its yuan by pegging it to the American dollar to produce, export, and sell products at a much lower price than if the yuan floated with the markets. Hughes (2005) defines this actions as exporting deflation (p. 96). If we take into account a Chinese narrative of harmony and relationalism, the scenario of currency manipulation is entirely different.
China is too young in its thirty years of integration to float its currency within the international market. The Chinese leadership has to guide the world’s largest population safely to development without harming other nations. The systemic effects that could potentially arise from Chinese mismanagement would reverberate much louder than comparable countries of lower population. Hughes (2005) says, “a floating currency would introduce more risk and instability than Chinese leaders would tolerate” (p. 97). The Chinese leadership is acutely aware of this, quoting Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, Hughes states, “opening up China’s economy is a matter of crossing a river by feeling for each stone” (Hughes, 2005, p. 99). This is because China is rapidly integrating all the while meeting its international commitments; it is managing highly fluctuating differentials. For a point of reference, again, we must remember that the time before 1978, China was not an open economy. In quoting Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Michael Wines (2010) in writing for the New York Times states, “China is an underdeveloped nation that will need a century or more to reach advanced status.”
Chinese IPE is neither liberal nor is it realist. As a communist nation and one that places great importance in the lesson of yesterday, control and patience yet harmoniously cooperating with the world seem to be very in-line with a Chinese narrative regarding integration. A Chinese story would also have a significant issue with the pressure or force exerted on it internationally to float its currency. Hughes (2005) states this much in saying “for now, the government says it will not respond to outside pressure to devalue” (p. 98). This is found to be true, as Chinese leadership will become overly defensive in the face of pressure to change it processes at the behest of an outside source (Wines, 2010).
Since opening up economically, China has achieved integration in similar ways to Western nations by building a strong national economy and working with the international institutions. Chinese officials have not given any evidence they are not going to manage a rapidly developing economy with patience nor that they are unwilling to cooperate globally in the coming future. In fact, Hughes continues to state this fact in saying, “Beijing has decided to allow more movement of capital while holding off on greater currency flexibility” (Hughes, 2005, p. 98). This is more suspect of Chinese IRT than it is liberalization or Realism. If the theory of harmony is also relational in scope, China understands its position and development compared to other nations. As well, at this young age, China recognizes leadership and not market forces will guide the country. Under the guise of harmony, China also knows it must cooperate internationally to maintain a healthy national economy, which would allow it to harmonize efficiently with the world order. Hughes gives more evidence of this is saying how China did, in fact, make structural adjustments in the face of mounting international fear that it would decimate the textile industry when the Multifiber Agreement (MFA) expired in 2004 (Hughes, 2005, p.101).
In retrospect, it appears much of the dialogue around China’s currency is more geared towards the desire to have China act as though it is a fully developed economy. It is as though the world does not want to allow China to learn but rather follow. Alternatively, and more maliciously in nature, there might be a possibility that speculators want China to liberalize too early to cash in on the potential fallout. History looked at through any threads of Western IRT, whether that be Realism, Liberalism, or Communism, does not indicate that at a nation’s birth, in this case, economic birth, complete liberalization is a sound route to take with economics. What we have seen of China is better described with a Chinese narrative and potential new theory of IRT. Western ideologies have impacted and will continue to impact Chinese thinking, but China’s strong feelings of self-determination, patience, and historical roots in harmony and relationalism constitute a complete Chinese creation.
Dunne, T., Kurki, M., & Smith, S. (2010). International relations theories: Discipline and diversity (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hughes, N. C. (2005). A Trade War with China? Foreign Affairs, 84(4), 94-106.
Paradise, J. (2009). China and International Harmony. Asian Survey, 49(4), 647-669.
Qin, Y. (2011). Development of International Relations theory in China: Progress through debates. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 11(2), 231-257.
Wines, M. (2010, March 10). Chinese Premier Defends Currency and Trade Policy. The New York Times.